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.