Friday, July 15, 2011

Wild White Cattle & British White Cattle - Seasonal Grazing Habits

Over the past several years I have read many old articles and books from the 19th century that make reference to the "wild white cattle" of the British Isles.  One persistent observation that I've seen time and again is in regard to their grazing habits.  The description of the old grazing habits of the wild white cattle always gives me pause and I think of the similar behavior of my herd of quite domesticated British White cattle, descendants of the wild white cattle. 

What follows in an excerpt from a 1903 New Zealand newspaper article on the wild white cattle:

"Apropos of these wild white cattle, it is interesting to learn that in browsing on what may be described as their native wilds, they always keep close together, never scattering or straggling, a peculiarity which does not belong to any domesticated cattle. The wild cows are also remarkable for their systematic manner of feeding. At different periods of the year their tactics are different, but by those acquainted with their habits they are always found about the same part of the forest at the same hour of the day. In the height of summer they always bivouac for the night towards the northern extremity of their confines; from this point they start in the morning and browse to the southern extremity, and return at sunset to their old rendezvous, always feeding close together." (1)

J.West's Taylor Maid, with J.West's Lassie at foot on the first day of her life, October 8, 2010

For a fact, my herd of British White Cattle will be found in the northernmost 'confines' of their pasture in the early morning hours of the summer season, as well as bed down for the night in the most comfy spot in that area.  So regularly do they do this, that at one point in early summer we thought surely there must be a 'ghost' cow haunting the shoulder of the highway headed north. 

Several mornings over the course of a week I was called by various people who spotted a white cow on the highway on their way headed north to work.  Sometimes it was described as a cow, sometimes a yearling, and finally a baby calf as well.  Each time I would head out with my heart in my throat, as this is surely the worst fear I have -- a cow getting out and causing a car accident on the highway.  But each time, until the last time, there was no cow to be seen on the highway, no obvious breach in the fence, and the cows were already having breakfast as they strolled up toward the hill in a southerly direction.  I could only imagine it was an illusion of some sort, that a cow was standing right next to the fence and just appeared to be on the wrong side as cars sped by in the early morning hours. 

British White Heifer, J.West's Lassie, June 19th 2010

Finally the morning came when the Mayor's office called quite early with the alert that a baby calf was 'in' the highway.  We got there as fast as we could, and sure enough a young heifer calf was standing in the highway, quite content with exploring her curiosity about a dead skunk in the middle of the northbound lane of the highway.  And, no, I'm not making this up.  The heifer's name is now J.West's Lassie, and she is a little bitty girl even now, much less then, and she had just gone through the old fence to check out the smell of the dead skunk - or at least that's the best I can come up with psycho-analyzing her!

Another motorist had stopped and was calmly directing traffic around himself and the heifer (and the dead skunk) when we got there, and when faced with lots of humans quietly insisting she go back home -- she quite agreeably hopped back through the fence and joined the herd, and of course the herd moseyed on up the hill in a southerly direction as they always do. 

Once my cows discover something new that they find rather exciting -- they will do it again and again.  So that morning I moved the cow/calf herd out of that pasture to one of the interior pastures, and had no more morning phone calls of 'ghost' cow sightings.  We did add more fence stays to that section of fence, and shored up some unstable posts that had enough play in them that one of my precocious British White youngsters would do just that - 'play' with the play in the post, slipping through the barbed wire and escaping to the other side.

Besides the regular grazing movement of my whole herd at different times of day each season, my British White cow herd generally grazes as a group.  Now I would have never thought that was an unusual trait of cattle, but one can only assume it was considered unusual in the 19th and early 20th century based on the various old texts such as the excerpt cited above.  Apparently, this constant togetherness of a herd of cattle was not typical of domesticated cattle.  Is it now?  Maybe you can tell me what's typical of your cow herd.

Does your cow herd have definite grazing patterns each season?  Do they generally stay together, or do they scatter to the four winds over the course of the day?  Could this old observation of the 'wild white cattle' grazing habits as unique just be yet another myth repeated for over a hundred years that has become accepted as historical fact ?

(1)  Wild White Cattle, Otago Witness , Issue 2580, 26 August 1903, Page 64  Otago Witness, 1903