Irish Moiled Cattle

An ancient and hardy breed of cattle saved from the brink of extinction

Meet 'Molly the Moiley' - with her beautiful red coat and distinctive shock of white hair down the centre of her back, sweet-tempered Molly is not just an adorable cow but also belongs to one of the oldest breeds in Ireland and is on the endangered species list.

Irish Moiled Cattle are an ancient breed of cattle that came close to extinction in the early 1980s when breed numbers declined to a mere 30 calves - only two herds in the whole world. Today, thanks to the hard work and dedication of the Irish Moiled cattle Society and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust the numbers have increased dramatically.

Molly lives at Belfast Zoo and acting zoo manager Mark Challis has been impressed with the breed: 'Moileys are great little animals. They are known for being tough and hardy things but they have a really good temperament and are actually very pretty if you see them - such quiet, gentle, placid animals.'

Moiled is an Irish word meaning 'round headed', applied to the cattle because they haven't got any horns. As a result they are great for small holdings, families and for park farms.

The cattle are described as hardy because of their ability to be self-sufficient through all the types of weather and terrain that Ireland has to throw at them. In testament to their robust nature Sheila Clarke, regional field officer to the Irish Moiled Cattle Society said: 'They are my only cattle to go blackberrying.'

Clarke keeps Irish Moiled Cattle on her park farm in Dorset, England. 'They are the rarest of the rare so I had to have them ... They also hold sentimental value as my Dad was Irish and the cattle come from where he was born.'

Despite the Irish Moiles natural tenacity for survival, the species is still at risk. The number of Moiles that inhabit the UK has certainly increased but with only 230 cattle scattered across the UK, they remain vulnerable to disease and a catastrophe could wipe out the entire breed.

'It is a frightening thought,' said Clarke. 'We are talking about exporting the embryos to Irish Americans in America, to ensure the safety of the breed.'

At the turn of the last century the Irish Moiles were quite widely kept by farmers throughout Northern Ireland but the breed declined in numbers under competition from new more specialised breeds.

'The Irish Moiles were seen as old fashioned,' said Challis. The decline was so enormous that by the 1980s the breed had been reduced to less than 30 females retained by two breeders in Northern Ireland - David Swan of Dunsilly and James Nelson of Maymore.

When everyone realised how rare they were, a concerted effort was made to save the Moiles from extinction. In 1982, the Irish Moiled Cattle Society, which initially formed in 1926 to develop and improve the breed, revived itself with the encouragement of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

This renewed interest in the breed has benefited from the guidance of the Trust and the genetics department of Liverpool University.

Today, the aim is to breed the animals an optimum purity using modern science. The Society has introduced DNA testing via blood and hair samples to ensure the validity of pedigrees and the integrity of the Irish Moile gene pool.

Irish Moiles are an excellent cattle option from an economical and conservationist viewpoint. They are hardy, alert with the herd, faultless servers from an early age and highly fertile. Health problems are practically unknown and the Moile also produces high quality milk and meat from poor grazing conditions. If farmed organically and not intensively they are great from a farmer's point of view. The Irish Moile could be at the vanguard of a move towards organically farmed and locally produced beef or beef products.

The good health of the animal is extraordinary as the breed holds an unusually high resistance to regular cattle problems. Challis said: 'An old breed, produced in the day when we didn't have antibiotics, just had to get on with it. If it rained or snowed they simply had to stay under a tree. Nowadays, we've got very, very productive cattle but they haven't evolved to cope with this sort of thing. Good old Moiley dates back from
1400/1300 and those useful genetic traits are present in the current cattle.'

The Irish Moiles have come a long way in the past 20 years and to celebrate this magnificent breed that is indigenous to Northern Ireland, 'Moiley' lovers have launched an annual competition to find the champion Irish Moiled of the Year. The aim of the competition is to involve all members of the Irish Moiled Cattle Society and any others who own the cattle and give them the opportunity to showcase their animals.