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What’s the history behind the hardy Galloway Cattle breed?

Galloways being shown during the war
Galloways being shown during the war

Galloway Cattle are famed the world over for their hardiness, and ability to produce quality meat from low cost production.

The origins of the breed are in Wigtownshire, the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright and parts of Dumfriesshire and south Ayrshire, roughly an area west of the Tweed and south of the Clyde.

The society was formed in 1877 and a dedicated Herd Book started. However cattle breeding in the south-west goes back to the 1100s with evidence of polled cattle being driven into England by drovers in the 1600s.

Droving became big business and by the late 18th Century droves of 30,000 headed south to East Anglia. Cattle were traded at the Rood Fair in Dumfries and subsequently some 20,000 beasts passed through the toll and over the River Nith in 10 days. It is also thought that the Red Poll breed that came out of Norfolk and Suffolk came about as result of polled red Galloway bulls being put to local cattle.

The arrival of the railways ended droving and meant faster transport for perishables like milk. This led to an influx of dairy herds that produced great amounts of milk for cheese making. The Galloways were pushed up into the hills becoming the famed hardy animal for producing good beef calves in harsh conditions.

With Galloway cattle being mainly black and polled, breeding records were kept in the Polled Cattle Herd Book, which was based in Banffshire and more centred on what was to become the Aberdeen-Angus. The Galloway strained animals were listed separately and thus lineage could be traced.

The original Polled Cattle Herd Book was privately owned and because of differences of the two breed types negotiations by south-west agriculturalist Mr Maxwell of the Munches took place with £75 paid for the Galloway part copyright from publisher Alexander Ramsay.

Compiling the first herd book was the Reverend Dr John Gillespie who had to piece it together after the 1851 fire in the HASS museum destroyed the first Polled Herd Book. He then became the first secretary of the Society.

The first Galloway Show was staged in Lockerbie in 1851 under the auspices of the Lockerbie Farmers Club; the event also included a sale which led to the founding of the Galloway Agricultural Society in 1855 and the staging of the first Castle Douglas Galloway sale.

By 1855 Castle Douglas had become the most popular sale venue and today the sales held at Wallets Marts are the highlight of the year with the spring bull sales and autumn heifer sales.

These early years saw the laying down of specific rules and breed types which have lasted pretty much unchanged. In the 1950 Know Your Farm Stock book the colour should be black with a brownish tinge or dun. Dun is a recognized colour for Galloways and some breeders prefer them, other colours associated with Galloway’s are white and of course the Belted Galloway these are sub species with their own societies and histories.

Despite the animal’s beef credentials there is evidence of Galloway herds being milked in Cumberland for cheese production and the calves being fed on whey.

Like many breeds, cattle were exported to America and Canada. By 1911, 35,000 cattle were listed in the American Herd Book which was established in 1882.

The British Galloway Society was formed in 1908 after some controversy and more occurred in 1912 when it was decided to ban Dun Galloway’s from the herd book because of objections by American breeders and Smithfield Show. The ban was later lifted.

Dr John Gillespie died in 1912 after serving for 35 years. The society presented the Dr Gillespie Memorial trophy to the Highland Show in his memory. In 1923 Galloways took the Supreme Carcass Championship at Smithfield for the third year running. Despite the success registration of animals remained static forcing the Society into a publicity campaign.

WWII saw a cessation of shows with only Castle Douglas and Ballymena remaining. However the post war era saw a substantial rise in the numbers because of the 1947 hill cow subsidies.

Confidence continued during the 1950s with demand coming from breeders producing females for export and others producing females to produce blue grey heifers.

Smithfield success now came with live exhibits as the Galloway left its mark on the butcher trade. Sales of pedigree breeding stock at Newton Stewart and Oban were introduced. Despite 1958 being a record year for herd book registrations the decade was marred by brucellosis and foot and mouth (FMD). At the end of the decade the Society purchased a house at Normandale in Castle Douglas as its headquarters.

Ominous clouds gathered in the 1960s with importation of Charolais cattle. Despite this, there were good attendances in the classes at the 40 odd shows with Galloway classes and a Smithfield Championship in 1964.

Brucellosis eradication schemes were established but in 1967 FMD reared its head affecting sales and exports. Whilst Castle Douglas remained the main sale headquarters a successful sale at Carlisle was also being run. Towards the end of the decade Dun cattle become more popular and the breed became popular in Italy.

In 1970 changes to the herd book were introduced and copies were given to the Ayrshire Society for safe keeping in the event of fire. Although continental cattle imports were on the increase it was still a healthy period with Her Majesty the Queen forming a herd at Balmoral.

The Centenary in 1977 was marked with visits to leading herds in the South West. It also saw the first exports to Germany which developed into a lucrative trade during the 1980s.

However the BSE crisis caused an export ban in 1990, although there were no cases of BSE found in Galloway cattle. The German trade came to an abrupt halt and one of the breed’s golden periods ended. Such had been the German demand and the resulting paper work following the Castle Douglas sales, Wallets laid on a special room to process the documentation known as the Bundesbank. Also during the 1980s the society relocated its office to 15 Market Street opposite Wallets.

Recent years have seen changes as bigger leaner carcasses were demanded. This issue of size featured in Galloway circles causing great debate. Some of the adjustments made were the adoption of AI and Embryo Transfer.

Today the breed still boasts its original qualities now back in fashion with farmers adopting low input systems. Galloways have been challenged by dairying, continentals and disease restrictions but they are still there and more than capable of serving an important role.