What is a “Hill Cow”?
There is no easy, cut and dried answer. Ideally, like the
sheep’, she is a cow that can
spend the greater
part of the year out on a rough pasture, with the minimum input or
interference from man, and still bring in a strong healthy calf in the
But that is a simple answer isn't it?
No. Unlike the "hill sheep" there is no physiological difference
between "hill cattle" and "lowland cattle"; they are all simply cattle.
Consider, if you will, the geological and climatic variations
throughout the United Kingdom, from the north of Scotland to Bodmin
Moor in Cornwall via the Welsh Mountains; it all depends where you live
and on local custom and practice.
Are there any specific breeds of "hill cattle"?
Not really. The ‘Highland’, which is specific to
Northern and Western parts of Scotland and the Isles, the
‘Galloway’, in its various forms, from South West
North-West England and northern Pennines and the ‘Welsh
Black’ are just better adapted to areas of high rainfall.
So that's it, then. There are no specific breeds of hill
That's right. It all depends upon where you live, local
and practice and economics. Because of all the geological and
climatic variations in the United Kingdom, over the centuries cattle
have been developed that are best suited to their particular
environment. Those are our Native Breeds; The Highland,
and Welsh Black, of course but also Shorthorns, Herefords, Angus and
North Devons to name but a few.
Do these various breeds have anything in common?
Yes. They all have the ability to convert roughage, you might
prefer to think of it as poor pasture, into milk
calf and meat to sell.
But the poor pasture means that they mature slowly.
Yes, they do mature more slowly, which does not suit the modern trends
forced upon agricultural production. Though they do produce meat of
What economic reasons can there be for keeping them?
There are many good reasons, both economic and environmental:
- These beasts eat the rougher grasses and can convert them
meat; grasses that are now, at best under-utilised, but in many cases
- As the population increases perhaps some of the better land
should be producing food for humans, not livestock.
- The UK is currently short of around 250,000 tonnes of beef
year; meaning that amount must be imported. Ask yourself, can we as a
nation afford that? The current estimate is that 80,000 head of cattle
have been lost from the hills alone in recent years.
- The cattle eat the long rough grass that sheep find
They tend to graze in patches as the herd constantly moves. Sheep then
eat the young green shoots that ensue, leaving a mosaic of long and
short grass. Understand this: cattle and sheep are not in competition;
they are complementary grazers.
- This ‘two tier’ system benefits the
which do not want ‘wall-to-wall’ long vegetation.
the decline in the Ring Ouzel since the introduction of so called
environmental schemes reduced the numbers of sheep to an unacceptably
- It benefits the delicate, and in many cases rare plants,
would otherwise be smothered. We have these wonderful plants because of
the grazing animals, not despite them. Witness the decline in the Blue
Gentians in Upper Teesdale after the imposition of an environmental
scheme. (See above, and what happened on The Burren in Co. Clare when
the grazing livestock were removed.)
- Where there are animals there is dung. Dung attracts
Insects attract birds. Put simply; no beasts, no shit, no bugs, no
...On Dartmoor many farmers kept cattle out all the year round, where
necessary taking out feed in winter. The environmentalists have told
them to remove the beasts from the hill in winter. The cost of the
bedding, the capital costs of the buildings to house the cattle and the
machinery to deal with the accumulated by-products of housed cattle, to
say nothing of the rules and regulations attached to the latter, now
make the keeping of those cattle commercially non-viable. The cash
incentive doesn’t cover the costs. So, the cattle are going.
(Part of that 80,000)
- There is a popular misconception that
related to, or even equates to profit. Bank managers like a fast
‘turnover’. The low input – low output
associated with the traditional management of our Native Breeds has a
lower, slower ‘turnover’; maybe a year or more
does not mean that the profit is less. It may well be greater. An
example of where lack of understanding causes problems:
Would we be better off returning to more traditional and well tried
Yes, though it’s nearly beyond the point of no return; it
take years. Too many of the basic breeding stock, and the stockmen who
tended them, have been lost. Where ticks or mineral imbalances are a
problem it can take up to five generations of cattle (15 years) to
accustom them to that hill. That is fifteen years of losses and a low
level of breeding success. That is not just my experience in Cumbria,
but is reflected all around the country. Ask the Dartmoor men who lost
cattle to the FMD culls in 2001.
But, it is still possible, isn’t it?
Yes it is possible, but only if there is the political will. Before
that must come understanding at the highest level.
- To understand that as a dire economic necessity we need to
utilise all our resources to produce more food.
- To understand that cattle and sheep, together, are an
ecological and environmental ‘tool’. That the
animals and their keepers created the environment we all admire, yet
which the ‘environmentalists’, in their
are hell bent on destroying.
- And, perhaps even more important, the courage to admit that
present ‘one-size-fits-all’ policies that pay us
produce food are sheer, politically inspired, economic and
Richard Mawdsley m.r.a.c.