A couple of weeks ago I decided that, despite an overcast sky, the crisp dry weather demanded that I take my off-road bike and search out some bye-ways and bridleways to explore. By lunchtime there were patches of blue sky and stray spots of sunlight appearing. All was well with the world as I set off down a steepish, but slightly lumpy, farm track.
Passing through a gateway brought me to a section of the track that was separated from a field to the right by a barbed wire fence and a bit of a ditch. Grazing in that field were some Sussex cattle which were a joy to see and immediately drew my attention.
Sussex cattle are not one of the more common breeds despite being versatile and found in many parts of the world. When the Romans decided to visit Britain a couple of millennia ago, they found an ancient breed of red cattle spread throughout Southern England. These were probably the foundation of several of our native red breeds such as the North, or Ruby Red, Devon; and the old Norfolk Red beef cattle that contributed to the modern Red Poll. Along the weald that reaches from Sussex, through Surrey, to Kent they were developed into the breed we now know as the Sussex.
They were certainly recognised as a separate breed more than 200 years ago when Samuel Howitt (1756 –1822) produced this illustration which was reproduced in the 1809 book by Rev William Bingley, “Memoirs of British Quadrupeds, Illustrative Principally of Their Habits of Life, Instincts, Sagacity, and Uses to Mankind.” Now that is what I call a book title, although the main reason for including it is an excuse to include an etching by Howitt. This one was also available in a hand-coloured version.
I personally find the book fascinating – if you click on the picture above it will take you to a site where you can read it on-line or download a copy.
The success of Sussex cattle worldwide can be seen from this etching of a bull following its importation into the USA in 1882. In 1887 it was published in, “The Breeds of Livestock, and the Principles of Heredity”, by James Harvey Sanders; and based on a drawing by Lou Burk (1845 – 1914). A click on the cover below will take you to an on-line copy of the book and a chance to view the other etchings in it.
Sadly, the cattle that drew my attention were polled (had no horns) unlike those in the Lou Burk illustration below. I should mention that the modern pictures were taken near Petworth by Wikimedia contributor Charlesdrakew, and in the public domain. Also, the picture at the top of this piece is from the 1911 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica and has been attributed to both a photographer F Babbage, and the animal painter and wood engraver Frank Babbage (1858 – 1916) who signed some of his work ‘F Babbage’. Some sources have these as one and the same person.
Admiring the cattle cost me dear, as it meant I failed to see a large rock in the bottom of the rut I was riding down. My bike and I parted company – the former going to ground whilst I became airborne. My knee made crunching contact with a sleeper being used as a straining-post; before the rest of me embraced it more fully.
This provided some interest for the cattle who ambled over and then stood there watching to see what happened next. By now I was on my back in the ditch looking up at a small patch of blue sky through which the sun was shining on me. I could see a dunnock fossicking about in the bottom of the hedge across the track, and demi-nude trees beyond: rather like this well known Thomas Bewick print.
Laid on my back I could hear the rather comforting rhythmic sound of the cattle cudding, and feel the warmth of the sun on my face. The words of the British Prime Minister about rather being dead in ditch than making a particular decision, came to mind. I couldn’t help reflecting that if this was to be the prelude to being dead in a ditch, then it wasn’t so bad. At this point I felt the pain and started a head to toe assessment of my condition and decided that it was unlikely that anything was actually broken. As I clambered back on the undamaged bike the cattle wandered off. Eight miles later I was struggling to keep my foot on the pedal as my right knee rose with each revolution of the crank. At least I was at a station from which I could catch a train home. Actually the station on this old W. H. Smith, Kingsway postcard, shut before I was born, but there are others nearby.