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The Welsh Black Cow: beauty from darkness

Dating from antiquity, and shrouded in legend, the black cattle of Wales helped shape a country. Now they are a Welsh cultural icon, encapsulating the nation’s soul.

Words Andrew Forgrave
Photography Karl Howard

Below the hill with the solitary tree unfolds a tapestry of farm fields. Slowly, black smudges drift across the grass, like small, dark clouds scudding over the countryside.

These are the shaggy-coated black cattle of Wales. Once they were known as ‘black gold’, before the epithet was applied to coal, and they remain so prized their herd names are passed down the generations as if they were family heirlooms. Along with the country’s ‘eisteddfodau’ – competitive festivals of music and poetry – Welsh Black cattle are a national cultural icon. Steeped in myth and legend, this hardy breed is seen as a metaphor both for the rugged landscape and the durable souls inhabiting it. Solid. Dependable. Proud. Fewer things better epitomise the spirit of Wales, a small country in western Britain which ranks among the wettest in Europe. The rolling mountains account for 80 per cent of the country’s land surface area. It’s on these slate-grey mountaintops and parchment-brown hillsides that Welsh Blacks thrive. Just like their owners, they can withstand the harshest of conditions. Among the best-known Welsh Black breeders are the Jones family from Hafod yr Esgob Isaf, a 900-acre (364ha) hill farm in Cwmtirmynach, Bala. Beyond their stone-built farmhouse unfurls mighty Snowdonia, the ultimate challenge for cattle and one this Welsh breed embraces.

Brothers Meredydd and Gwilym Jones are the ninth generation of the family to run the farm. They’re tenants of the ancient Rhiwlas estate, the owners of which claim descent from a distinguished line of ‘uchelwyr’, or nobles. Legend has it that, in 1485, the ancestors of both families fought side by side at the Battle of Bosworth, the last major conflict of the Wars of the Roses, so ensuring the tenancy’s durability. The two families share a passion for the Welsh Black, too, and were among the first to sign up for the breed society, launched in 1904. Cattle in the Jones family’s 60-cow Hafodesgob herd remain revered across Wales: their bull, Hafodesgob Hari, still holds the breed price record of £23,100.

Welsh Blacks, with their distinctive white horns, are supremely adaptable. Their thick coats protect them against wind and rain, yet in summer these sleek right down. The animals can withstand extreme cold, yet their black pigmentation enables them to cope in the heat, too. They have thick hides to ward off snow, insects and sunburn, while life on the rocky mountains of Wales has given them stout, tough hooves less prone to injury. All attributes which anchor them in the landscape.

‘We think the world of these cattle,’ says Gwenfair Jones, 72, the family matriarch at Hafod yr Esgob Isaf. For decades her father, Ned, and uncle Gwilym developed the family’s Welsh Blacks into a herd synonymous with quality. Ned did so despite losing a leg, aged 26, in an overly ambitious attempt to deliver milk churns on his moped. Not that he made any concessions to his disability, other than struggling to perch on the low stool a local carpenter made for daily milking duties. Often it was left to the women to hand milk the Welsh Blacks, which, until recently, were very much a dual-purpose breed. Gwenfair joined the roster in 1951, aged just four, her sister Gaenor already a veteran. The girls milked three cows each, breath frosting in the early morning air as they chatted in Welsh, or lighting lanterns for afternoon milkings when winter nights drew in.

‘Afterwards the cows would walk down to the Afon Mynach to drink,’ says Gwenfair. ‘They’d done it so many times, each cow family had their own trail to the river.’ At the head of the lane which runs from Hafod yr Esgob Isaf farmhouse stand two Scots pine trees. These, it is believed, were planted by the family’s forebears for the cattle drovers who once criss-crossed Wales. Rather like a hotel sign, the trees’ distinctive profile signposted drovers to nearby shelter. These were the men who, for hundreds of years, shepherded huge herds of cattle, sheep and geese from Wales to the big cities in England, where the demand for meat was insatiable. By 1810 more than 14,000 cattle were being exported from the island of Anglesey alone. Cows would form a dark, seething mass as they swam across the Menai Straits before being marched through Snowdonia’s mountains en route to England. Modern infrastructure in Wales, from roads to banking, was in part shaped by the drovers. As well as carrying messages, they returned from long journeys with bags of money from their trades, making them easy pickings for brigands such as the notorious Red Bandits of Mawddwy. To mitigate the risk, banks were set up on farms. Until recently, one remained at Hafod yr Esgob Isaf, across the road from the Scots pines. The stone building, Banc y Foty, was later converted to a cattle shed.

‘We keep them, not because of their history, but because they’re exceptional cattle’

While black is the colour associated with Welsh cattle, it wasn’t always so. Genome testing has linked Welsh Blacks to the auroch, an extinct type of wild cattle, and descriptions by medieval poets, especially bulls, reveal there was once a rainbow of colours for these ‘magical fairy cattle.’ Indeed, between 1599 and 1602 some 15 varieties of coloured cattle were recorded at two market fairs in Pembrokeshire. Some were white, and these were said to have been used by druids for their sacrifices. Others were accepted by tenth-century king Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good) to settle debts. A few Welsh white cattle still exist: during World War Two the Dinefwr herd, Carmarthenshire, were painted green to avoid aerial recognition of nearby towns by enemy bombers. It was the arrival of the Welsh Black Cattle Society in 1904 that sent the breed monochrome. Black had always been the predominant colour, but now breeders decreed it should be the ‘only’ colour. Even now, a cow occasionally throws up a non-black calf, proof this recessive gene hasn’t been entirely lost.

Welsh Blacks and their forerunners were among the most prized possessions of the ancient Celts when they retreated west from invading Saxons. They remain just as cherished today, not least by the Jones family at Hafod yr Esgob Isaf. As the farm’s ninth generation custodians, Gwenfair’s sons, Meredydd and Gwilym, were inculcated as soon as they were old enough to walk. In September 1973 Meredydd was pictured in a local newspaper displaying a Welsh Black cow at Cerrigydrudion Agricultural Show. Aged just three, he was dwarfed by his doe-eyed charge. Now Gwenfair’s five grandchildren are learning the ropes and one day they will be keepers of the flame.

‘We have an obligation to honour the heritage of the Welsh Black,’ says Meredydd, the breed society’s current chairman. ‘But we keep them not because of their history but because they’re exceptional cattle and suit the way we farm.’