There is a sadness around the Ivinghoe hills at the moment. Something is missing – the affectionately named Belties. The twenty or so Belted Galloways have moved on, leaving the scrub and rough grass for the Volunteers to deal with. One of their number succumbed to bovine TB so the herd was put down – bovine TB can affect deer, dogs, badgers but rarely humans. The breed is known for its grazing ability, longevity and hardiness along with a placid nature and they always represented the contented face of Ashridge, being no trouble standing out in all weathers and sometimes annoying car drivers by congregating on the road!
November was always the traditional month to send cattle for slaughter. The Martinmass festival on November 11th was the date by which most cattle were killed and salted away for the winter months because of a lack of fodder – beef was often smoked in the farmhouse chimney. There was little unsalted beef to be had during the winter months until the advent of commercial refrigeration some one hundred years ago.
All cattle are descended from as few as eighty animals that were domesticated from wild ox or the auroch in Iran some ten thousand years ago, according to genetic studies. This was not long after the invention of farming. The history of farmed cattle in England is more recent, with the first domestic cattle arriving here about six thousand years ago. They made an immediate impact on the earth of Albion – the dung beetle population increased exponentially! Cattle had one great advantage over sheep – they could be used for ploughing and hauling. A cow of course is also an ox, and over the years selective breeding made domestic cattle smaller and easier to handle than their wild counterparts. The original “long-horns” have morphed into today’s “short-horns”. Cattle were originally folivores, happy in a woodland setting browsing on the tree and shrub vegetation in wood pasture as well as eating grass. In winter they browsed the holly tree leaves which are surprisingly nutritious – it was only later that they were kept in fields as grazers. Breeding cattle for beef was a more recent invention but a wholly English one. It has been a national symbol for centuries and the “Roast Beef of Old England” penned in 1731 was once a national anthem sung by the audience in theatres.
The good news is that the Belties will be replaced in January, so these oversized teddy bears will be available again next year for the public to photograph in their selfies and they will take up their normal grass cropping duties.
Credit to John Lewis-Stempel for his snippets.