A history of the White Park breed and the White Park Cattle Society by Lawrence Alderson CBE
White Park cattle have a remarkable history punctuated by dramatic events which give it an enviable and unequalled provenance. A British/German research project identified in the mitochondrial DNA in the remains of a cow from 10,000 years in the Middle East the exact haplotype which has been carried by her female descendants to cows living today in the Tawe family in the Dynevor herd of White Park cattle. Animals in the Cadzow and Chillingham herds are closely related to them. More recently in the last two thousand years White Park cattle had a prestigious cultural status in Wales and Ireland, being used in religious rituals and as currency to appease royalty or purchase a wife. Rather more than 400 years ago, because of the superlative marbling and flavour, the quality of a joint of White Park beef was rewarded with the title ‘Sir Loin’, and the 400th anniversary was celebrated by the society. The heritage value of the breed was recognised by Winston Churchill who exported a few animals to Canada as an insurance against invasion of Britain during WW2.
Despite recognition of its special status as the most ancient British breed the White Park declined during WW2. Registrations had ceased in 1946 and the breed drifted for a quarter of a century as a couple of ornamental parkland herds. At its nadir in 1970 only 65 breeding cows remained. Its recovery was kick-started in 1974. Current records were collected and collated. In some cases, particularly with the Whipsnade and Dynevor herds, it was possible to trace accurate records back as far as the mid-1950s or even further. A registration programme was re-established by my private company, Countrywide Livestock Ltd, leading to the publication of the first volume of a new series of herd books containing details of foundation stock born during or before 1974. Next year (2024) we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Herd Book and the revival of the breed.
In 1982 the White Park was recognised officially under the terms of Article 6 of the EEC Directive 77/504 (Pure-bred Breeding Cattle). The criteria on which this Directive was based included the requirement that the breed should be identifiable and pure. Superficially, it was beneficial to be accepted as an ‘official’ breed within Europe, but the interpretation of the Directive gave considerable cause for concern. The definition of purebred within the Directive was: “Any bovine animal the parents and grandparents of which are entered or registered in a herd-book of the same breed, or which is itself either entered or registered and eligible for entry in such a herd-book”. The loopholes provided by this definition were a serious threat to the genetic integrity of the breed. In practice it condoned a two-generation grading-up programme and that was unacceptable for the White Park.
This year we can celebrate the 40th anniversary of the formation (or revival) of the Breed Society which was formalised in November 1983 at a meeting at Ayton Castle in Berwickshire, when the Duchess of Hamilton was appointed as President and Lawrence Alderson as Chairman. The Breed Society organised Open Days to visit various herds commencing in the early 1980s. They were notable for the spirit that permeated them. A report from volume VIII of the new Herd Book made reference to “the friendly atmosphere that pervades all activities of the White Park Cattle Society. There is always a warm welcome and bonhomie, devoid of the political wrangling that besets so many societies. Newcomers can expect willing help and advice and long-standing members value the friendships that have grown”.
The revival of the breed had started from the lowest point in 1970. Twenty seven years later there were more than sixty cattle in one herd when a special Open Day was staged for the Dynevor herd on Salisbury Plain. It celebrated 800 years of history of the herd since the death of Rhys ap Gruffydd (an owner of the herd), although it was maybe 1,150 years since they first had been associated with his family. It was a major event attended by more than fifty guests, including a representative of the Ministry of Agriculture, and was followed by a banquet in London at Butchers’ Hall. The breed has continued to expand and attract new owners with a desire to breed distinctively special cattle. There are now almost 100 active herds with about 1,000 cows of breeding age. The special qualities of the White Park have been recognised in many different areas of interest, and it has demonstrated its commercial potential. The breed has truly come of age.
Photo of the Harley herd of White Park cattle by Dorit Albertsen