The Black Cattle of Barrowcross, Northmoor Track, Barrowcross
Most outsiders to Barrowcross and Hookland tend to snigger when they see a picture or catch wild glimpse of the moor’s Black Cattle as they are in fact white-coated and red-eared. Kinder Hooklanders, able to tolerate the one-sided laughter of humour long lost in repetition, may explain that it is more than just the county’s noted sense of irony behind the name. Many etymologists believe the Black derives from the Anglo-Saxon blac – meaning pale or white. An angular, primitive breed with a pronounced sloping rump, the Black Cattle of Barrowcross are one of the rarest and oldest breeds extant in England. Semi-feral, the animals are similar to other small herds scattered across the country known as White Park cattle, which experts speculate hold resemblance to and share heritage with extinct aurochs. In recent years, the distinctive porcelain colouring of the Black as well as their graceful, upward curving horns shared by both males and females, have made them a favourite subject of postcards from south-western end of the county.
To allow tourists to observe the animals without causing disruption to their habitat or placing travellers at undue risk, the Barrowcross National Park Authority have created a number of lay-bys off of the Northmoor Track road which cuts across the northern top of the moor. These viewing areas themselves have become much photographed themselves thank to the somewhat unusual signage placed at them. Alongside the expected reiteration of Park rules, prohibitions against feeding and other interactions with the cattle as well as some history on the breed and its place in local folklore, the signs also proclaim: ‘The cattle are under the protection of the Faerie Court. The National Park Authority is not responsible for any curses you may incur due to aggravating the noble animals and their unseen guardians.’ When the author of the Guide rang Elizabeth Wadsworth, the Public Relations Manager for the Nation Park, to ask about the curious wording on the sign, they were told: ‘It is obvious you are not from around here. It means what it means. The faeries look after their own. You can put it down to whimsical humour if you wish, but there’s no explanation needed and we won’t comment further.’ There is no doubting that the Black Cattle have a niche not only in the unusual ecology of Barrowcross, but in the crowded fields of Hookland folklore. Also known as the Old King’s cows and faery-rides, it is said that the red colouring of their ears comes from being gripped by invisible sprites who are carried on them at night. Their entwinement with the Otherfolk is longstanding, with claims made that the current herd originates from a pair of the beasts given to the Grimp family in pre-Norman antiquity by the Queen of the Summer Court. In ale establishments close to the Northmoor Track, it is still possible to catch some suggestion among the oldest of pub uncles that Alfred Grimp released his draught oxen and milking cattle into the wild care of Barrowcross in 1913 after ‘consulting with the faeries’.
David Southwell is an author of several published books on true crime and conspiracies, which have been translated into a dozen languages. However, these days, he mostly writes about place.