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Enderby Island Cattle

A New Zealand Rare Breed Society Rescue Project

Map of New Zealand showing the position of Enderby Island in the Auckland Islands group.

    Enderby Island is the northernmost island of a Subantarctic group known as the Auckland Islands which lie some 320 kilometres south of New Zealand. They were discovered in 1806 and soon received visits from sealing parties with whalers following not long after.   As a result of these visits there were a number of shipwrecks on the Auckland Islands, and pigs, goats, sheep and rabbits were released on the various islands to provide food for shipwrecked sailors.   (See also » Enderby Island Rabbits and » Auckland Island Pigs.)

    In 1894 a pastoral lease was taken out and cattle were introduced to Enderby Island. Although the ship's manifest described them as pedigree Shorthorns, there were a lot of black and white animals remaining on the Island when this farming venture was abandoned. This is not too surprising as the term "shorthorn" was used generically at this time to describe many breeds of cattle that were not "longhorns". It may not have referred at all to the breed we call Shorthorns today.

Cloned calf Elsie two weeks old  (Photo from Dave Matheson)
Rare Breeds Society member Dave Matheson (left), AgResearch scientist David Wells, and Auckland A&P Association president Bob Tilsley, shown with cloned calf Elsie two weeks old.

    Almost a hundred years later, in 1990, the surviving cattle were hardy, small and stocky – closely resembling those of the Shetland Islands. They had survived on a diet, scrub, southern rata and seaweed. In April 1991, in an effort to allow the native vegetation and associated fauna of Enderby Island to recover, the New Zealand Department of Conservation sent a party down to shoot all the cattle. Forty-seven animals were destroyed, of which twenty-five were females. Eight hundred straws of semen were collected from sixteen bulls as well as oocytes (immature eggs) from the cows. However, the semen proved to be of poor quality and the oocytes were subsequently not able to be fertilized. It appeared that these unique cattle – which had existed in isolation for almost a century – were now extinct.

    Then in September 1992, two members of the Canterbury Section of the Rare Breeds Conservation Society of New Zealand (Michael Willis and Dave Matheson) found fresh hoofprints of two animals. (This was during an expedition to recover the unique Enderby Island rabbits prior to their extermination on the Island – see » Enderby Island Rabbits.)

Enderby Island clones (Photo by Dave Matheson)

    In February 1993, a small team led by Michael Willis captured 'Lady' – the world's only surviving adult Enderby Island cow – together with her heifer calf, and they were shipped back to New Zealand. After a quarantine period they were both transferred to the Dairy Unit at Massey University, where unfortunately the calf died for no ascertainable reason.

    After several unsuccessful attempts at embryo transplants, Lady was transferred to the Agricultural Research Unit at Ruakura. It was here that the only purebred bull 'Derby' was produced by embryo transplant – the only successful result from thirty-five attempts.

    In a final attempt to save the breed, Dr David Wells cloned Lady in a world first; and a heifer calf 'Elsie' ('LC' for 'Lady Clone') was born in July 1998. Four more heifers were successfully cloned the following year (see photo). All the animals were initially kept at Ruakura for research purposes and in an attempt to get them into calf. However, this scheme was not successful.

    In August 2001 the entire surviving herd – bull Derby, Lady, and three clones (two had died) – were transferred to veterinarian Dr Dave Matheson's property near Christchurch, where further attempts were made to breed from them. In September and October 2002 heifer calves were born to two of the clones, bringing the total number to seven.

Information courtesy Dave Matheson, 2002.
The Rare Breeds Conservation Society acknowledges with gratitude the assistance of the Auckland Royal Easter Show, which has sponsored the Enderby Island Cattle research programme by giving considerable financial support.
   See also:
» Enderby Cattle Today
» Enderby Cattle breed page
» Enderby Cattle Breeding Strategy
» DNA Studies of Rare Breeds  
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