Mysterious origins of the cattle clones

THERE is a farm in Morayshire that is home to a remarkable breed of livestock. The few remaining members of this endangered animal live in a protected area away from other breeds. These rare animals – with a history that dates back thousands of years – have only been inbred to protect their singularity.

Many things are known of this breed, but their complete story remains elusive. Where did the wild, white cattle originate and how did they reach Britain?

The cattle that graze near Elgin today originated in Northumbria, England, where 56 head remain. It was in the 1970s – when only about 40 cattle existed - that the trust overseeing the estate called Chillingham decided to start a reserve herd. Three yearlings - a bull and two heifers – were moved to the north of Scotland to protect the breed against dangers such as mad-cow disease. Fourteen head now live in Morayshire.

What makes these 70 remaining cattle additionally special is that they are nearly all white – except for a touch of red at the tip of the ears and the muzzle – they remain wild and are a genetic match to each other. Their lineage can be traced to the Bronze Age, and the animals carry a special significance in pre-Roman pagan ceremonies.

The start of the second herd is a homecoming of sorts, as this breed would have roamed the flood plains around Scotland's ancient Caledonian forest. Like the forest itself, almost all of the ancient herds have disappeared. Hunting, loss of habitat and domestication have played a large part in their dwindling numbers. The cattle in Elgin and Chillingham are all that remain of the wild herds.

The Chillingham cattle survived in large part to the protection of a parkland estate that was built around 1270. It was popular in medieval times to create fenced off parkland. Roaming wild, the cattle were hunted for sport by the nobility. It is highly likely that Robert the Bruce and James IV would have hunted this breed in similar estates in Scotland.

Before mediaeval times there are Roman accounts of the wild cattle. It is unlikely the Romans introduced the cattle to the British Isles. If they had planned a lengthy occupation, they would certainly have taken their own cattle with them - probably from occupied Gaul (western Europe).

When Agricola invaded Scotland in 79AD he had his son-in-law Tacitus record his campaign. Tacitus, acknowledging the cattle were in Scotland, writes: "Hardly are there any cornfields to drown, although it may happen now and then that herd of cattle, of the old Caledonian breed, are caught in the rising waters and swept off in the flood."

Still, the cattle's true origins may never be uncovered. Perhaps they were related to the Auroch, the large oxen that became extinct in Britain during the Bronze Age. Depicted in cave paintings and worshipped in some cultures, they would have been fearsome creatures and twice the size of the cattle alive today.

"Ten and a half thousand years ago people came back after the Ice ages and they lived by hunting … but 5,000 years ago the first farmers came in. There were 1,500 years when you had Aurochs, but you also had farming and it's perfectly possibly, that they (the white cattle) mated with the Aurochs," says Stephen Hall, professor of Animal Science at the University of Lincoln, Lincolnshire. "This is a long time ago and therefore difficult to prove," he adds.

"We don't know for sure," Hall says. "There's some genetic work on that going on at the moment. We're being totally speculative here."

Meanwhile, a team consisting of Hall and other researchers uncovered some remarkable results on blood tests carried out in a lab in Roslin, Midlothian. Taking a sample of genes scattered across the chromosome, the professor found the animals to be clones.

"They were all the same genetically - one to the other - and you won’t get that in a herd of cattle normally," he admits.

The ancient Scots would have used the wild cattle in sacrificial offerings, and like many cultures the white bull was respected. John Storer, in his book The Wild White Cattle of Great Britain, writes: "The white bull was the sacred victim in one of the greatest religious ceremonies practised here before the Roman conquest. Pliny (the Roman elder) tells us 'that when that rare event occurred, the finding of the sacred mistletoe growing on the oak, the great festival began by bringing up to the tree which bore it two bulls of a white colour, which have never been bound (domesticated).'"

But how on earth did the cattle get in Britain in the first place? One of the more outlandish theories was proposed by Comyns Beaumont in a 1940s book. Quoting Scottish historian Hector Boece, Beaumont reckons that these herds match a description by Herodotis of the mountain region of Paeonia in Thrace (ancient Greece). He was then able to deduce, amazingly, that the animals are the same as found near the River Nessus, which he says is Loch Ness, and that Mygdonia, a part of the original Macedonia, was between Aviemore, Kingussie and the Ness. The conclusion to all this is that Britain is really Atlantis. Could the cattle have crossed from Continental Europe?

The research – and the mystery - of the white cattle will no doubt continue.

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