VET’S DIARY: Follow the herd when it comes to the top sights

On a walk up the coast yesterday, Mrs Macfarlane remarked that it’s obvious why, if you’ve discovered Northumberland, you would just keep coming back again and again, writes John Macfarlane.

The villages are beautiful, the castles are magnificent and the beaches are stunning. If you head inland, the hills are wild and unspoilt.

However, my vote for Northumberland’s top attraction has a veterinary association and is completely unique throughout the world.

The Chillingham wild cattle herd has evolved during nearly 800 years since Henry III passed the first Enclosure Act.

This Act allowed landowners to construct walls to retain livestock so that they had a ready source of meat.

At Chillingham Castle, this meant that the origin of today’s herd was established. It is possible that since then no new blood has been introduced to the herd.

The consequence of this is that these cattle, having been inbred for so long, now represent a natural clone. This genetic rarity was established by work undertaken at the Roslin Institute and Edinburgh University on DNA material from hair roots.

It is a generally held view that inbreeding has a negative effect on the survival of any population. And while it is true that the Chillingham herd will never break any records for milk or beef production, they are still here after all this time.

Two factors may have contributed to the herd’s survival, despite a narrow genetic pool.

Firstly, although currently all cows are mated by one, ‘king’ bull, his reign only lasts for around three years before a successful challenge from a younger bull establishes a new king in the herd.

Also, any weak calves are killed by the herd soon after birth. Together these factors ensure that the herd is genetically strong and the natural clone has no apparent weaknesses.

There are currently around 100 cattle in the herd, with slightly more females than males.

They graze an area of around 370 acres of permanent pasture, woodland and heather which, in all but the harshest of weather conditions, provides ample feeding for them.

The management of the herd is supervised by the Board of Trustees of the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association and managed day to day by Chris Leyland (park manager) and Richard Marsh (park warden).

Early in 2013, I was privileged to take on the role of honorary veterinary surgeon for the herd.

This brings with it a considerable responsibility to ensure the future health and welfare of the cattle.

These are genuinely wild animals and no vet has ever laid hands on any of them (at least not during their lifetime). This vet is not intending to challenge this tradition.

The veterinary input is in many ways similar to our role on our commercial farms; much of the effort revolves around health planning and considering issues of biosecurity. Clinical examinations, however, are not part of the Chillingham remit.

Regular inspections of the herd, occasional post-mortem examinations and ‘horizon scanning’ for early recognition of health threats define the honorary vet’s role.

In 1967 and in 2001, foot-and-mouth disease was dangerously close to the Chillingham herd. This type of epidemic, along with the relentless progress northwards of TB in wildlife and cattle, probably represent the greatest threat to this unique herd of animals.

Some forward thinking after the 1967 foot-and-mouth disease scare led to a reserve herd being established in the north of Scotland.

If we’re vigilant, they’ll still be around for a long time to come.

So, for visitors and locals alike, I recommend Northumberland’s world exclusive experience at Chillingham Castle – go and meet up with Richard Marsh and take a trip back in time.

But don’t get too close!