A STAND-OUT BREED
The distinctive coat of the gentle-natured Belted Galloway makes it easily recognisable against the rugged terrain of south-west Scotland
A distinctive native breed
Spring approaches and colour flushes the lowlands of south-west Scotland. Vivid new growth pushes its way through the dull foliage of winter. In the greening fields beneath rolling hills, a herd of large monochrome cattle graze peaceably: the Belted Galloway. A broad band of snowy white encircles the midriff of the otherwise dark black animals. This distinctive livery makes the Belties easy to spot and has won them a special place in the hearts of breeders, farmers, locals and visitors.
The coat of the Belted Galloway is unmistakable but other features also set it apart. It is relatively small, with a height of approximately 4ft (1.2m), compared to the 5ft (1.5m) height of a Friesian. Cows normally weigh between 450-680kg (70-107st) with bulls weighing in at 770-1,000kg (121-157st). By comparison, mature Belgian Blue females weigh approximately 780kg (123st) and the bulls 1,200kg (189st). The Beltie is naturally polled, which means it never grows horns. Ideally, the female’s head is broad, with wide nostrils and large eyes, while the top of the bull’s head is low and flat. The ears of both sexes should be moderate in length and fringed with black hair. They sport a double coat, which they can shed in hot weather. For the rest of the year, the long, coarse and curly outer layer acts as a natural rain barrier, while the soft undercoat keeps the animals warm even in the chilliest winters. All this means they rarely have to be brought under cover. As well as black, there are also dun and red varieties, but all have the clear white band.
Makings of a champion
One woman who knows all about the iconic cattle is breeder Anne Bell. She and her late husband Alastair moved from East Lothian in the late 1990s purely because of the Belties. “We had some White Galloways, but I wanted to get into showing, and there weren’t many classes for them,” says Anne. “We would come to Dumfries and Galloway to meet people involved in the showing world. We thought it was a fabulous place, so friendly and welcoming. When Alastair retired from his veterinary practice in 1998, we decided to move here.” The couple took over Clifton Farm near Dalbeattie. Its 200 acres, with views across the Solway Firth to the Lake District beyond, proved to be excellent ground for the new herd. Anne says she was determined from the start to have animals of calibre. To this end, she turned to someone well known in the Belted Galloway world, who had also become a very good friend. Flora Stuart had one of the oldest herds at her Mochrum estate, near Stranraer. She was known all over the world for her dedication to the Belties, breeding some of the top animals in the UK. “You have to start with the best and keep the best,” says Anne. “We began with just a handful, and they came from Mochrum. There was one which I knew was particularly good, and I said to Flora: ‘You’re surely not going to sell us that one; she’s terrific.’ However, she was adamant that she wanted Alastair and me to have her.” That cow, Mochrum Jadee, is still with Anne at the age of 15. She won the Royal Highland Show in 2009 and is the dam of Anne’s six-year-old champion bull Clifton Hercules. “I knew when Hercules was born that he had the makings of a champion,” says Anne. “At just six months old, we took him to the Great Yorkshire Show with his mother, and he won Reserve Champion. So he’s always been a great boy. He has a very straight back and a tremendous back end, and he just seems to stand there and say: ‘Look at me; I’m wonderful.’ He has real presence and a great temperament.
“His progeny have won prizes everywhere, including Australia, America, Canada, Germany and France. He has babies all over the place. “Someone asked me if the secret to getting good animals was luck or feeding. I said it was neither: it’s the breeding. You can’t depend on luck. You have to know what you’re looking for. I know all the pedigree lines. When you get your eye in, you can look at a certain animal and know who its mother was and its sister, and which line it comes from.” At 79, Anne is still involved in the day-to-day herd work and the competition side, with support from her family. Her eight-year-old granddaughter Daisy recently won the Children’s Stock Judging class at a show in Ayrshire and came second in the Handling class. Anne says that is one reason why the Belties’ docile temperament is such an important aspect of the breed. “I need to be able to handle them easily, and I want my grandchildren to be safe around them as well. Obviously, you have to respect the bulls a bit more, but the cows are generally gentle and good-natured.”
Looking their best
In the showing ring, the animal’s conformation is of supreme importance. Judges will look for straight backs, nice heads, strong limbs and healthy teeth. The white belt must run right round the cow’s middle, extending from the forelegs to the hind legs, but not reaching the shoulder. There must be no black spots of hair on the white belt and no spots of white hair anywhere other than on the belt itself. Judging is a very precise art, and Anne knows the importance of helping her Belties present themselves to best effect. “Going into the ring is quite a daunting experience and can be tricky. You have to make sure the cow is showing itself off, ears pricked and standing square. The judge puts his hand on them to make sure they are nice and level on the back and have the right degree of flesh covering them. Then, when you lead them round, you have to make sure they’re moving properly. It’s not like walking a dog on a lead.” Anne’s attention to detail and the quality of her herd has resulted in wins at the Great Yorkshire and the Royal Highland shows, as well as countless trophies and rosettes at local agricultural shows. In 2016, the inaugural Scottish Belted Galloway Club competition saw the Clifton herd take the titles for Best Cow, Best Heifer, Best Large Herd and Best Overall Herd. It was one of many memorable events in her showing career. ‘In 2009, I met the Queen at the Royal Highland Show because she specifically asked to see the native breeds. She has Highlands herself, but is very knowledgeable and interested in the UK’s other breeds.”
Beginnings of the herds
As the name suggests, the heritage of these distinguished cattle lies in the Galloway region of southern Scotland, yet their exact origin is unclear. One side of the lineage is undisputed: the Belties are closely related to the Galloway cow, itself one of the UK’s most ancient breeds. When and how the animal’s white cummerbund came into being are matters of conjecture. The most popular theory is that Galloways were paired with Dutch breed the Belted
“The cattle are grazing, Their heads never raising; There are forty feeding like one!” William Wordsworth, ‘Written in March’
Lakenvelder in the 17th and 18th centuries, when there were strong trading links between the two areas. Why these strains were put together remains a mystery, but the reasons may have been practical as much as aesthetic. A cross-border trade in cattle, recorded as far back as the 1600s, saw regular movement of beasts from farms in Scotland to markets in England. This was the process known as droving, during which thousands of cattle could be driven for hundreds of miles. Having white-bellied Belties in the herd made it easier for the drovers to see where the cattle were heading on gloomy days or late eveningst. Ease of keeping is one of the main reasons for the breed’s enduring success. They thrive on a diet of grass and hay rather than grain, live easily in harsh climates and on poor ground. The cattle are efficient foragers, eating tough varieties of grasses other animals will not touch. Belted Galloways have been used for conservation grazing in a variety of landscapes, from chalk grassland in Surrey to limestone pastures in Yorkshire, and bleak heathland in Dartmoor to wet moorland in Cornwall.
Three of the first foundation herds were established in the south of Scotland. Exactly when is now unknown, partly because of a fire which destroyed many records. The fourth herd, belonging to General Sir Ian Hamilton, the British Commander-in-Chief at Gallipoli, began in Sussex in the late 1920s before being moved to a farm near Melrose on his death. Sir Ian presented one bull to his great friend and Beltie enthusiast, Sir Winston Churchill. Churchill went on to keep several on his Chartwell Manor estate in Kent, describing them as the finest breed in the world. Keepers like Anne Bell share a deep and genuine passion for the breed. She says her family sometimes tease her that her cows always have to come first, but they understand how much she loves them, and why. “They’ve given me so much over the years and been such an important part of everything,” she says. “I can’t imagine my life without them.”
Anne Bell has had a successful showing career with her Belted Galloways. She is pictured leading Mochrum Jadee in the winners’ parade at the Royal Highland Show in 2009. Champion Clifton Hercules, now a stock bull (below). Clifton Absolutely Fabulous, who won the Heifer Yearling class at the Great Yorkshire Show in 2017 (bottom).
Belted Galloways are long-lived, thriving into their twenties. A hardy breed, their thick, coarse outer coat protects them from the damp and wet, and hair in their ears prevents frostbite.
Children get involved in showing this gentle breed, too.
The breed is popular for conservation grazing schemes, where animals are introduced to improve vegetation and habitat. Here, a herd grazes coniferous woodland in Tarn Hows, Cumbria.
Belted Galloway dams are very protective of their offspring.
While black is the most common colour, Belties can also be red and dun, all with the white band.