Until this week I had never come across such a beast – and no wonder, for the breed has become very rare. Yet now there are signs that, thanks to a few enthusiasts, it is on its way back from the brink of extinction.
The word ‘Belt’ signifies both the animal itself and the band of white that encircles its midriff. Thus a Belted Welsh is black (or, more rarely, red) at both ends and white in the middle, the width of its snowy girdle varying from a few inches to 3ft or more. Aesthetically speaking, a belt of about 18ins is the most desirable as that appears to give the animal the best proportions.
To find some of these curious creatures, I drove only a few miles to Wotton-under-Edge, where the south-westernmost outliers of the Cotswold hills tumble towards the Severn. There, on steep banks above the town, John Forster, farmer and part-time artist, keeps a few belted cattle, registered as the Tan-y-Bryn herd – the title being a translation of the name of his house, Under-the-Hill.
He firmly believes that the Belts are indigenous to Wales, and have been there for thousands of years. For a while, a rival theory claimed that they were descended from similarly-marked Dutch Lakenfelder cattle, brought over from Holland during the 19th century; but this idea has now lost ground, and Mr Forster – among others – argues persuasively for the antiquity of native breeds.
‘If you’d gone to Devon 2,000 years ago, you’d have found red cattle,’ he says. ‘If you’d gone into Herefordshire, you’d have found red cattle with white faces. In the Highlands you’d have found cattle with long horns. In Galloway you’d have found both black cattle and Belts, and the same in Wales.’
Today the Belted Galloway is very much like the Belted Welsh: it has the same colours in the same pattern, but is smaller and has very short legs. Whereas the Belted Welsh have horns, the Galloways grow none; and the Welsh have an equable temperament, while the Galloways tend to be wild.
Are the two, then, related? Mr Forster thinks not. He believes that each evolved separately, tucked away in their own areas of the cold, wet mountains in the far west. In that case, where did the communal white belt come from? ‘Ah]’ he says craftily, ‘how did the zebra get his stripes?’
Old market tolls, on which farmers were required to describe the beasts they brought in for sale, prove that Welsh Belts were common in the 18th century, and it is known that when the drovers moved their herds cross-country on the long journeys to markets in England, they always liked to include a few Belts because their white girdles show up in the dark. Early paintings might give researchers valuable evidence; but, unlike the squires of the English Home Counties, Welsh hill farmers have never been great patrons of art.
In Mr Forster’s view, misguided attempts to improve husbandry were to blame for putting the Welsh Belts into decline. The hills of Wales, he explains, were once alive with cows of all colours: black, belted, red, white, line-backed, blue and smoky. Then in 1905 farmers around Caernarfon in Gwynedd formed a breed society, and chose black as their favoured colour, perhaps on the grounds that black cattle looked the most businesslike. Thereafter they bred for black, and the other colours dwindled.
In spite of this preference, during the Thirties the practice grew up of importing Irish bulls, and the Ministry of Agriculture, concerned that the quality of the national herd would be diminished by wild genetic cocktails brought in from over the water, introduced a bull registration scheme that recognised certain breeds only. In Wales, it was the Welsh Blacks that found favour: other types were no longer recognised, with the result that minority breeds declined still further. Fortunately, some farmers ignored instructions and carried on as before, breeding their coloured cattle in the hills.
In England, the formation in 1973 of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust turned the tide for many varieties of cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and poultry; but the Trust has never recognised the Welsh Belts, and it was left to a few dedicated owners to form their own society, which they did in 1981.
Gwartheg Hynafol Cymru (The Ancient Cattle of Wales) now represents all the surviving breeds – but some of them have fallen to perilously low levels. The society’s first herd book, produced in 1991, listed only one line-backed female, and no blue bull. Even today, a farmer in Dolgellau, Gwynedd, has white cows, with black ears and noses, but no white bull with which to mate them.
The Belts are now relatively strong, numbering 16 bulls and 160 cows, but even these totals represent a tiny genetic pool, and the risk of inbreeding is high. Fortunately the cattle cross well with Welsh Blacks: a belted bull on a Welsh Black cow almost always produces belted offspring, which, with their fresh blood, can then be mated back to a pure strain.
For breeders like Mr Forster, who have only small herds, it is obviously impractical to bring in a bull all the way from Wales every time a cow needs mating. The answer is artificial insemination – and, fortunately, a good belted bull called Rhidian, who finished his days at a farm park in Devon, did his bit for posterity by leaving behind 200 straws, or shots, of semen. These are now frozen in the genetic bank of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, which is thus giving the Belts practical support, even if it has so far withheld formal recognition.
For all the owners of ancient Welsh cattle, the big event of the autumn will be the first sale of rare and minority breeds, to be held in Bala on 1 October. Along with other enthusiasts, Mr Forster will be there, eager to see how many animals this epoch-making day will draw down out of the hills.
Meanwhile, he cordially recommends anyone with a few acres of grazing land to think of belting up. The animals stay out all year round, convert rough herbage into beef with exceptional efficiency, and also set off the landscape most attractively. As live decoration, he claims, Highland cattle are now passe, since too many people have them. Belts are what you need – especially if, like him, you have a Queen Anne house in front of which to deploy them.