Cattle breeds as we know them today developed due to necessity, regional environment and later through human intervention. Domestic cattle are derived from oxen, a prefix which sticks around to this day in oxtail, ox cheek, ox heart and so on. As oxen became domesticated – for milk, food and agricultural tasks – their distribution across the UK saw the animals take on the ‘terroirs’ of their own region. Cattle in the highlands were small, hardy beasts, with a thick double coat of long hair and a knack for surviving in harsh conditions. On the other hand cattle in Leicestershire, with its much gentler climate and therefore plentiful of food, became large but not terribly robust animals. They wouldn’t like it on the coast of Scotland, that’s for sure.
The other contributing factor to the stamp of our native breeds came long before the industrial revolution, when much of the population lived rurally and it was common for families to keep a handful of animals. Rural settlements usually comprised of a single wealthy landowner and many tenant farming families, and each family would keep a few pigs, chickens and a cow for milk. In order to produce milk a cow needs to be in calf, but it was impossible for each little cottager to keep a bull of their own. As a solution, the lord of the manor kept the bull which served the entire settlement, imprinting its particular characteristics on every calf, and these characteristics strengthened with each generation.
Cattle breeding continued like this – utilitarian and not particularly discerning – until the mid 1700s, when a pioneering stockman named Robert Bakewell began selectively breeding livestock to accentuate favoured characteristics, which in cattle is a strong, straight back and large hindquarters. Through this selective – also called line – breeding he developed a particularly large, meaty sheep he called the New Leicester, which had a good fleece and fatty forequarter, as was the preference of the day. But it’s Bakewell’s other specialism for which we’re particularly grateful; large and mighty Longhorn cattle, one of the few pure breeds left in England today.