A HISTORY of the South Devon breed:



The origins of the South Devon are lost in the mists of antiquity, but it appears that the breed is derived from the European aurochs (Bos primigenius primigenius), the forebear of today's Bos taurus cattle, which roamed the mountainous regions of Europe some 10,000 years or more ago following the Great Ice Age. The breed's ancestors are then thought to have migrated westwards into France where they were domesticated some 5,000 years ago and where they were bred primarily for draught purposes, evolving into the large red cattle of Normandy. As their appearance closely resembles that of the Limousin and Saler breeds of central France, it is possible that these three breeds once shared a common ancestry. However the recent finding of the nt821(del11) mutation in the myostatin gene, a mutation which is not found in either Limousins or Salers, also points to a common ancestry with the dairy breeds of northern Europe.   


Introduction into Britain:

Following the Norman invasion of Britain in the eleventh century, it is believed that a number of these large red "Normandy" cattle were imported into Britain where most of them were interbred with the local cattle. In the southwest of the country, however, in the counties of Cornwall and Devon, these red "Normandy" cattle appear to have been kept relatively separate, and were developed as triple-purpose animals, being bred for milk and meat as well as draught.


Plymouth, Devon:

During the sixteenth century, Plymouth, then the largest city and port in southwest England, became the major port for the Royal Navy (in 1588, the English fleet under Sir Francis Drake sailed from Plymouth Harbour to fight the Spanish Armada). Over the next 300 years, the Royal Navy made extensive use of the local cattle for provisioning purposes; for example, in 1625, it purchased 500 oxen, while historical records indicate that South Devon cattle were bought in large numbers during the Napoleonic wars. Plymouth was also the point of departure for many maritime expeditions (in 1577, Sir Francis Drake sailed from Plymouth to become the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe). On many occasions, cows were taken on board for these expeditions, and history records that when the Pilgrims embarked from Plymouth aboard the Mayflower in 1620, they took with them cattle from the south of Devon. Three years later, the ship Charity brought a consignment of red cattle (one bull and three heifers) from Devonshire to Edward Winslow, the agent for Plymouth Colony in North America. It can therefore be argued that South Devons were the first purebred Bos taurus cattle in North America. Furthermore, for animals to be considered for such expeditions, they had to be extremely quiet as well as being tolerant of the varying and often harsh environmental conditions.

One of the more interesting observations on the South Devon is in the phenotype of its blood, which is consistent with its having been infused at some stage with Bos indicus blood. When this occurred is not known for certain, but it is quite possible that cows taken on board ships travelling to and from India were mated with the zebu cattle there.


The Evolution of a Recognised Breed:

Over time, the geography and isolation of Devon and Cornwall saw the native red cattle evolve into two physically distinct breeds, the North Devon (known today simply as the Devon) and the South Devon. These two breeds have been recognised as being quite distinct ever since the late 1700s (in fact, old records indicate that a breed society for "South Hams", as the South Devons were then known, was operative in 1794), and by the 1850s a number of farmers who were breeding South Devons had started to keep their own herd books. When, in 1884, the breeders of North Devon cattle formed their own breed society (the Devon Cattle Breeders' Society), the breeders of South Devon cattle "retaliated" by forming their own group - the South Devon Herd Book Society (SDHBS); this was inaugurated on 7th October 1890 and incorporated some thirteen months later with an initial membership of 130. The first Herd Book was published in 1891 and described 143 bulls and 972 cows and heifers.

Following its establishment, the SDHBS began a very successful promotion of the breed throughout southern half of the country with the result that by the beginning of the twentieth century the South Devon had become recognised as the premier triple purpose breed in England. This recognition was soon followed by their live exportations to South Africa, the United States, Brazil, China, Australia and New Zealand.


Characteristics of the early South Devons:

What then were the characteristics of the South Devon at the beginning of the twentieth century? Firstly, it was easily the largest breed in Britain with bulls weighing up to 1,500 Kg and cows up to 1,000 Kg. In 1890, an official of the Royal Agricultural Society reported: "the full-grown South Hams bull filled the eye at once and looked a veritable giant". Secondly, it was highly regarded for its meat which was described as being "finely grained and marbled with a little fat to enhance the flavour". Finally, the South Devon was renowned for both the quantity and quality of its milk. In 1921, there were 110 registered cows in England producing in excess of 5,000 Kg of milk annually with a butterfat content exceeding 4%. The South Devon was indeed the premier triple purpose breed!


World War I and Other Events:

Unfortunately, just as the breed was starting to become established both nationally and internationally, World War One intervened with a number of unfortunate consequences, one of which being the ban on the export of live animals which was introduced by the British Government and which was to last nearly ten years; this had a major impact on the development of the breed outside of Britain. The War also saw the beginning of mechanisation on farms with the result that the South Devon was no longer required for draught; this, coupled with public demand for smaller cuts of meat, lead to a considerable (one-third) reduction in the size of the animal. Although this was not seen as a problem at the time, in the light of later history, many observers regard this "as probably the most serious setback the breed has suffered in its development", and one from which it is only just starting to recover.


South Devons as a Dairy Breed:

In the 1920s however, as milk was more profitable than meat, most South Devon herds were milked and there was a major emphasis on dairy production with the formation of the South Devon and District Milk Recording Society which was affiliated with the SDHBS. As mentioned above, at that time, the breed boasted a large number of cows that gave over 5,000 Kg of high butterfat content milk annually. This milking prowess of the South Devon was exemplified by the creation of the world record for the production of butter when, in 1930, Milkmaid 14th gave 2.12 Kg of butter from 35.8 Kg of milk in 24 hours.

From the 1920s to the 1970s, the breed was characterised by its moderate size and its ability to produce high quality meat and milk, as exemplified in the remarks of the President of the SDHBS when, in 1956, he announced that "South Devons had adapted themselves to the demand for small joints whilst providing adequate high quality milk". Regarding the latter, following World War Two the Ministry of Food gave special recognition to the milk from South Devon cows, officially designating it as "South Devon Milk" and buying it at a premium of fourpence a gallon if its butterfat content was greater than 4% (which it usually was). At the time, the breed standard for cows was that they needed to produce in excess of 4,000 Kg of milk with a butterfat content of at least 4% in a 305 day lactation; while this standard was not always achieved, in 1961/62, the average 305 day production figures of the 2650 recorded cows was 3,000 Kg of milk containing 4.2% butterfat. At the same time as it was attracting a premium for its milk, the South Devon was also attracting a government beef subsidy for its calves and steers, the meat of which was described as being "well marbled, fine grained and of good flavour". It is worth noting that the South Devon is the only breed in Great Britain to have qualified for Government premiums / subsidies on both its milk and meat.


South Devons as a Beef Breed:

These days of "large milk cheques and small joints" were however numbered, with the 1950s and 60s seeing two significant challenges emerge from continental Europe.

The first was in the form of the Friesian cow which started to be imported into England in the 1950s. With a daily milk output of around 30 litres (low in butterfat), it offered a greater financial return to the dairy farmer than did the South Devon with its 20 litres plus premium for butterfat. As a result, over the next twenty years, the South Devon was slowly squeezed out of the English dairy herd such that by the mid-1970s it had ceased to be a significant contributor.

The second challenge came in the 1960s in the form of the Charolais which was promoted as a specialist beef breed and as a terminal sire especially suitable for using over unwanted Friesian cows. As the South Devon was the only British breed which was comparable in size to the Charolais, and as it was loosing out to the Friesian on the dairy front, the SDHBS turned its attention to improving the meat producing abilities of the South Devon by cooperating with the British Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC) in establishing bull performance testing centres, initially at Dartington in 1966 and then at Taunton in 1972. In 1971, further beef challenges emerged from Europe with the importation of 25 Limousins, followed by Simmentals and other continental "exotics". The MLC responded by conducting a number of Breed Evaluation Trials most of which portrayed the South Devon in a very favourable light, but despite this objective evidence, the European beef breeds with their aggressive promotion and large financial backing continued to penetrate the cross-breeding market, not only in Britain, but around the world.

During the 1970s, numerous comparative studies into the performance of the South Devon as a beef breed were conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture at its Meat Animal Research Centre, Clay Centre, Nebraska, and again the South Devon performed remarkably well across a broad range of commercially valuable traits (see Facts &Figures). Thus, there is ample objective evidence (UK & US) that the South Devon, with its ability to grow, to fatten, and to produce quality meat ranks as one of the world's premier beef breeds.


Muscling and a defect in the Myostatin Gene:

In 1962, Dr J C McKellar, a respected veterinarian and past president of the British Veterinary Association, described several cases of muscular hypertrophy (double muscling) in South Devon cattle, and concluded that this was a desirable trait in the production of lean beef. In 1978, being mindful of the problems inherent in double muscling, the SDHBS urged its members to seek out and use those bulls exhibiting this trait. This has lead to an increase in the muscularity of the South Devon, but this has probably been at the expense of its milking ability. In 1997, the "double muscle" phenotype was found to be due to a defect in the myostatin gene on chromosome 2 (see Facts &Figures). This defective gene can be tested for and in a recent survey of English South Devons was found to be present in 40% of those tested. Thus the South Devon has the potential to enable the cross-breeder to achieve rapid increases in the muscularity of his herd.


South Devons outside England:

The South Devon breed is now well established on five continents, with active Societies in England, North America, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and, of course, Australia.



South Devons were among the first cattle to be brought to Australia over 200 years ago when a considerable number of cows were imported on sailing ships to provide milk for the early British settlements. Further large scale importations occurred during the late 1800s and early 1900s, but were stopped by the events surrounding World War One (see above); nevertheless, the cattle were of sufficient quality and quantity to be exhibited at the Melbourne show from 1908 to 1920.

Between the two World Wars, South Devons were extensively used in cross breeding programs which resulted in few pure bred herds being kept and in the breed losing its identity. This lack of purebreds was further aggravated by the decision of the Australian Government, in 1958, to ban the importation of live cattle from all countries other than New Zealand; this effectively stopped all live imports for the next decade.

Towards the end of the 1960s, however, considerable interest began to be shown in the so-called "exotic" breeds, namely those of European and zebu origin. Renewed interest was also displayed in the South Devon, with semen being imported from Britain in 1969. Two years later, live imports of purebred animals occurred from New Zealand.

Currently there are over 2,000 registered purebred South Devon females in Australia, and their numbers are growing. They can be found in all states, where they are run under a variety of conditions ranging from tropical to arid to temperate.




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