Cattle are commonly used in naturalistic grazing projects, acting, in effect, as proxies for their extinct ancestor, the aurochs. Hardy, traditional breeds retain the ability to survive outside all year round. Like their ancestors, they browse on vegetation as well as graze - crucial for the winter months when good grass is scarce.
With dramatic sweeping horns (once used to make buttons, drinking cups and lamps) and a distinctive white line or ‘finching’ down the back, the old English longhorn traces its ancestry back to oxen used as draft animals in the 16th to 17th centuries in the north of England. It was prized for its longevity, ease of calving and the high butterfat content of its milk. In the Industrial Revolution the breed was improved for beef to supply growing urban populations. Like most traditional cattle, it lost out in the modern farming race to short-horned or polled (no horns) specialists like Friesians and Holsteins for dairy, and fast-growing Charolais, Hereford, and Aberdeen Angus for beef. It was rescued from oblivion by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in 1980.
Old English longhorns have proved perfect rewilding candidates for Knepp. Bred for docility (an important consideration for an animal with horns) and with a strong herd instinct, they have shown themselves more than equal to the challenges of naturalistic living. Even with empty barns to shelter in, they will often prefer to lie up in woods or hollows in bad weather, and they come through the winter in remarkably good health.
Cattle have particular methods and preferences of grazing. With no upper set of front teeth, they wrap their long tongues around grass and flowers. Using their horns to pull down branches, they rip off twigs and eat the leaves. This has a kind of pollarding or coppicing effect on trees and shrubs. They particularly favour our emerging sallow (hybridised willow) scrub, whose astringent leaves (containing salicylic acid, the active metabolite of aspirin) act as a natural anti-inflammatory and may also relieve worm burden. After giving birth, cows often tuck into patches of nettles, rich in iron.
Cattle are also important vectors of seeds, transporting well over a hundred species of plants around a landscape through their gut, hooves and fur. This is an extraordinary number compared to, say a roe deer, whose efficiency at digesting and preening, means it transports only around 28 types of seed.