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Once rarer than the giant panda, hardy 'Irish Moiled' cattle thrive

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Rare breed: Christopher and Helen Kelly of Lough Bishop House B&B with their Irish Moiled cattle

Rare breed: Christopher and Helen Kelly of Lough Bishop House B&B with their Irish Moiled cattle

Rare breed: Christopher and Helen Kelly of Lough Bishop House B&B with their Irish Moiled cattle

It was the thrifty cow that so enamoured invading Vikings 1,000 years ago that they pillaged them from Irish hillsides to bring home to Scandinavia to improve their own cattle breeds.

As recently as the 1950s, Irish Moiled cattle, an ancient dual-purpose breed that supplied abundant milk and good beef, was a favourite of small farmers eking out a living on the worst land - especially in Ulster and north-west Connacht. But by 1979, our native breed of Irish Moiled was rarer than the tiger, giant panda, mountain gorilla or any of the 10 most endangered species worldwide.

Just 30 cows and two bulls remained in 1979, the breed kept alive by two Northern farmers. 'Moiles' - as they are affectionately known - were on the verge of extinction.

Now 30 years later, the Moiles are back, still officially a rare breed, but with a growing band of aficionados who appreciate their frugal charms: the ability to thrive on slim pickings, ease of calving and what some consider to be the best marbled beef you can eat.

And they don't grow horns - another big advantage. In fact the name "Moile" comes from the Irish word "Maol" relating to the distinctive dome on the top of the head.

Prince Charles is a fan and put up his own money to support a rare breeds' initiative that included buying Irish Moiled cattle for his farm. The UK's best known TV farmer, Adam Henson of BBC's Countryfile, also keeps Moiles.

In a further boost, Irish Moiled cattle will now be included for grants under the new "Glas" EU-funded agricultural environment scheme.

"It's a great initiative," said Helen Kelly, who along with husband Christopher keeps a suckler herd of 14 Moiles as part of their highly rated farmhouse B&B, Lough Bishop House in Derrynagarra in Co Westmeath. "We have Irish Moiled beef on our menu for visitors. The beef is marbled and tastes wonderful. We love the Moiles, they are so easy to rear, good-natured animals. A lot of our guests come here just to see the animals."

Fingal County Council also own some Moiled cattle, which are kept at Newbridge House and Estate in Donabate, North Dublin.

A study carried out on the shores of Lough Neagh by researcher Aine O'Reilly found the versatile and hardy Moiles managed to control the spread of soft rush (Juncus effusus) a problem weed in wet pastures. Other breeds of cattle won't eat rushes.

The Moiles could be the perfect beast for the age of austerity.

Sunday Independent