The shorthorn: The tale of the cow that went global, thanks to the dedicated English farmers who created modern cattle breeding

The shorthorn cow is coming into its own again. Jamie Blackett celebrates the 200th anniversary of the herdbook and the legacy of a dedicated farmer.

A major milestone of the agricultural revolution is in danger of being overlooked in this year of anniversaries. In 1822, George Coates of Carlton, near Pontefract, Yorkshire, published the world’s first herd book of pedigree cattle, and the shorthorn, arguably the most globally influential breed of cattle, was formally born.

Ten years earlier, a pioneering group of North Country farmers, mostly from Co Durham, had met at Wynyard, home of Sir Henry Vane Tempest, to decide on a project to register the best of the ‘improved Durham breed’. They were undoubtedly influenced by the publishing of the General Stud Book for Thoroughbreds in 1791, which was having a transformational effect on horse breeding.

Present were four of the fathers of modern cattle breeding: brothers Charles and Robert Colling, Thomas Bates and John Booth. The Collings had visited the great experimental breeder of the day, Robert Bakewell at Dishley, Leicestershire, to learn how he improved his longhorn cattle. And it was Charles Colling of Ketton, near Darlington, who in 1796 bred the famous Durham Ox that still stares at us from pub signs and prints. It weighed 220 stone and was borne around the country in a special carriage to be exhibited to a fascinated public.

It took Coates a decade to traverse the dales gathering information. He would be observed riding a grey horse from farm to farm, attending auctions and fairs, assembling family trees of red, white and roan cattle, selecting the best and rejecting any that did not meet the desired standards. He did an excellent job; his book formed the bedrock of the breed, which spread rapidly across the New World.

By the beginning of the 20th century, it was estimated that 75% of Argentinian cattle contained shorthorn genetics. The American West was opened up by pioneers in wagons drawn largely by shorthorn oxen. Today, if you buy a cowhide rug from Brazil or Botswana or Brisbane, it is likely to be dappled with the distinctive shorthorn roan, even after generations of crossing with black cattle.

Engraving of The Durham Ox by John Boultbee (1745-1812). Credit: Bridgeman

This was a time when agricultural improvement was highly valued and Jonathan Swift was writing: ‘Whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.’

Coates provided the model on which other cattle breeds later based their own herdbooks and the system by which cattle breeding is managed today through breed societies employing fieldsmen to inspect bulls prior to registration. His herd book facilitated line breeding — the breeding of close relatives to lock in desirable traits — and prevented inbreeding by sensibly allowing outcrossing with other cattle, so that their offspring could achieve pedigree status in the fourth generation.

From these sound foundations, the ‘Teesdale cattle’ were developed into a breed that held sway throughout the North of England and Scotland in both beef and dairying until the latter half of the 20th century — the dual-purpose cattle treated by James Herriot in Yorkshire were predominantly shorthorns. The work of the Colling brothers was built upon independently by Thomas Bates, who developed the dairy shorthorn, and the Booth family who improved the beefier type of shorthorn; the saying was ‘Bates for the pail, Booth for the butcher’. Some of the most important breeders are still in North Yorkshire, notably the Turton family at Upsall.

The breed really took off through its introduction in Scotland by ‘Captain Barclay’, Robert Barclay Allardice of Ury, Aberdeenshire, a hard-living Regency sportsman who spread shorthorns far and wide because his gambling habit necessitated frequent sales. The breed has been championed by famous names in Scottish farming ever since: Cruickshank of Sittyton and Duthie of Collynie in the 19th century and, in the 20th, Gibb of Glenisla, Durno of Uppermill and Biggar of Chapelton.

Critical to the shorthorn’s success has been the emphasis on ‘functionality’, particularly regarding maternal traits. With other breeds, notably Aberdeen Angus, carcase traits have been the focus and breeders have prospered by selling bulls. Shorthorn breeders have never deviated from trying to produce long-lived cows that are quiet to handle, sound, cheap to feed, thrive on the roughest pasture, calve easily and have well-shaped udders and teats that allow easy suckling, yielding plenty of milk to rear fast-growing young.

Chapelton Petrus, who won the yearling bull class 2021 in the Scottish Beef Shorthorn Club herd competition. Credit: Sheri Blackett

Today’s farmers have two centuries of dedicated stockmen to thank for their diligence in selecting docile cattle that are safe to work with (the opposite of Spanish farmers selecting violent cattle for bullfighting — a system the Nazis exaggerated to produce the notoriously unsafe Heck).

It was partly the shorthorn’s genetic adaptability that made it a victim of its own success; it declined to the point where, for a few years, it was accorded rare-breed status (the Rare Breeds Survival Trust lists the dairy shorthorn only as a native breed now, although the original population and the northern dairy shorthorn are classified as ‘priority’). Many now see the switching by beef farmers to larger Continental cattle, such as Charolais and Limousin — less tasty, less docile and more expensively kept, but much quicker to finish at bigger weights off grain-based diets — as a wrong turning in British agriculture.

This century has seen a remarkable comeback. The Prince of Wales championed the breed at Dumfries House and Morrisons supermarket launched a premium shorthorn-beef range. Brexit and rising costs put easy-care native breeds that can be reared cheaply off grass back in fashion, a trend that is likely to accelerate. Shorthorns tick the right boxes on arable farms where regenerative farming is the buzzword and there is a need for easily handled beef cattle to integrate with cropping.

The Cherry brothers, hosts of the Ground-swell event in Hertfordshire, are shorthorn converts and the breed is about to receive a blaze of publicity, when Jeremy Clarkson unveils his herd in his new Amazon series. Two centuries on, Coates’s legacy is thriving.

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