VET’S DIARY:Take a walk on the wild side

A FEW weekends ago on a very cold and frosty morning, Pam, one of our Wooler vets, had an appointment with some slightly different cattle to those that she usually treats – the famous Chillingham Wild Cattle, writes Dominic Plumley.

She had been asked to visit the wild white cattle by their trustees to oversee the necessary euthanasia of five injured animals.

There are currently over 100 cattle at Chillingham, the highest figure ever recorded there. This is due to the increased quality of hay fed in recent years, plus the fact that sheep are no longer grazed there.

Ideally, the herd should stabilise at about 120, but this is a bigger number than at any time in recorded history and the trustees are very aware that this will impose management challenges. There are increasingly more males than females – a common trend when conditions improve because this leads to less fighting between males so they live longer.

As you can imagine, these cattle are not used to seeing vets as it is usually only once every few years that one needs to be euthanased. Handling them for any other reason is too dangerous for the handlers, and stressful for the cattle.

They receive no routine treatments and fortunately worms, fluke and other parasites don’t seem to be too much of a problem, perhaps due to their extensive grazing.

They are isolated within Chillingham Park but there are a few farms rearing cattle and sheep nearby which was a major worry during the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001.

The cattle are fed hay during the winter and so Pam found them surprisingly keen to cooperate.

Pam was accompanied by park manager Chris Leyland, a stalker and Professor Stephen Hall from Lincoln University, who first got involved with these cattle a few decades ago while doing his PhD.

The first animal to be euthanased was an old bull with two damaged eyes that had taken himself away from the herd.

He was shot in a humane way by the stalker, one of the volunteers that look after the cattle.

Once they were sure that they were safe, Pam and the rest of the group collected blood from the bull, removed both testicles and cut out a sterile skin sample. These samples had to be taken as soon after death as possible. Sperm would then be extracted from the testicles at the lab and preserved. Although regulations mean this cannot be used for AI, in the event of a disaster to the Chillingham cattle, it should be possible to use other lab techniques to regenerate the herd to some extent.

There were two other bulls that were euthanased plus two-year-old calves, one male and one female.

Samples were taken from these as above, except that Pam had to cut into the abdomen of the heifer calf to remove her ovaries for examination at the lab.

All four animals had eye injuries. In domestic cattle we rarely see eye injuries but most cattle that we come across don’t have foot-long horns and bulls are rarely mixed so fighting is less likely.

These four animals were part of a large group and the remaining cattle didn’t even move away when Pam and the group approached.

The cattle seem to tolerate humans being very close to them in the hay-feeding vehicle, more than a lot of the domestic cattle that we see.

At only 300kg fully grown, they are half the size of a normal adult cow, but they could easily kill if they felt threatened.

So it was a new experience for Pam and a necessary job to save the weaker animals wasting away and being pushed out of the group. But hopefully this has also helped us to understand the cattle and how they respond to a natural environment.

They are an important source of genetic information in our increasingly domesticated world.

The cattle can be visited by the public from mid-April to late October. Private visits outside normal visiting times can be arranged through the park manager. Details and directions are on the cattle association website, http://www.chillinghamwildcattle.com