If you’d asked me to guess, I’d never have suggested Northumberland, in the north-east of England, as the location of the world’s only herd of wild cattle.
That, though, is the statement on Chillingham Castle’s website. They are, it claims, rarer than mountain gorillas and giant pandas.
Roaming the British countryside
The white, hairy cattle are, it reveals, descendants of beasts that once roamed wild in the British Isles. They once crashed around in the forest that covered much of the countryside, long before humans started clearing swathes for agriculture and to build their settlements.
The nuggets of information you can find while idly surfing the internet on a Sunday morning, after a cooked breakfast in bed.
Just minutes after my discovery, I was sitting in the car and heading northwards. Intrigued, a spur of the moment decision prompted a dash to catch the final Sunday tour of Chillingham’s wild cattle enclosure, which begins at midday.
The wildlife of Northumberland
Neither fallow nor roe deer, or even red squirrel — all creatures that inhabit the countryside around Chillingham — revealed themselves as I hurried across the field between the estate’s top car park and the enclosure.
In the nick of time I tagged on to the group who had already purchased their tickets to view the wild cattle of Chillingham. They had gathered by the hemmel, a stone barn where a collection of cattle bones and skulls were strewn on a wooden bench. A white hide was extended above bones.
An information board revealed that the first written record of the wild cattle dates to the 1640s, though it’s believed that the herd has existed in isolation for around eight centuries. A note from December 1692 suggests the gene pool had shrunk to just 16 of the creatures. By 1799 that number had risen threefold. There are now over 100.
The notoriously harsh winter of 1947 came close to wiping out the wild cattle. Heavy snowdrifts on the Cheviot Hills were a factor in just five bulls and eight cows surviving.
Entering Chillingham’s wild cattle enclosure
Passing through the enclosure’s five bar gate I noticed sign bearing the words ‘DANGER KEEP OUT’ over a depiction of a horned creature leaning into a bleeding, grounded human. Visitors are not permitted to enter unaccompanied by the warden.
As we walked into the enclosure one of the beasts let out a cry that sounded something between a roar of rage, a moo of deep pain and something the Star Wars character Chewbacca might utter in the heat of battle.
Two of the males then proceeded to rut. First pushing against each other they then swung their horns at each other’s flanks. It looked anything but playful.
Meanwhile a couple of adolescent creatures followed suit. The soon abandoned their clashing of heads to stand side by side grazing, reminiscent of a couple of teenage humans drinking together after going loggerheads over a girl.
We watched as a four of the animals wandered through shoulder-high greenery to drink from the stream that flows through the estate. Others scratched their backs against tree trunks in a field where nettles sprouted, showing little interest in head-to-head contests of strength taking place just paces away.
The wild cattle of Chillingham do, undoubtedly, behave in a markedly different manner to a domesticated herd. Like those of us prone to springing out of bed and exploring the countryside they follow their instincts. In this case that led to a rewarding day out.
Tours of the wild cattle enclosure at Chillingham last approximately 45 minutes. They do not take place on Saturdays. See the Chillingham Wild Cattle website (NE66 5NA, tel. 01668 215250) for information about tour times and prices.
Chillingham Castle, which is said to be the most haunted fortress in England, is a 20-minute walk from the wild cattle park. The eclectic array of artefacts within the castle includes a display of torture implements.
Evening ghost tours of the castle begin at 8pm and can be booked by calling 01668 215359. They provide insights into the alleged hauntings by and Lady Mary Berkeley, the Blue Boy and John Sage, a torturer.
St Peter’s Church, located between the wild cattle park and Chillingham Castle, holds an impressive 15th-century tomb bearing the stone effigies of Sir Ralph and Lady Grey.
See the Visit Northumberland website for ideas about things to see and do in England’s most northerly county. Visit England also has information about the county, and attractions elsewhere in the country.
Getting to Chillingham
Chillingham is in rural Northumberland, roughly 16 miles from the town of Alnwick. To get there from Alnwick head north-west and follow the B6346 towards Chatton.