First female warden for Northumberland’s wild white cattle

Ellie Crossley, the first female warden of the Chillingham wild cattle.
Ellie Crossley, the first female warden of the Chillingham wild cattle.

An ancient breed of wild cattle has a new custodian.

Ellie Crossley is the new warden of the Chillingham wild cattle, the first female to hold the post.

This is an interesting and potentially risky job

Chris Leyland

The 24-year-old was appointed by the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association, whicb owns the herd that has existed for hundreds of years in its present location – an enclosed 300-acre park next to Chillingham Castle.

The white cattle are recognised as wild animals. The 100-strong herd has no human intervention. Their breeding and organisation is down to nature and instinct and they calve all year round.

The warden’s job involves both the care and management of the herd and its environment.

Ellie said: “In your day-to-day work you have to be very conscious of them as they are so unpredictable. They are amazing, and it is wonderful to see the new calves born, and take their place in the structure of the herd.

“Theirs is a completely natural environment and they fend for themselves. We give the cattle hay in the winter when the grazing runs out but that is all the intervention there is.”

Public interest in the cattle is vital for their survival, and Ellie will be taking the tours that ensure the 5,000 visitors each year are both safe, have a good view of the herd and know about their history and unique genetics. Tours begin at Easter and are held Sunday to Friday each week until the end of October.

Park manager Chris Leyland said: “This is an interesting and potentially risky job, and one which I know Ellie has the necessary skills, experience and knowledge to deal with. At certain times of the year it is a solitary role, however during the summer months a large amount of time will be spent taking tours and private parties around the park to see the cattle.”

Ellie grew up in in Dorset and went to Kingston Maurward College, Dorchester, where she gained a diploma in countryside management. There followed a contract with the National Trust at Studland in Dorset where she looked after Ruby Red Cattle and British White Cattle. She also worked for over a year with the Hedge Project, at Wimbourne in Dorset – a trust dedicated to rare breeds and grazing enhancement.

The history of the wild cattle before they were enclosed in what is now Chillingham Park is shrouded in mystery and there are many theories about their origins. They were not kept for meat and milk but for what counted for sport in those days.

Records go back to the 17th century, but there is evidence that the herd was enclosed in the park in at least the 1300s. The cattle are distantly related to the British White Park Cattle, in the sense that they contribute to their genetics, not the other way round.

Recent studies indicate that the in-breeding of the herd has produced animals that are almost genetically identical, they receive the same genes from the mother as they do from the father – a situation that is extremely rare.

In case of disaster, the CWCA maintains a reserve herd of 20 in north-east Scotland, more than the 13 animals the herd was reduced to after the hard winter of 1946-47.