Cattle class

The lovable Longhorn has become the Bentley of British rare breeds – and the perfect accessory for the stately pile, says Adam Edwards.

January 16 2010
Adam Edwards

A labelled accessory is the first mirror of success. It is followed by jewels, cars and houses. Gradually, the gems increase in value, the saloons become sportier and the property gets grander. And, finally, the diamonds are forever, the motors classic and the mansion is a manor house surrounded by an estate.

And at that point a new set of lifestyle options present themselves. What, if you are at the cutting edge of grandee living, is the correct size of crest for the pediment? What colour uniform should one’s staff wear? And what is the must-have accessory for the rolling acres of parkland? The answer, at least to the latter quandary in the UK, is a pedigree British Longhorn.

It may be true that the Brits’ Longhorn cattle do not boast the iconic status of the American Longhorn, which is totemic of the Lone Star State and whose horned head can occasionally be seen on the belt buckles of American presidents and frequently outside all-you-can-eat steak houses in Kansas. In fact, it is fair to say that the UK version of the Wild West steer has a lower profile than a pensioned-off Fred “The Shred” Goodwin.

And yet, behind its unassuming image, it is one of the swankiest of all rural beasts. It is the Bentley of rare breeds. It is the gents’ quadruped; an aristocratic ox. It is the oldest pure breed of cattle in England, and one that every discerning landowner who owns a swathe – or even a few acres – of the shires now wishes to possess.

“If you’ve got a bit of land, then you want to stare over your five-bar gate at a Longhorn,” says Bernard Llewellyn, one of the UK’s top breeders of the cattle that are now populating grand estates from Hampshire to the Highlands. “The primary purpose of people who own them is not to make money or even breed from them, but to talk about them. It is like owning a racehorse or a Ferrari.”

And Brian Kingham is one of those grandees with a five-bar gate whose parkland is grazed by the beasts, which can cost anything up to 8,000 guineas, and who savours the finer points of the animal. “I have longed to be a farmer all my life,” says the successful industrialist whose Longhorns roam Prince Rupert’s Bank, a part of his Wiltshire estate where Prince Rupert of the Rhine commanded Royalist cavalry during the Civil War. “Longhorn are wonderful cattle in terms of temperament. They look graceful and have a demeanour that is very comforting. I am now trying to breed a very high-quality Longhorn and create a centre of excellence for breeders around the world.”

Those of a less romantic bent, whose knowledge of cattle is limited to travelling on budget airlines, may think that the Longhorn looks like a brick on short legs. It resembles the primitive cave painter’s idea of cattle with its deep brindled body, white level back and head with “bonnet” horns that sweep down and round like a pair of scimitar-shaped earrings (the distantly related Texan Longhorn has horns that swing up and out like the handlebars of an Easy Rider Harley-Davidson). And yet it is generally acknowledged that, despite its fierce horns, the UK bull has a legendary gentleness that allows children to ride on its back, while its hardiness would put a JCB in the shade.

Earlier this year the Tetford Longhorn was voted the cattle that produced the “best steak in Britain”. The celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal proclaimed it the best beef he has ever eaten. Rare breed butchers now stock it for favoured customers and the most exclusive restaurants, such as Smiths of Smithfield, highlight it on their menus.

Only 50 years ago, however, this magnificent creature was in danger of disappearing altogether from the British countryside. The cattle that had once populated its wealthiest estates (Humphry Repton, the successor to landscape gardener “Capability” Brown, observed that the quintessential English parkland should always contain Longhorn cattle), and which appears in scores of late-18th-century and early-19th-century landscape paintings by the likes of Constable and Turner, and was claimed by the Victorians as the best example of “the scientific and systematic improvement of British cattle”, came close to extinction. Only now, in the 21st century, is it returning to its position as the top people’s pedigree.

In 1876, in a paean of praise to the Longhorn, the writer J Neville Fitt wrote, “Where did he come from, this singularly picturesque beast with the carriage of a lion and the temper of a dove?” And the answer is from Robert Bakewell, an 18th-century Leicestershire farmer and livestock pioneer. It was Bakewell, who is best known for developing sheep, who turned the muddle of medieval cattle that then dominated northern England and the Midlands into a singular breed.

“He kept pickled joints and skeletons of his best stock in order to compare one generation to another,” says Pat Stanley in her book Robert Bakewell and the Longhorn Breed of Cattle (Farming Press Books and Videos, 1995). “He produced a brilliant animal by selective breeding.”

The result of his breeding policy (crossing long-horned heifers with a Westmoreland bull) was the much-improved Dishley Longhorn. And in the same way that the modern thoroughbred horse can be traced directly to three Arab horses (the Byerley Turk, the Darley Arabian and the Godolphin Arabian) and the bloodline of the English foxhound owes its looks and character to a handful of male 18th-century hounds, so the great 18th-century sire of the British Longhorn is Bakewell’s Shakespeare, described in 1790 as “a striking specimen of accidental varieties”.

And yet, by the middle of the 19th century, the Longhorn had begun to fade from popularity. It was eclipsed by the Shorthorn, the English farmers’ new cattle of choice. In 1874 the Sporting Gazette commented: “The Longhorn may now be said to have become something of a fancy beast in England.” Its population began to dwindle rapidly and by the 1950s, when beef was increasingly cereal-fed and pampered with winter housing, it was as good as gone.

It was not until the late 1970s that the beast finally began to stage a comeback, mostly thanks to the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. More than 250 English Longhorns were registered in 1980 and the following year a pair of Longhorns won the Burke Trophy (the cattle equivalent of Crufts’ “Best in Show”). Since then, the breed has regularly collected a host of awards. Three years ago it was removed from the list of breeds at risk and there are now more than 2,500 registered pedigree females. Its new popularity has come about not only because of its excellent marbled meat and its ability to survive outside all year but also because it is the first choice of cattle for the latest generation of landed gentry who wish to garnish their estates with ancient livestock.

“It is the greatest of beasts – a gentle, docile animal, beautiful to look at and wonderful to eat,” says Charlotte Gifford, the wife of a lobbyist who has a herd of award-winning creatures on her Scottish estate a few miles due north of Perth. “I started showing them five years ago. Now I take them all over the country. It is like owning a pedigree dog or a magnificent horse. And they look wonderful in the grounds of the house.”

“If you have a landscape, you have a Longhorn,” says Janet Spavold, secretary of the New Dishley Society that was formed in 1994 to recognise the bicentenary of Bakewell’s death in 1995. “It is not just a commercial animal. You own them for their history and because they look right in parkland.”

Meanwhile, in the cattle sheds at the last ever Royal Agricultural Show, in Warwickshire, Bernard Llewellyn is sitting on a bale of straw with a grin as wide as the River Severn. He has just collected a winning rosette from the judges for his pair of Longhorns (appropriately, the category is sponsored by the upmarket supermarket Waitrose). “There’s no malice in these beasts,” says Bernard, who has been producing award-winning animals since the 1980s and now sells them nationwide to well-heeled customers who include Charlotte Gifford. “They are very kind, pretty to look at and produce good-quality beef. They are perfectly suited to a banker’s wife...”

And by that I assumed he meant that they were elegant and exclusive, and the sort of kit a girl needs when she’s got the Porsche, the pile and the parkland.