‘They’re rarer than giant pandas’ – Farming family hopes to preserve cattle’s traditional heritage

Granger Harrison and his daughter Esme have a herd of rare Dairy Shorthorn cows at Field Farm in Lak

Granger Harrison and his daughter Esme have a herd of rare Dairy Shorthorn cows at Field Farm in Lakenheath. - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2016

A north Suffolk farmer is working to preserve one of the UK's rarest cattle populations – by building a working herd of animals which he says are 'rarer than giant pandas'.

Granger Harrison and his daughter Esme have a herd of rare Dairy Shorthorn cows at Field Farm in Lak

Granger Harrison and his daughter Esme have a herd of rare Dairy Shorthorn cows at Field Farm in Lakenheath. - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2016

The first thing Granger Harrison tells you about his Lakenheath farm is: 'It's like Noah's Ark here'.

And it seems a fair comparison. Not just because of the bewildering variety of animals, ranging from pedigree Hereford and Highland cattle, to Southdown and Whitefaced Woodland sheep, Ixworth chickens, peacocks, alpacas, geese and horses.

But the biblical metaphor for species preservation also has a particular resonance for one very special section of his herd.

The Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) lists the Dairy Shorthorn (Original Population) in the 'critical' category of its watchlist, with only an estimated 65 breeding females left.

Although the main population of the Dairy Shorthorn breed is much more numerous, the RBST has made the distinction to highlight the traditional animals whose pure-bred bloodlines pre-date the improvements and cross-breeding which accentuated the dairy aspects of the cattle for commercial markets.

With the trust's help, Mr Harrison has acquired 19 of the animals from a breeder in Cornwall – establishing an important satellite herd in East Anglia, and contributing frozen embryos into a gene bank which could potentially be used to repopulate in the event of disease or disaster in the West Country.

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He said he can trace his herd's pedigrees back more than 200 years, when the hardy, dual-purpose animals were bred for both beef and milk, before they were superceded by more specialist modern breeds.

And, in partnership with his 15-year-old daughter Esme, he hopes to put the animals to use, selling milk and meat at the farm gate, and 'giving the past a future by preserving it for future generations'.

'It is the genetics that really inspires me,' he said. 'Although these traditional shorthorns have had their day because they have been superceded, they still have a role to play. What they really need is for people like me and Esme who are inspired to do it.

'I was told they are as rare as giant pandas and there are only 65 adult breeding females in existence. They are unique. They are an iconic breed of the past. They helped see us through two world wars by giving us meat and milk and leather.

'We are spreading the breed across the country just in case of foot and mouth disease or something like that. And, where these come from, it is a TB1 area (the high risk area for bovine tuberculosis) so they could be wiped out, and we wanted to give them a safe haven.

'Their pedigree is 300 years old, so that is what inspires me. All that connection to what went before. I think it would be a shame if they were to be lost. They are not lost in the modern sense – there are lots of modern shorthorns. But the traditional ones are very rare.'

Mr Harrison's daughter Esme, currently studying for her GCSEs at Mildenhall College Academy, is keen to take over the management of the herd, and to introduce a working dairy.

'We want to show the cows in the dairy classes with all the other shorthorns to promote what they are, and show people they are still here,' she said.

'We want to raise the profile and milking is definitely a big part of it. That is the plan. I think people will buy it – it is not just the milk, it is the story behind it.'

Gail Sprake, who farms near Halesworth, and is chair of trustees for the RBST, said: 'At the end of the war we all had dairy farms and we all had these kinds of cattle, but then there were the Canadian Holsteins, and Limousin and Charolais all started coming over and dominating the market.

'If it was not for a few old boys in previous generation we would not have these animals here now. So it's up to Granger's generation – and Esme's – to make sure we keep them for the future. Of the few remaining bloodlines, they have a representative of each in Lakenheath, so it is a very significant herd which he is very passionate about.'

Grazing on Lakenheath Fen

Mr Harrison's Dairy Shorthorns are grazed on the RSPB nature reserve at Lakenheath Fen, where they provide an ideal habitat for birds including bitterns and cranes.

David Rogers, senior sites manager at the reserve, said: 'We have got a variety of habitats on the reserve, and different species like different ages of reeds.

'Bitterns like the early stages in a reed bed development, so we have got some newer reed beds where we have done some reversion work for bitterns. We couldn't do that without the cattle. We need rough, tough, hardy stock that don't mind getting their feet wet and are not fussy about what they eat.

'Some of the stock that Granger has are perfect for going into these areas where it is not fantastic grazing conditions. They do an absolutely key job for us.'

History of the Dairy Shorthorn

The Shorthorn breed of cattle evolved in the late 18th century, from Teeswater and Durham cattle found originally in the north east of England.

In 1822 the first herd book containing 710 bulls and 850 cows was published, and Coates's Herd Book became the first pedigree herd book for cattle in the world.

The breed was used in the early part of the 20th century, primarily as a dual purpose breed, but specialisation for beef and milk led to the beef breeders starting their own section of the herdbook in 1958. Since that time the Beef Shorthorn has been developed as a separate breed.

Dairy breeders also sought to improve the 'dairyness' of their animals, and a blending scheme to introduce outside blood from other breeds was introduced in 1970. It is the animals without any of this cross-breeding which are seen as the Original Population by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

It is a definition which is questioned by the Shorthorn Society, whose chief executive, Frank Milnes, said: 'We have allowed other blood to come into the herd book, but we have been very careful to record that blood and everything has had a percentage attached to it. The animals which they claim to be 'original population' are actually animals which have the 100pc allocated to them, but when you look back in their pedigree some have come through the grading-up register. Even the ones which are historically regarded as 100pc may not be 100pc.

'I accept that they are 100pc traditional dairy shorthorns. I am happy with that definition, but I don't like the term 'original population' because I fail to understand how it is defined.'

Tom Beeston, chief executive of the RBST said: 'The Shorthorn breed has been, quite correctly improved, over the years to make it commercially viable.

'These animals (Mr Harrison's herd) are what we class as 'original population' genetics, as those genetics would still be there 50-60 years ago before they would have been selected for improvements. The original population within the shorthorn breed is one of rarest populations of cattle.'

Are you working with an unusual or rare breed? Contact chris.hill@archant.co.uk.