Dexter cattle originated in the south-west of Ireland where, for centuries, small cattle of Dexter type were the preferred livestock of the peasants and smallholders. The creamy milk and high-quality meat, along with their predominantly calm nature and strength as plough-animals and beasts of burden, made them the ultimate multi-purpose cow; while the diminutive size of the Dexter cattle made them ideal for the small acreages and restricted grazing areas.
Even though the Dexter has since been declared a unique breed, certain dictionaries still define the Dexter as ‘a small breed of Kerry cattle’ (Collins 21st Century Dictionary). We know they evolved within and alongside the Kerry herds, with both breeds stemming from the same ancient breed. We also know that what we now call Dexter cattle pre-date herd-books and pedigree breeding to a time when cattle were bred by natural selection for survival and by peasant selection for cottagers’ requirements. Yet it is apparent that nobody knows the full truths of the Dexter history. There is the strong probability that Dexter cattle, although nameless at the time, date back to when herd-records (if any) would have been no more than perhaps notches on a stone. The remains of Dexter-sized cattle have been found at Stonehenge, and were dated back to the Iron Age.
Curiosities for the English Gentry gained world-wide popularity
Written references to ‘Dexters’ by name date back to the 1800s. In 1845, it was reported that the manager of Lord Hawarden’s estate on Valentia Island, County Kerry, had developed a “curious” strain based on the local mountain cattle. That manager was apparently Mr. Dexter. This raises the question, however, based on the bones of Stonehenge and references (by description, not name) from several significantly earlier sources, did Mr. Dexter develop the strain, or had he merely stumbled across a strain that had been around the British Isles for millennia? It is a contentious question, and may never be answered.
” In view of the foregoing it is difficult to accept that a Mr. Dexter evolved in Co. Kerry, and launched in 30 years or so a breed of cattle which has spread to many countries and whose characteristics have persisted and are clearly recognisable. The significance of Mendel’s discovery on genetics, and the fate of other small breeds whose names are rarely heard today increase one’s doubts and curiosity regarding the real background of the breed.” [Mrs. D.M.Whelehan, of Transvaal, South Africa from The Dexter Bulletin Dexter Cattle Society (UK) April 1970]
In 1882, it is reported, Dexter cattle were bought by the English gentry as mere “curiosities” yet the breed’s popularity as being ‘attractive and practical’ spread through Britain and abroad. The first recorded exportations to America were made from 1905 to 1915 (with later exportations to Argentina, Australia, Canada, Europe, and South Africa).
At that stage, Dexters were still considered to be a smaller version of the Kerry, so both were lumped together as one breed in cattle societies, herd books and registries. It was 1919 before the two breeds were recognised to be separate types, and deserving of separate registries. By 1925 there were more than 1100 registered cows in Britain, across almost 70 herds
A world in crisis sees the Dexter cattle breed heading for extinction
During the 1930s and 1940s, while the world concentrated on wars, very few breeders were concentrating on the “curious”, hardy little worker from Ireland. Numbers world-wide were depleted. And, when the war was over, it seems they had either forgotten about the Dexter, or perhaps they saw “bigger” as being “faster” in returns. Whatever the reason, Dexter numbers continued to fall, while the larger breeds thrived. In the 1970s, the Dexter was listed by the Rare Breeds Trust. It was heading towards the threat of extinction.
Dexter Promotion Groups determined to help conserve the breed
The realisation of the threat to the Dexter prompted a steadily growing number of people across the world to dedicate their time and efforts into the conservation of the breed. Ongoing scientific studies and research continue to ensure the conservation of Dexters for future generations, as does international marketing of genetic material such as semen and embryos for transfer.
Earlier Australian Dexters had long since faded away, so there were no Dexters in Australia until the early 1980s when the first crosses were being born. Since then, much time and effort has gone into upgrading from foundation cows of other breeds, mainly Jersey and Angus. (4th cross cows and 5th cross bulls are considered pure-bred). At the same time, Dexter cows, bulls and embryos were being imported by dedicated breeders. Only a handful arrived from UK before quarantine closed that door, but quite a few arrived from Canada & USA. Many of the imported cows were used to produce embryos, so expanding the national purebred base considerably.
In a shared interest, groups such as ours have been formed to promote the Dexter, to ensure this hardy little breed never again comes under threat. To do so, we are determined to prove that the Dexter is far more than just a cute face; the by-products of Dexter cattle (milk, meat etc) are equal-to-better than the commonly accepted ‘best breeds’ in each. Moreover, they are the practical and economical livestock choice for the smallholder, and make the ideal house-cow for the cottage farmer.