Marsh Cattle … Again!

Shetland Calf.

25th October 2011:  I’ve just arrived home from the wood. It is pouring with rain, and has been so for a little more than an hour. After months of mainly dry conditions, we could do with some decent rain. My dog is constipated, and he has suffered for the last four to five days. He has not been a happy dog at all. The last couple of days he has not wanted to go out. He is a little better today, and he has been out with me, but he isn’t over it yet.

Spike rarely runs out of my sight, but he did so this evening. I walked through a bend in the track, towards Dark Wood, and had to bring myself to a dead stop to avoid tripping over on a badger. It was hunched-down, with its back to me, in the middle of the track. I switched my torch on, and there was Spike standing face-to face with the Brock. He was refusing to let it pass: it couldn’t go back, and it couldn’t go forward. Spike just stood there staring-out a hissing badger. He wasn’t acting aggressively: he just calmly stood his ground. I told Spike to leave, he did so and stepped aside, The badger, seeing his chance, made his run for freedom.

The marsh cattle are attracting quite a bit of interest. Increasingly, I find myself answering questions from concerned locals and from others living as far away as Tasmania and Australia, which is about as far as a person can get from where I live in the UK.

During the cold spell at the end of last year and at the beginning of this year, concerned individuals began the worry about the marsh cattle. Well, I can tell you that the Shetland cattle currently grazing on the marsh are extremely hardy, having been bred to cope with the harsh, wet and windy conditions and impoverished terrain of the Shetland Islands. To quote from the 1912 Herd Book “They are extraordinarily hardy, the weaklings having died out long ago.” Historically, during Shetland winters, cattle often had to endure what has been called “controlled malnutrition.” Thankfully such husbandry is a thing of the past; the resilience acquired lives on.

Here are some of the most sought after attributes offered by the Shetland breed:

  • They are extremely hardy, having been bred to cope with the often harsh, wet and windy conditions and impoverished terrain of the Shetland Islands. To quote from the 1912 Herd Book “They are extraordinarily hardy, the weaklings having died out long ago.” Historically, during Shetland winters cattle often had to endure what has been called “controlled malnutrition.” While thankfully such husbandry is a thing of the past, the resilience acquired, lives on.
  • They are self-sufficient and will readily out-winter.
  • They are versatile foragers. With appropriate management systems, they will thrive on swards ranging from low quality rough grassland to fertilised meadowland.
  • They are enthusiastic browsers and will eat regenerating birch on lowland bogs, for example.
  • They do not need expensive concentrates, although, if out-wintered on low protein forage, in common with other traditional breeds, they will benefit from access to protein blocks that stimulate rumen activity.
  • They are calm, easy to handle, do not require special handling equipment like Highlanders, and can be trained to come to the bucket if required (they were the original house cow of the Shetland crofter).
  • They are very fertile and extremely easy calving when bred pure (second only to the Jersey in pelvis width), and are very attentive mothers, making them ideal suckler cows.
  • They are long lived, and will continue to breed into their mid-teens, or even twenties in some cases.
  • They range from small to medium in size (350-500 kgs). This is particularly important on wet sites or where out-wintered, as poaching is minimised.
  • They are popular with the public – aesthetically attractive with black and white or red and white markings and “Viking style” short horns; not aggressive; their small size makes them non-threatening; bulls are docile in company with cows; and people are interested in their rarity and heritage.
  • They are “dog proof” and will defend young calves against dog attack, but they rarely show aggression to their owners, even with new born calves.
  • Animals not required for breeding are readily marketable, as they produce excellent beef. They are eligible for the Traditional Breeds Meat Marketing Scheme where they command a substantial price premium, and are eagerly sought by TBMMS finishing units.
  • It is one of the faster finishing native breeds, in most cases ready for slaughter well within 30 months off grass, an excellent economic benefit.
  • They are well proven in a conservation role. They are currently grazing SSSIs comprising everything from Scottish lowland bog to English heathland and coastal grazing marsh to woodland in the Midlands, and have been selected by the National Trust, Wildlife Trusts, County Councils and unitary authorities among others.

The marsh cattle are well looked after. They are not just left to get on with it. They are regularly checked and are moved from one gated area to another in accordance with a grazing plan. In fact, they all had their TB checks yesterday, and they all passed.

8 Comments on “Marsh Cattle … Again!

  1. Another very interesting article – you are a mine of information about the local Marshland and it’s winged & 4 legged inhabitants. Your photos of the Marsh Cattle certainly do reveal their stocky shape & excellent condition.


  2. What an interesting read Mike. I felt I was reading a Farmer’s Weekly article.

    You have made the Shetland breed sound so good that I believe every farmer should have a few.

    They sound like ideal marsh munchers.


    • I am glad that you found my latest post interesting, John. Maybe I missed my calling. Maybe I should have been a farmer. I am certain that the marsh is a better place with the cows grazing it. I certainly have to be careful where I place my feet these days. A fresh cow pat can be a dangerous thing to tread on in the dark.

      However, the post is not an indication of my knowledge of Shetland cattle, which until this week, was basically nil. I copied the information from:


  3. I am glad that you have given this additional information about the marsh cattle. Earlier this week I was watching the cattle grazing in the sugar beet field and wondering how they would manage if we had another bitter cold winter. You have put my mind at mind at rest, and they are very pretty cows. There is a cow down there with a very loud bellow and sounds like it is distressed to me. Why does it bellow like that?


  4. Thanks for your comment, Jill.

    Cows bellow for many reasons. One is to warn intruders or scare them off. Another is to give vent to suffering and hardship. Another is to communicate with the flock – or calf. Perhaps to show they are afraid, even confused. There are many other possible reasons too.

    I think the bellower on the marsh is asserting her authority with a good old bellow. I have been there and seen her do it. She just seems to bellow, and then she gets straight back to the more important thing in her life: eating!


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