Risk of extinction for the oldest herd in the world

Rare breeds
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The Independent Online

Urgent efforts are underway to protect a herd of Northumberland cattle, believed to be the world's oldest, which has been placed at risk of near extinction by the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

Urgent efforts are underway to protect a herd of Northumberland cattle, believed to be the world's oldest, which has been placed at risk of near extinction by the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

Such is the rarity of Northumberland's Chillingham herd that it has been enclosed in the same 300-acre walled garden for 700 years. But as the county's third farm affected by foot-and-mouth was revealed yesterday, wardens took extra measures to protect the creatures.

Extra security fencing was added to the white cattle's enclosure and Chillingham Park, which is home to the herd, was closed to the public.

The cattle are the sole survivors of those which once roamed the forests of Britain. Only 48 still exist in Northumberland, with a further 11 at an undisclosed location in Scotland. At the time of the last foot-and-mouth outbreak in 1967, cattle two miles away from Chillingham were slaughtered.

"When [the disease] was confirmed in Northumberland we became even more concerned for their safety," said the herd's keeper, Austin Widows. "They are still in their park which is surrounded by forest and a wall so are far less at risk than commercial cattle but it is still a worry.

"The main concern is we don't seem to know how this is being spread."

The 8ft park wall, the cattle's precariously pointed horns and their uncertain temperament have preserved them since the reign of George III. They are fiercely independent and are only given extra nourishment in severe weather.

In 1947, the ornamental herd had dwindled to a low of just five bulls and eight cows.

If any of the Chillingham herd are struck, the last 11 cattle will be sent south from Crown land in Scotland, where only a few estate workers are currently aware of their location. "We pray that they are never needed because that would have meant a disaster had befallen the herd we have here," Mr Widows said.

"We will follow the Ministry of Agriculture regulations like everyone else. We are obviously worried but they are safe at the moment."

Theoretically, the herd should have been genetically damaged by in-breeding long ago. The fact it has not is attributed to the king bull's reign of three years.

He sires all calves born during that time and since the heifers which he sires do not conceive until they are over three years old, he does not mate with his daughters.

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