Ellie Crossley has just taken on what is most probably one of the UK’s potentially most hazardous jobs as Warden of the Chillingham Wild Cattle. She will also become a key to the survival of the legendary breed of cattle that is an unusual part of the evolutionary story of one of the world’s rarest and unusual breed of cattle
Ellie, who is 24, has been appointed as Warden by the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association (CWCA). The CWCA is the current owner and custodian of the herd that has existed for hundreds of years in its present location – an enclosed 300 acre Park next to Chillingham Castle, in Northumberland in North East England.
The cattle are recognised as wild animals, and are considered to be dangerous at all times. The 100-strong herd is a mix of males and females of all ages. They “manage” their own lives – humans do not intervene – their breeding and organisation is down to nature and instinct – and they calve all the year round.
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 commence at Easter and are held Sunday to Friday each week until the end of October.
Ellie is very aware that this is a risky occupation: “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.”
The warden’s job is a full time position, which involves both the care and management of the herd and its environment. “I will be keeping an eye on them, and I will be helping with the upkeep of the park, checking fences and walls for example, which is vital for biosecurity. I have my chainsaw certificate so when time allows I will be able to do some forestry work as well as ragwort control and any other jobs that I have time for.“
The CWCA is a charity, set up to preserve the herd and it depends on public interest and support. Ellie’s aim is to attract a younger generation and to increase revenue through the sales of additional merchandise wherever possible.
On announcing the appointment Chris Leyland, the Park Manager 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, who is the first female Warden of the Cattle, grew up in Wareham in Dorset. At first glance she might be thought to have more in common with the coast than with cattle, as her mother comes from a fishing family and her father was a lifeboatman on the south coast. She went to College in Dorchester and gained a Diploma in Countryside Management. There followed a contract with the National Trust in Dorset where she looked after their Ruby Red Cattle (Devon) and the naturally polled 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 these white cattle before they were enclosed in what is now Chillingham Park is shrouded in mystery and there are many theories about their origins. Suffice to say that they were not kept for meat and milk but for what counted for sport in those days. Before the days of guns and gunpowder men would hunt them with bow and arrow and spears. No doubt a few reckless souls found themselves at the sharp end of an enraged bull to their considerable discomfort.
Records go back to the 17th century, but there is evidence that the herd was enclosed in its park in at least the 1300s. They are distantly related to the horned British White Park Cattle, in the sense that they contribute to their genetics, not the other way round. Recent studies indicate that the inbreeding 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 – certainly more than the 13 animals the herd was reduced to after the hard winter of 1946-47.
For more info see www.chillinghamwildcattle.com