If we want to go back to the beginnings of domesticated cattle we must go back about 10,000 years. The most widely accepted view is that our domesticated cattle are descended from cattle brought into Europe from migrating farmers from the Middle East. Europe already had wild populations of cattle known as Auroch, depicted in the caves at Lascaux. While it is unclear to what extent these wild cattle interbred with the introduced domesticated cattle, genetic tests show that it took place.
From that very distant point to comparatively recently, cattle evolved through a process of environmental adaptation and human intervention.
This is very evident in Shetland where the Vikings are attributed with introducing cattle to the isles from Scandinavia, but there is no doubt that the breed evolved through adaptation to the very harsh environment on the isles.
Auroch were present on the islands, as their bones have been excavated at Jarlshof, the Neolithic settlement at the southern end of the islands. One archaeological examination judged Shetland cattle to be closest of all the native breeds to these ancient wild cattle, though whether this demonstrates more Auroch blood in this breed compared to others or the genetic purity of Shetland cattle is not clear.
Shetland cattle possess their characteristic genetic qualities of thriftiness, productivity and hardiness, through adaptation and survival in one of the United Kingdoms most rigorous environments. The history of the Shetland Isles is peppered with instances of famine when only the most robust of inhabitants, both human and animal survived. Historical documents tell of cows needing to be held up in slings in the byres through the winter, as they were too weak to stand. The crofters “kye” (Shetland dialect) was a lifeline for these subsistence farmers and the breed has a special place in the hearts of Shetland Islanders that persists to this day.
The evolution of the Shetland cow over the last few centuries has created an economical and productive house cow, providing milk and meat for the isolated crofting families. It also fulfilled a third purpose, that of draught animal, used for ploughing. We see the height of the breed in historical records of the 19 th century when a census records that there were 20,000 head of cattle on the islands. At this point it is likely they would all have been purebred Shetlands, although a herd register did not exist. A century later the number of pedigree cows had dropped to around 50!
The turning point must have been around 1850 when a shipping line was established and with it came the opportunity to export cattle. Immediately, the mainland market dictated the biggest animals fetched the best prices and as boats sailed to the mainland with fat stock, they returned with bulls from mainland breeds, Crofters quickly found that a Shetland cow put to a bigger beef breed produced a calf that grew rapidly and larger than pure bred Shetlands.
Equally small Shetland cows could produce a cross–bred suckler cow that would in turn produce a larger calf. The practice of cross- breeding, coupled with the lack of agricultural subsidies for the breed resulted in near extinction by the middle of the 20th century.
A lifeline was thrown to the breed when in 1971 the Rare Breeds Survival Trust was formed. By this time pedigree recording on the islands had ceased. Work by the RBST through the 70’s identified purebred animals and in 1981 an annual herd book was once again produced. This was the era of substantial agricultural subsidies and the emergence of agribusiness. Britain had also seen the invasion of large continental beef breeds such as Charolais and Belgian Blues and these breeds fuelled the science of genetic improvement to increase growth rates and meatier carcases for maximum profit. The Shetland Breed seemed ever more archaic and anachronistic.
Mechanisation and production of cheap chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides opened the door to a way of food production that was no longer dependent on the natural fertility of the land and local climate. More grass grown more rapidly, needed animals that did the same and the ability of the Shetland, to grow steadily on natural, unfertilised pastures became of little importance.
In many ways it is astonishing to see how rapidly this country has reversed away from the concept of maximum production. This year, 2005, marks the first time that farmers will be paid, not to produce quantity but to manage the countryside with greater attention to environmental benefits.
The stranglehold that large national supermarket chains now exert on the marketplace has forced farmers to look at ways to produce quality and direct marketing. It is this changed scenario that offers the Shetland breed an opportunity to find a niche in new farming practice.