Irish Black Cattle Are One Of Europe’s Oldest Breeds

Although numbers once declined considerably, Irish black cattle are now a much more familiar site, especially in the south west of Ireland. An ancient breed, which may have been brought to Ireland as early as 4000 years ago, their numbers have risen in recent years after a decline. Small numbers of this type of cow can be found in Canada and the United States, as well as Ireland.

In terms of its ancestry, this breed most likely has the Celtic Shorthorn cow as its primary ancestor. In Ireland, where the greatest numbers are still found, they are more often called Kerry Cattle, or Buinin. Another Gaelic name for them is Bo Chiarrai, while their English name is derived from their dark coats, usually almost uniformly black.

The breed is believed to have been developed to suit the specific environmental conditions found on small farms in the southern and western parts of Ireland. Rainfall tends to be very high in this part of the country, and there are plenty of upland areas. Cows of this type do much less damage than larger breeds to the soil in areas with this type of high rainfall.

Sadly, there was a huge decline in the numbers of Irish black cattle in existence in the late 20th century. By 1983, there were estimated to be only 200 pedigree beasts left alive, and that was across the whole world, not just in Ireland. The Irish government has played a major part in rebuilding those numbers, and maintains a herd at the Farmleigh estate, which is in government hands.

The milk that this type of cow produces is generally percieved to be of high quality, and very creamy. This has prompted some iconic Irish ice cream makers to opt to use the milk of Kerry cows, as it is deemed to be ideal for making ice cream. An average cow of this breed, weighing between 350 and 400 kilogrammes, can usually produce, in a typical lactation, some 3700 grammes of good quality milk; a fine return.

The breed is especially well-known for its use as sire stock, with it having a very concentrated gene pool. This transmits complete dominance of characteristics, whatever breed the bull is mated with. This helps make the breed highly consistent in terms of the cuts of meat it produces.

Cattle of this type first arrived in the United States of America in 1818, and the breed remained popular throughout the 1800s. By the time the 1930s rolled around, however, there had been a serious reduction in the numbers of cows of this type in North America. Herds have grown recently, though, helped in the USA by imports from Canadian herds.

Irish black cattle were the first breed deliberately bred for their milk, and their genetic heritage is similar to the Heren of the high Alps of central Europe, as well as the fierce black bulls of France’s Camargue. Analysis of their skulls shows that there might also be a link to the wild aurochs of the Stone Age. They truly are cattle from another age, perfectly adapted to modern farming conditions, and able to give both high quality milk and meat.

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