Shetland Cattle- an explanation


Shetland Cattle
Where did Shetland Cattle come from?
  •          Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of the first cattle in Shetland from Neolithic Times c.5000 years BP.
  •          Examples from the Iron Age reveal 2 types, a large and a much smaller type, and this smaller one persisted through unchanged till the 20th century.
  •          Archaeologists are now proposing that dental evidence of abnormal molars indicates that a limited genetic pool persisted through into the modern period.
  •          Their ancestors developed from the ancient wild cattle of Europe – the aurochs.

How were Shetland Cattle managed in historical times?
  •          Archaeologists think that dairy husbandry has been practised for just as long as the keeping of domesticated cattle with strong evidence of slaughtering of new born calves.
  •          Evidence of stress lines in the teeth shows, in particular that larger animals were suffering regular periods of poorer nutrition – winters in housed quarters.
  •          Evidence of arthritic skeletal damage also shows that they were being used as draught animals.
  •          Documentation of cattle herds persists from the Viking Age in their Court Records.
  •          The Norsemen liked cattle – placenames – Buness, Oxensetter, Koobal.
  •          A picture emerges of some cattle living alongside folk and perhaps semi-wild herds being managed in the hills with much fewer sheep. Perhaps a cattle population of 50,000 head.

What did Shetland Cattle look like?
  •          The first sketch dates from the late 18th century.
  •          Typical of a range of indigenous domesticated cattle breeds from Britain and Scandinavia, which were descended from wild cattle originally.
  •          Archaeologists indicate that from about the Iron Age 2000 BP Shetland Cattle showed a consistency of size and type resembling very closely the 18th century sketch.
  •          Were there imports? If there were, their impacts were not profound until the 20th century.

What brought about the near extinction of Shetland Cattle during the 1970s?
  •          Expanding human populations during the late 19th century brought a new imperative. A milking cow for a family was critical, but with the crofts becoming ever smaller less and less concern was placed on breeding good animals.
  •          The age of Agricultural Improvements, mostly in the early 20th century, brought new bigger breeds and the hybrid vigour of ‘first crosses’ spelt the end for pure bred cattle.
  •          Government policies offered the first support payments post-War for cross-bred animals only. Jo Grimond managed to have the breed designated as ‘dual-purpose’ to secure support equivalence.
  •          Emphasis by supermarkets, Government-backed marketing organisations and agricultural scientists on speed of growth, shape and size fed the breed’s unpopularity among young and ambitious farming types.
  •          Store market prejudice led to the few remaining breeders eradicating the colours in favour of black with a little white so that these animals could pass through the system in disguise.
  •          Commoditisation of produce, especially in meats has resulted in a sameness with only the more determined butchers sourcing meat with any distinctiveness.
  •          Growth of supermarkets continues insidiously.

The low point in the 1970s for Shetland Cattle with only 20 cows alive in the islands.
  •          Last ditch assistance from the Rare Breeds Survival Trust and Shetland Islands Council encourages crofters to keep the breed.
  •          The realisation by a small band of enthusiasts that they must help themselves in the face of  bewildering obstacles. Slowly cow numbers increase to the present 250.
  •          Attempts at marketing hindered by lack of an abattoir capable of dealing with a niche product. Now a brand new community-owned facility has been opened.
  •          Now after facing total extinction Shetland Cattle have been discovered to possess unusual health-conferring traits lost from modern breeds.

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