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Ancient White Park Cattle

Ancient White Park cattle - Tractor Supply Co.
The Ancient White Park is considered the oldest of cattle breeds in Great Britain.

Story and photography by Jeannette Beranger

Out of Great Britain comes a beautiful and rugged breed of cattle known as the Ancient White Park.

The name tells much about the breed. “Ancient” reflects more than 2,000 years of documented existence in the region; the cattle are predominantly white with black or red points on the ears, feet, and nose; and the word, “Park” refers to the large game or deer parks that enclosed — or “emparked” — herds in the 13th century by Henry III and later by others.

The breed, with its impressive set of horns, has remarkable survival instincts that enable them to fend off the most formidable predators and adapt to almost any environment and has changed little over the centuries.

The Ancient White Park, considered the oldest of cattle breeds in Great Britain, was kept and revered by early Celtic culture as magical creatures. For the Celts, black cattle were associated with death and disease, red cattle with fertility, and the highly prized white cattle with the worship of the sun or moon. Over time the Celts expanded their civilization’s reach as they sought new grazing lands for their cattle and, according to the White Park Cattle Society of Great Britain, the breed reached into England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.

During the emparkment period, the cattle were often kept and hunted as big game by nobility in the great parks. By the 19th century there were approximately a dozen parks with cattle but by the turn of the 20th century, most of these were discontinued.

The breed population continued to decline and reached a critical point during World War II. The British government, fearing the loss of a national treasure, shipped a herd of Ancient White Park cattle to North America for safekeeping. After short stays at the Toronto and Bronx zoos, they eventually were stewarded by the massive King Ranch in Texas from the early 1940s until 1981.

The ranch began selling the herd to new breeders at that time including the Moeckly family and Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa, along with the B Bar Ranch of Montana, which purchased the last of the King Ranch herd in 1989.

In Great Britain only four park herds remained by the 1960s. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust played a key role in securing the breed by developing a recovery and registration program in 1973 to secure the last of the cattle.

The population was effectively conserved and today they can be found outside the Britain in North America, Denmark, France, Germany, and Australia. Even though numbers have improved, as of 2016 there are still less than 5,000 breeding animals globally, which categorizes them as “threatened” on the Livestock Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List. The conservancy uses this list to bring attention to livestock, such as Ancient White Park cattle, to connect them with people interested in saving a rare breed.

Jim Edrington, Seed Savers Exchange farm manager and enthusiastic fan of the breed, tells stories of how neighboring farms would occasionally lose calves to wolves.

Not so with his Ancient White Park herds. When alerted to danger, the highly protective breed will steer calves into the center of the herd and form a defensive circle, much like wild musk oxen do.

Their protective behavior and vigilance make them unsuitable for beginners or dairy operations, but experienced livestock farmers would have much success with them.

“If you are consistent and pay attention to herd behavior, they are a pretty carefree breed to work with, as long as you have good fence,” Edrington says.

The breed also has been a fantastic addition to the farm’s effort to eradicate invasive plant species, and in particular the caustic wild parsnip, which can burn human skin when touched. But for the Ancient White Park, it’s lunch, and wherever the cattle graze, the parsnip is gone.

Indeed, the Ancient White Park is quite a different animal and still exhibits the instincts of the historic wild park cattle. They are superb survivors and magnificent animals literally out of the mists of ancient times.