WATCH: How the world's oldest herd of British White cattle has survived at Woodbastwick since 1840
PUBLISHED: 09:16 04 November 2017 | UPDATED: 09:16 04 November 2017
Archant Norfolk 2017
With family lines dating back to 1840, the Woodbastwick Herd holds a unique place in the history of pedigree cattle. But its current custodians are looking to the future.
The Woodbastwick Herd, founded in 1840, is the oldest surviving group of British White cattle in the world – and believed to be the oldest pedigree herd of any breed to have stayed on the same farm under the same ownership.
Such heritage brings a strong sense of responsibility to maintain the original blood lines and extend this extraordinary legacy.
But despite its long history in Broadland, the herd’s custodians are looking to the future – because its prosperity must be built on commercial success, rather than sentimentality.
Herd manager Angela Hamilton has worked with the animals for 24 years.
“There’s a tremendous amount of history to this herd,” she said. “There are 12 different families here and four of them can be traced directly back to the original hand-written herd book of the 1800s, which make them very special.
“My remit here is to keep those old blood lines.
“It is a responsibility. But although it is an old herd I still need to keep breeding good commercial cattle who have a use.
“They need to be quality cattle that will be sold to join other pedigree herds, and start other pedigree herds, but also but also we need to keep the quality of surplus breeding cattle to a standard where there is a market for it. The fat cattle all go commercially into the trade and look for niche markets and they do very well. They have to pay their way, which they do. They are lovely to work with too. They have got tremendous personalities, and very individual.”
The naturally polled animal also has dual-purpose qualities. Until the 1960s, British Whites were milked commercially but although they are now regarded as beef animals, they produce milky suckler cows.
Nationally, the breed has seen a resurgence in recent decades after previous struggles.
The British White Cattle Society says there were only seven recorded herds in 1918, with breeders struggling to maintain the breed in the face of such low numbers. But following the formation of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in 1973, a growing awareness of the existence and desirability of rare breeds saw a rise in population to 116 herds by 1990, containing over 1,500 registered cattle.
Given this strengthening numerical position, a structured closure of the “grading up register” began to limit the introduction of non-British White blood into the breed, to ensure it remains true to its historic characteristics.
The Woodbastwick Herd currently comprises 112 animals, with 35 breeding females. One or two bull calves may be selected for breeding each year, with the remainder all steered and taken through to finishing along with a few surplus heifers.
A handful are trained every year for shows to advertise the breed, and at the Traditional Native Breeds National Show and Sale in Melton Mowbray last month a heifer named Woodbastwick Lauren took the top price of the day, when sold for 2,350 guineas (£2,467.50) to a farm in Devon.
Mrs Hamilton said: “I think hopefully new breeders have heard of the Woodbastwick Herd and when we go off to a sale people would like to buy some Woodbastwick cattle. There has been some very good quality in the whole breed so we have got to make sure the quality stays up – because we won’t sell them just on the name.
“With the diversity of the genes, and the health of the breed – not just here, but in the country as a whole – there is no reason at all why they cannot be here for another 100 years.”
HOW THE HERD SURVIVED
The Woodbastwick Herd was founded in 1840 with a cow purchased at Lord Suffield’s sale of white, polled cattle at Gunton Park in Norfolk. This was crossed at first with a pure Hereford, and from this strain came the red “points” on the muzzle, ears and feet which, for many years, distinguished the Woodbastwick herd. Another herd kept nearby at Blickling Hall had predominantly black ears and noses, but in both herds there were reversions. If a red pointed calf was produced at Blickling, it was sent to Woodbastwick, and black pointed calves at Woodbastwick were sent to Blickling. This mixing of blood lines strengthened the breed and was probably a contributory factor in maintaining the herd when many others died out.
Mrs Hamilton said: “The Gunton and Blickling herds went down with ‘cattle plague’, but we don’t know what that is, whether it was Foot and Mouth or some other disease. But the Woodbastwick herd kept going. It was the mixing of bloodlines with Blickling which gave them the strength to continue.”