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Dun Dexters in History

Dun Dexters in History

Illustration from Book of Kells

      The Celtic cattle from which Dexters developed were venerated in Ireland from as early as the Neolithic ‘Stone Age’. The illustration opposite is from one of the earliest known Irish manuscripts, the Book of Kells, dating from around AD 800; the ‘Divine Bull’ pictured displays the black-tipped, white horns so characteristic of Dexters today. Celtic design by Howard Oliver (It has been estimated that some 200 cattle were slaughtered to provide the vellum for this manuscript ‘book’.)

      An even earlier Irish manuscript, however, was Leabhar na h-Uidhre – the ‘Book of the Dun Cow’ – which was treated as a holy relic because the vellum on which it was written was said to be made from the hide of a pet, dun-coloured cow which belonged to St Ciaran, who lived around AD 512 to AD 545. Dun cows of Celtic origin have been around for a long time.

1830s illustration of a Dexter/Kerry cow by William Shiels

      And brown cows appear in the very earliest of the ‘modern’ descriptions and illustrations of Dexters in Ireland. The dun cow shown here was painted for David Low by William Shiels in the 1830s, to represent Irish Dexter/Kerry cattle when they were still regarded as one breed. David Low wrote in 1845, “...they are of various colours, as black, brown, and mixed black and white, or black and brown.”

      Dexters were recognized as a separate breed in the 1870s, but it was not until comparatively recently that dun was accepted as a genuine Dexter colour in Great Britain and even more recently in North America. In New Zealand, Dexters were first imported in 1904, but these were only black and red in colour and there is no record of any dun progeny being produced. The breed appears to have been lost here after a few years but was reintroduced in 1979. The first purebred dun to be bred in this country was registered in 1996.

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