No one knows for certain when the long-horned ox came into use in northwestern England. Suffice it to say, it was a long time ago.
The earliest English Longhorns were very different from the English Longhorns of today. They were originally triple-purpose draft, dairy, and meat animals, but when famed livestock breeder Robert Bakewell took an interest in the breed, he thought in terms of beef.
The year was somewhere around 1760. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing in Britain, and more and more people were leaving farms to work in factories. As the city-dwelling population grew, the meat supply proved deficient. Bakewell saw a need, and he rushed to supply it.
Slowly he gathered on his family farm the cattle that met his requirements. Bakewell’s vision was of a fast-growing animal with a large proportion of meat relative to bone. Milk production did not figure into the equation. However, Bakewell did increase the breed’s versatility by selecting stock with long, nicely shaped horns that could be used to make buttons, cups, and many other useful items. Horn was much cheaper than glass in those days.
Some of Bakewell’s breeding practices were considered shocking in his own time. He bred the best to the best, and if the best bull and the best cow happened to be related that simply didn’t matter. A certain level of inbreeding improved the genetic consistency of the herd, Bakewell felt.
The results were quite successful—for a time. Under Bakewell’s active promotion and guidance, the English Longhorn briefly became the most popular breed in its native country. Bakewell died in 1795, however, and in a decade or two the breed was surpassed by the Shorthorn.
A few English Longhorns were imported to the United States in 1817, but they were never a resounding success in their new home. America was not ready for a specialized beef breed at the time. Later, when cattle were no longer needed for draft work and single-purpose breeds became the norm, the Shorthorn, the Hereford, and the Angus took the forefront. Today the English Longhorn is extremely rare in North America.
As Bakewell intended, the English Longhorn is now primarily a beef breed. Milk production and draft work are rare, but not unheard of. Rearing foster calves and conservation grazing of natural habitats are more common uses of the English Longhorn. A few people keep some just for their attractive appearance.
As a general rule, the English Longhorn is a quiet, well-mannered animal. Most people find it easy to get along with.
Because the English Longhorn is so rare, relatively little is known about its health. Like many traditional breeds, however, it seems to be sound and hardy overall.
- Suitability for small properties.
- Adaptability to most temperate climates.
- Tolerance of harsh winters.
- Ability to thrive on grass alone.
- Amazing foraging instincts.
- Good fertility.
- Incredible calving ease.
- Excellent mothering ability.
- Long, level lactations.
- High amounts of butterfat.
- Good growth rate.
- High-quality lean beef.
- Exceptional old-fashioned flavor (not as good in crossbred English Longhorns).
- Fine-grained texture of the meat.
- Good pulling power when used for draft work.
- Cumbersome horns.