Cows are never out of the news these days: the thousands slaughtered for TB, the dairy farmers targeted by vegan activists and the market nervousness, because 93% of our beef exports and 72% of dairy go to the EU. Then there's last year's surprise bestseller, the delightful The Secret Life of Cows by Cotswold farmer Rosamund Young, reminding us that there magnificent breasts have personalities, too.
In it, she reveals that, aside from the absorbing process of eating, cows can always find time 'for extra-curricular activities such as babysitting for a friend, blackberry-picking, fighting a tree or bank of earth, playing tag'.
Cows take a lot of the flak for methane output and not enough credit for enriching soil ('You've got it down pat'). They're blamed for our health problems, but not praised for feeding and nourishing us - we may eat more red meat than is good for us, but how the hungry must yearn for the comfort and nutrition of a juicy steak. And although dairy foods can be too much for some digestions, they contain essential calcium.
Some of our striking native breeds, from the primitive White Park to the statuesque Gloucester, have, like traditional pig ('Why we must save their bacon') and sheep breeds ('Shaggy sheep stories'), been overlooked for faster-maturing, more commercial continental types; lack of publicity and customer awareness puts them at a disadvantage in the supermarket. It's an oft-repeated mantra that the best way to preserve a rare breed is to eat it.
Across the country, dedicated farmers and breed societies - often with royal patronage - plus the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) through its Gene Bank, ensure that the work of the far-sighted 18th-century breeder Robert Bakewell and others of his ilk goes on, in preserving robust native genes to ensure resistance to disease and genetic diversity.
Perhaps now, with Defra Secretary Michael Gove's emphasis on animal welfare and environmental enhancement plus rising customer demand for local, slow-grown, grass-fed beef, the hardy cattle that enhance our landscapes so delightfully may come into their own again.
This thrifty little creature, the mainstay of crofting families and transportable by fishing boat, is often cited as the ideal smallholder's cow. Like many native breeds, it's tough, versatile and long-lived, calves easily and is friendly - traditionally, a cow would be accompanies to a new home by a scrap from the crofter's wife apron to aid bonding. Some 15,000 head of cattle once populated the islands, but, as mainland communications improved, Government subsidies forced crofters to cross them with larger breeds and the pure Shetland nearly died out.
A cuddly Scottish emblem as totemic as tartan and Scottie dogs, the shaggy-fringed Highland has spread as far afield as the Andes and New Zealand, where it's popular for its ability to thrive on windswept landscapes and for its general charm. Highlands can produce calves up to the age of nealry 20, their 'hybrid vigour' makes them a useful outcross and their beef is low in fat and cholesterol and high in protein and iron. Breeders are encouraged to maintain a dam line of names in Gaelic, such as Muirneag (cheerful girl), Canach (bog cotton) or Uiseag (skylark).
Native Aberdeen Angus
Few people realise when eating the ubiquitous 'Aberdeen Angus' steak that its connection to the genuine article may be, at best, remote; an animal can be classified Aberdeen Angus when it's cross-bred and even, in the USA, merely if it's black. The original dual-purpose Aberdeen Angus, now a rare breed indeed, was developed by three 19th-century farmers, one of whom, Hugh Watson, a tenant farmer in Angus (his favourite bull, Old Jock, is number one in the stud book), is remembered in a memorial installed at Glamis Castle last year. The Prince of Wales, who keeps a herd at Highgrove, has succeeded his grandmother as patron of the breed society.
With their pleasing uniform white bands, 'Belties' were popular with cattle drovers because they showed up in the dark. The breed stems from the ancient cattle of the Galloway hills, which may have been crossed with the Lakenvelder (Dutch Belted cow). They were later developed through four foundations breeders, notably Flora Stuart of Mochrum in Wigtownshire, descendant of the Marquess of But. Another, Sir Ian Hamilton, supplied Sir Winston Churchhill with his first cow from his Lullenden herd.
This red-and-white dairy cow, with its strong, square body, is one of the commercially successful native breeds - tough enough to survive a Swedish winter or an African summer. Betty's Ida holds the world record for milk yield; over 395 days, milked twice day, she produced 37,170lb (about 3,708 gallons) of milk and 1,592lb of fat.
This attractive blue-grey or blue-roan hybrid is the result of a 19th century experiment in crossing Galloway cows with a Cumberland or Whitebred Shorthorn bull to produce faster-maturing females and high-quality beef males. Now, however, it's one of the rarest cattle types, passed over for more commercial breeds. In 2009, the Blue Grey Cattle Group was set up to save it, with funding from the National Trust and Northumberland National Park; the Duke of Buccleauch is a champion and breeds them on his Dumfriesshire estate.
The Dexter has boomed, but is not, as some people think, anything new - the compact, predominantly black cattle (they come in red and dun as well and in a short-legged version) originated in Ireland. A Mr Dexter, an agent in Co Tipperary, developed them from Celctic hill breeds and Martin Sutton of Kidmore Grange, Oxfordshire, brought them to England in 1882. Dexters are the smallest British breed, with cows standing up to 3ft 6in at the shoulder.
The solidarity built 'moiley' is a magnificent-looking beast and the only surviving native domestic animal of Northern Ireland. The name comes from moal, Gaelic for bald or mound 0 the head should be domed. They have attractive red markings, often flecked and usually on the sides, with white underbelly and a white strip (flinch) down the spine. They've metamorphosed into a dual-purpose breed useful for conservation grazing, particularly clearing ivy and will ash, but went out of fashion - in the 1970s, numbers dropped to 30 cows. The Prince of Wales and Countryfile presented Adam Henson are fans and the cattle thrive in Scandinavia, where they were taken by Viking raiding parties.
Does any farm animal command respect more than a Welsh Black bull? They were once known as 'black gold from the Welsh hills'. Drovers returning from England markets, their pockets laden with money, were targets for bandits, a threat that promoted the formation of the 'Bank of the Black Ox', now known as Lloyds. Until the 1970s,, the Welsh Black tended to divide into the stocky beef cattle of North Wales and the dairy cattle of South Wales, but the modern animal is dual-purpose. Welsh beef has Protected Geographical Indication status under EU law.
The RBST chose the striking, hardy White Park, with its wide-spreading horns, as its emblem with it was formed in 1973. As the name suggests, it's developed from the primitive white cattle that populated medieval parklands; although still a minority breed, it's an RBST success story-the breed society celebrates its centenary this year.
A close relation is the Vaynol, started in Vaynol Park near Bangor, North Wales, in 1872, where the heard was left to its own devices until it relocated about a century later to Temple Newsom in Leeds, West Yorkshire. It's now been dispersed-most animals are owned by the RBST. Another offshoot is the famous herd of Chillingham Wild Cattle in Northumberland, which the public is advised to treat with respect.
The magnificent Longhorn, with red mottled colouring and straight or curving horns, is exceptionally pleasing on the eye and is one of the great British breeds, its milk os high in butterfat that it was crucial to the success of the Stilton and Red Leicester industries. Today's cow owes much to the efforts of Leicestershire agriculturalist Robert Bakewell; the breed society boasts that the longhorn is 'beyond equal' as a suckler cow make it a desirable cross.
These genetically important cattle, which have been used worldwide in the development of more than 40 breeds, also owe much to Bakewell. His animals and methods impressed, among others at the time, brothers Charles and Robert Colling, who began developing the local Durham cattle using an £8 bull called Hubback; a subsequent bull, Comet, sold 1810 for a then record of 1,000 guineas and became a legent in cattle-breeding circles. In the 20th century, the breed began to split officially into dairy and beef strains and the two now have their own societies-in the UK, most shorthorns are used for milk.
Like the White Park, these attractive, uniformly marked cattle are descended from ancient, indigenous animals and their preservation owes much to sinle large estates, originally the Assheton family's at Whalley Abbey, Lancashire, and Middleton Hall, Manchester. In the 17th century, the heiress May Assheton took some cattle as dowry to Gunton Park in Norfolk, from which the Blickling, Kelmarsh and Woodbastwick estates founded herds.
The glossy, dark-chestnut, naturally polled (hornless) Red Poll, the breed society of which is 130 years old, is the result of crossing the 'milky' Suffolk Dun with the 'meaty' Norfolk Red in the early 19th century and is a slightly build than some other 'red' breeds. It's one of Britain's most economic cattle, needing little in the way of extra forage, but has been swamped by more commercial Continental dairy breeds and is now chiefly a suckler cow.
The striking Lincoln Red is one of Britains's oldest beed breeds and was significantly improved by Lincolnshire breeders who, at the turn of the 19th century, crossed Durham and York Shorthorns with local coarse draught cows to improve conformation. Known as the Lincolnshire Red Shorthorn, in1799, the breed was described by the Board of Agriculture as being 'unsurpassed in this country for points highly valuable and for their disposition as any age to finish rapidly'. At the start of the 20th century, the cattle were exported to 20 counties, from Argentina to Australia, and, by 1926, the Lincoln was the second most registered cow in Britain, but, again, it now competes with continental types.
In 1823, the pamphleteer William Cobbett came across mahogany-red Sussex cattle during one of his Rural Rides. 'How curious is the natural economy of a country!' he wrote. 'The forests of Sussex...breed the cattle which we see fatting in Romney Marsh... and the sight is most beautiful.' Originally a vast, ox-like creature using for ploughing and hauling timber-record show a steer weighing 214 stone-the modern Sussex, boosted by Limousin and Aberdeen Angus blood, is a handsome, well-portioned beast.
The conker-coloured, white-face, upstanding Hereford is perhaps the British native that has best stood the test of time. The herd book, founded in 1846, has, since 1886, been closed to any animal with a sire and dam that hadn't been recorded, to ensure purity. It's extraordinary that one country could have spawned such as industry ('50 things Britains gave the world'); due to its adaptability, healthiness and ability to flourish on a forage-based diet, there are more than five million pedigree Herefords across 50-plus countries
It was a Gloucester cow that provided and anti-smallpox serum for the scientist Edward Jenner, but this magnificent, richly coloured cow, with its upswepty crescent horns and creamy dorsal stripe, owes its existence to a group of farmers, including Eric Freeman - whose son, Clifford, now owns the biggest herd in Britain - cheesemaker Charles Martell and the late Joe Henson. In the 1972, they bought up the last herd and scoured the country for more animals to widen the genepool of their local cow. Their efforts led to the formation of the RBST.
Ruby Red Devon
The country of Devon boasts cattle to match its rich, red soil. Francis Quartly, an Exmoor farmer, can take much credit for today's healthy herd. As other farmers rushed to sell cattle for high prices to feed troops in the Napoleonic Wars, he refused; his herd lives on a the same farm, Great Champson, Molland, with farmer William Dart, a leading name in the Ruby Red world. Now, the Devon is a typical example of a native that's come into its own in the current climate of environmentally friendly farming.
A slightly paler version of the Devon and with curlier hair, especially on the poll, it originated in the South Hams, from where its predecessors were exported from Plymouth to America. Selective breeding improved stock considerably and, in 1891, the breed society was formed; by the 1960s, the South Devon was predominantly a beef cow and an important source of income in a rural area.
No one is quite sure how the gentle, chestnut-and-white Guernsey cow, popular with smallholders for its rich milk, arrived on the island-it could have come with monks banished from Mont Saint-Michel in the 10th century. A register was startled in 1878, followed by a herd book, and the Guernsey as we know shape.
The dainty dun-coloured, soft-eyed Jersey leads the bovine beauty parade. the island is proud of its pretty cows and has operated ban on any other breed for 150 years, so its 6,000 cattle and pure bred. Jerseys are famed for their creamy milk, which has 18% more protein, 20% more calcium and 25% more butterfat than any other breed's. The Queen has one of the oldest herds, at Windsor Castle.