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The history of Hereford cattle

The Hereford has evolved from the indigenous Red Cattle, which roamed the Welsh Border counties and the western extremities of England. The exact origins of the Hereford are unknown but it is generally agreed that it was founded on the draught ox descended from the small red cattle of Roman Britain and from a large Welsh breed once numerous along the border of England and Wales

The Domesday Survey of 1086 records the existence of a group of people known as oxmen, and they appear particularly on the Welsh Border. Oxmen, who were just slightly higher in social status than serfs, were men whose job it was to look after the ox-ploughing teams.

The oxen that the medieval oxmen kept would have been locally bred. From the 15th century cattle movement in and out of the county and cross breeding became more frequent. Over many generations the climate and clay soils, together with the general poverty of Herefordshire, meant that the main crop was grass, so the cattle that came out of the area were well adapted to an almost exclusively grass diet and therefore they were cheaper to keep.

In the 1700s individual Herefords began to be selected for their beef characteristics rather than for those of a good plough ox. Herefords were sold at numerous fairs, the largest one being the Hereford October Fair held in Hereford.

During the Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815) Herefords were fetching higher prices than some of the more popular breeds such as the Shorthorn, and there was an increased interest in the breed. The local farmers began to worry that soon all the best stock would be heading out of the county. Consequently, they refused to set up a Herd Book (as had been done for other breeds) to record the lineage of Hereford Cattle. They argued that to do so would impose a standard type on the breed and that the different varieties, all good strains in their own right, would disappear.

During the 1700s and 1800s documented records of the breed were maintained by various individuals in and around the Herefordshire area, leading to the publication of the first Herd Book of Hereford Cattle in 1846. The publication of subsequent Herd Books passed through a number of hands until the formation of the Hereford Herd Book Society on 5th March 1878. In 1996 the Society changed its name to the Hereford Cattle Society.

The Society adopted the red-faced cattle as the breed standard as this breed seemed to contain most of the best cattle in the 1840s.

There are now at least 25 countries around the world maintaining their own Hereford Cattle Records, the ancestry of each and every calf relating back to the cattle record within the early volumes of the Hereford Herd Book. Hereford Cattle were introduced to Ireland in 1775, to the USA in 1817 and to Australia in 1825.

The Hereford has many positive attributes that make it such a popular animal. It has excellent adaptability and thrives in a variety of conditions, from arid desert to ice and snow. It also has good forageability, meaning that it has good weight gain from small amounts of grassland. It is renowned for its docility and good temperament. The ease of calving with Herefords is good for increased crop and reduced costs and the high fertility of the females means they are able to produce and wean calves every year.

Because the Hereford is a grassland cattle it provides a better quality beef. Herefords also benefit from longevity and the bulls are often still in use at 15 years old. Most beef originally came from oxen that had already worked at the plough until five or six years old before being fattened for slaughter. In the course of time cows were bred with shorter legs, giving more beef but making them unsuitable for ploughing.

As the Hereford became more established it faced competition from the Durham, or Shorthorn, cattle. This animal was a dual purpose breed - a dairy cow in the Midlands and west and a beef breed fattened indoors in the north. There are now more than five million pedigree Herefords in 50 countries around the world.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2005]