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A Minority Breed of Irish Origin
One of the most interesting of New Zealand’s minority breeds of cattle is the Dexter, the smallest and also one of the oldest breeds of British cattle. The Dexter evolved from the native Irish cattle along with the larger and lighter-boned Kerry breed – and although both types were described from the 1700s, they were not recognized as separate breeds until the 1870s.
They are undoubtedly two of the purest remaining lines of British cattle – the ancient Celtic breed from which they descend is known to have occurred in Ireland at least as early as the Neolithic (New Stone Age) which began in Britain some 5000 years ago.
The Dexter today should be, as it always was, a dual-purpose breed suited to both meat and milk production. It may be black, red or dun coloured (although black is the most common), and naturally horned although many are polled. Relatively short-legged and solidly built, Dexters nevertheless have a grace all of their own. Purebred cows ideally average around 100 centimetres (40 inches) in height, with the bulls some 5 centimetres (2 inches) taller. For comparison, the common Friesian is 135 centimetres and 150 centimetres respectively.
As a breed they have great advantages for the smallfarmer. They are quiet and easy to handle, requiring less in the way of fencing and yards than larger animals. They are fine milkers and produce excellent beef providing smaller cuts. Dexters are easy to get in calf and calve easily; they can also be used for multiple suckling. And on top of all this, as lightweights they are better for the land, especially under wet conditions.
Dexters were first imported into New Zealand in 1904, but the breed was maintained for only a few years. Then in 1979 Dexter semen was brought into the country, and a New Zealand Dexter Breeders’ Association formed in 1993. In 2005 there were over 3000 Dexters of various grades of purity (see » Grading Up) registered with what is now named the Dexter Cattle Society New Zealand Incorporated.
While members of the Rare Breeds Conservation Society of New Zealand are often more concerned with the preservation of breeds which have a long-standing association with this country, the conservation of the Dexter is considered an important project both because of its ancient lineage and because it is a minority breed the world over besides possessing some highly desirable attributes.
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