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The British Ox

Category: History and Breeds

In the earliest and most reliable accounts which we possess of the
British Isles--the Commentaries of Caesar--we learn that the ancient
Britons possessed great numbers of cattle. No satisfactory description
of these cattle occurs in any ancient author; but, with occasional
exceptions, we know that they possessed no great bulk or beauty. Caesar
tells us that the Britons neglected tillage and lived on milk and flesh;
and this account of the early inhabitants of the British Isle is
corroborated by other authors. It was such an occupation and mode of
life as suited their state of society. The island was divided into many
little sovereignties; no fixed property was secure; and that alone was
valuable which could be hurried away at the threatened approach of the
invader. Many centuries after this, when--although one sovereign seemed
to reign paramount over the whole of the kingdom--there continued to be
endless contests among the feudal barons, and therefore that property
alone continued to be valuable which could be secured within the walls
of the castle, or driven beyond the assailant's reach--an immense stock
of provisions was always stored up in the various fortresses, both for
the vassals and the cattle; or it was contrived that the latter should
be driven to the domains of some friendly baron, or concealed in some
inland recess.

When the government became more powerful and settled, and property of
every kind was assured a proportionate degree of protection, as well as
more equally divided, the plough came into use; agricultural productions
were oftener cultivated, the reaping of which was sure after the labor
of sowing. Cattle were then comparatively neglected and for some
centuries injuriously so. Their numbers diminished, and their size also
seems to have diminished; and it is only within the last century and a
half that any serious and successful efforts have been made materially
to improve them.

In the comparatively roving and uncertain life which the earlier
inhabitants led, their cattle would sometimes stray and be lost. The
country was at that time overgrown with forests, and the beasts betook
themselves to the recesses of these woods, and became wild and sometimes
ferocious. They, by degrees, grew so numerous as to be dangerous to the
inhabitants of the neighboring districts. One of the chronicles asserts
that many of them harbored in the forests in the neighborhood of London.
Strange stories are told of some of them, and, doubtless, when
irritated, they were fierce and dangerous enough. As, however,
civilization advanced, and the forests became thinned and contracted,
these animals were seen more rarely, and at length almost disappeared. A
few of them, however, are still to be found in the parks of some of the
leading English noblemen, who keep them for ornament and as curiosities.

The color of this wild breed is invariably white, the muzzle being
black; the whole of the inside of the ear, and about one-third of the
outside, from the tips downward, red; horns white, with black tips, very
fine, and bent upward; some of the bulls have a thin, upright mane,
about an inch and a half or two inches long. The beef is finely marbled
and of excellent flavor.

At the first appearance of any person they set off in full gallop, and
at the distance of about two hundred yards, make a wheel around and come
boldly up again in a menacing manner; on a sudden they make a full stop
at the distance of forty or fifty yards, looking wildly at the object of
their surprise; but upon the least motion they all again turn round and
fly off with equal speed, but not to the same distance, forming a
shorter circle; and, again returning with a more threatening aspect than
before, they approach probably within thirty yards, when they again make
another stand, and then fly off; this they do several times, shortening
their distance and advancing nearer and nearer, till they come within
such short distance that most persons think it prudent to leave them.

When the cows calve, they hide their calves for a week or ten days in
some retired situation, and go and suckle them two or three times a day.
If any persons come near the calves they clap their heads close to the
ground to hide themselves--a proof of their native wildness. The dams
allow no one to touch their young without attacking with impetuous
ferocity. When one of the herd happens to be wounded, or has grown weak
and feeble through age or sickness, the rest set on it and gore it to

The breeds of cattle which are now found in Great Britain, are almost as
various as the soil of the different districts or the fancies of the
breeders. They have, however, been very conveniently classed according
to the comparative size of the horns; the long-horns, originally from
Lancashire, and established through most of the midland counties; the
short-horns, generally cultivated in the northern counties and in
Lincolnshire, and many of them found in every part of the kingdom where
the farmer pays much attention to his dairy, or where a large supply of
milk is desired; and the middle-horns, a distinct and valuable breed,
inhabiting, principally, the north of Devon, the east of Sussex,
Herefordshire, and Gloucestershire; and of diminished bulk and with
somewhat different character, the cattle of the Scottish and Welsh
mountains. The Alderney, with its crumpled horn, is found on the
southern coast; while the polled, or hornless, cattle prevail in
Suffolk, Norfolk, and Galloway, whence they were first derived.

These leading breeds, however, have been intermingled in every possible
way. They are found pure only in their native districts, or on the
estate of some wealthy and spirited individuals. Each county has its own
mongrel breed, often difficult to be described, and not always to be
traced--neglected enough, yet suited to the soil and the climate; and
among small farmers, maintaining their station, in spite of attempts at
improvements by the intermixture or the substitution of foreign

Much dispute has arisen as to the original breed of British cattle. The
battle has been sharply fought between the advocates of the middle and
of the long-horns. The short-horns and the polls are out of the lists;
the latter, although it has existed in certain districts from time
immemorial, being probably an accidental variety. The weight of
argument appears at present to rest with the middle horns; the
long-horns being evidently of Irish extraction.

Great Britain has shared the fate of other nations, and oftener than
they been overrun and subjugated by invaders. As the natives retreated
they carried with them some portion of their property, consisting, in
the remote and early times, principally of cattle. They drove along with
them as many as they could, when they retired to the fortresses of North
Devon and Cornwall, or the mountainous region of Wales, or when they
took refuge in the retirement of East Sussex; and there, retaining all
their prejudices, manners, and customs, were jealous of the preservation
of that which reminded them of their native country before it yielded to
a foreign yoke.

In this way was preserved the ancient breed of British cattle.
Difference of climate produced some change, particularly in their bulk.
The rich pasturage of Sussex fattened the ox into its superior size and
weight. The plentiful, but not so luxuriant, herbage of the north of
Devon produced a smaller and more active animal; while the privations of
Wales lessened the bulk and thickened the hide of the Welsh Stock. As
for Scotland, it set its invaders at defiance; or its inhabitants
retreated for a while, and soon turned again on their pursuers. They
were proud of their country, and of their cattle, their choicest
possession; and there, also, the cattle were preserved, unmixed and

Thence it has resulted, that in Devon, in Sussex, in Wales, and in
Scotland, the cattle have been the same from time immemorial; while in
all the eastern coasts and through every district of England, the breed
of cattle degenerated, or lost its original character; it consisted of
animals brought from all the neighboring, and some remote districts,
mingled in every possible variety, yet conforming to the soil and the

Careful observations will establish the fact, that the cattle in
Devonshire, Sussex, Wales, and Scotland are essentially the same. They
are middle horned; not extraordinary milkers, and remarkable for the
quality rather than the quantity of their milk; active at work, and with
an unequalled aptitude to fatten. They have all the characters of the
same breed, changed by soil, climate, and time, yet little changed by
man. The color, even, may be almost traced, namely: the red of the
Devon, the Sussex, and the Hereford; and where only the black are now
found, the recollection of the red prevails.

As this volume is intended especially for the farmers of our own
country, it is deemed unnecessary in this connection to present any
thing additional under the present head, except the names of the
prominent species of British cattle. These are, commencing with the
middle horns, the North Devon, the Hereford, the Sussex, the Welsh (with
the varieties of the Pembrokeshire, the Glamorganshire, the Radnor
black, the Anglesea and some others); and the Scotch with its chief
varieties, the West Highlanders, the North Highlanders, the North
Eastern, the Fife, the Ayrshire, and the Galloways.

As to the long horns, which came originally from Craven in Yorkshire, it
may be remarked that this breed has been rapidly disappearing of late,
and has everywhere given place to better kinds. Of this species there
are--or perhaps were--two leading classes, the Lancashire and the
Leicestershire improved.

Of the short horns, the leading breeds are the Dutch, the Holderness,
the Teeswater, the Yorkshire, the Durham, the Northumberland, and some

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