An Bó Riabhach are a breed of bovine native to the Emerald Isles and on the verge of extinction, with only an estimated 30 specimens remaining in existence.
With references dating back to the Early Medieval period, the Bó Riabhach breed can lay the claim of being one of Ireland’s oldest surviving breeds and now the rarest. It gains its name ‘Bó Riabhach’ due to its unique brindled coloured coat, with riabhach translated from Old Irish as brindled, streaked or striped. In fact, Bí Riabhach translates from Irish into English as “The Brindled Cow”. Riabhach also has other meanings, such dull and drab.
Mentions in Irish Folklore -
There have been numerous mentions of an Bó Riabhach or the brindled cow in Irish folklore throughout the years. In Irish folklore when harsh weather conditions continued from March into April, it was said that March borrowed days from the month of April. This story was illustrated in the popular Irish tale, An tSean-Bó Riabhach.
As the story goes, an old brindle cow begins boasting that not even the harsh weather of March could kill her. This angered the month of March, who in turn, borrowed three days off the month of April. Further harsh weather ensued, leading to the death and skinning of the brindle cow. There are many, very similar, variations of this story circulating, with only slight differences.
Between 1937 and 1938 over 100,000 schoolchildren gathered stories from some of their older relatives and neighbours, recounting the myth behind the An Bó Riabhach breed. Check out some of the entries, now held in the Folklore collection of UCD, below!
- The Seanriabhach - There was once an old speckled cow, the winter came cold and wet, but it did not kill the cow. The owner thought that she would live for another year, but March made a bet that it would kill the brindle cow. March came and went and still she was alive. So it had to borrow 10 days from April to kill the cow. Before the end of the 10 days the cow died. Since then the first ten days of April are known as “The Sean riabhac” - Told by Eamon O’Brien, Hussystown, Co.Tipperary. Ballingeary N.S., Co. Tipperary.
- Skinning The Old Cow - The first ten days of April are generally bad, wild and harsh like March. There was once a widow who had one cow. She was very old but managed to survive all winter and give a little milk to the poor widow. When March set in she got sick. The widow felt that if March and gone and April set in that her cow would live. On the 31st of March the cow was alive and the widows hope’s were high. But March borrowed twelve days from April. On the 12th day the cow had died. Told by Ellen Barry, Roachestown, Co. Kilkenny. Aged 86. Ringville N.S., Slieverue, Co. Kilkenny.
- The Old Cow Days - One year March came very cold and there was hardly anything to eat for animals. Then last days of March came and this old cow said “March is over now and I will have plenty to eat”. “I will let you know” said March. The March borrowed three days from April. The first day of April was very cold and the old cow was very hungry. She was dead on the second day and she was buried on the third. The first three days of April are called “The Old Cow Days” since that. Informant unknown - Garra N.S., Co. Galway.
That’sFarming’s spoke to one of the country's only Bó Riabhach breeders, Darren McLoughlin, who informed us of the stories connected to the animal. Darren was previously featured on That'sFarming and you can read Darren’s profile in full here.
"The brindle cow complained to the month of March about the harshness of the weather so the month of March borrowed a few days from the month of April continuing the harsh weather and killing the brindle cow". Darren explained.
The Irish Rare Breeds Society are currently doing all they can to promote a breed which they say is on “borrowed days”, with only thirty animals remaining. There are only a handful of breeders remaining to this day. The thirty remaining identified specimens, Darren admits, are low-scoring. He also explained that there is one only breeding bull remaining in existence.
"Some of them are very low-scoring too. We are still waiting on a lot of results from the geneticist at the minute to confirm these things." Archaeologist Darren explained to Kevin of That'sFarming.
Darren's interest in the breed came through his passion for his archaeological profession. The farmer, who also breeds rare Droimean cattle, subsequently purchased his first Bó Riabhach cow from Longford farmer, Noel Kiernan, which he has been breeding from ever since.
"I have been breeding her since. I have a little heifer and a bull as well." Darren stated.
Mark McConnell, who is the chair of the Irish Rare Breeds Society, says there are only four good quality specimens remaining out of the entire Bó Riabhach population.
“At the moment we have only four good specimens. By good specimens, we mean we have a wee bit of the background history and they have the correct phenotype.” Mark explained.
The team hopes to eventually be able to carry out a comparative DNA analysis at some stage, where they will compare the DNA of different breeds with that of An Bó Riabhach to help determine whether there are any surviving breed which are closely related.
“We would do a comparative analysis with other breeds that look similar, to see if there are any differences.” Mark told That’sFarming.
“We would see the what unique group of genes it has and breed them accordingly.” He continued.
Mark says it is inevitable that some of the DNA will be lost, though noted it is the job of the Irish Rare Breed Society to try and preserve as much of the original genetics as they can.
The country's only remaining breeding bull.
Farmer and archaeologist, Darren McLoughlin’s interest in the breed came through his passion for his archaeological profession. The farmer, who also breeds rare Droimean cattle, subsequently purchased his first Bó Riabhach cow from Longford farmer, Noel Kiernan, which he has been breeding from ever since.
"I have been breeding her since. I have a little heifer and a bull as well." Darren stated.
The brindle markings featured on one of Darren's Bo Riabhach calves.
It is not known the exact origins of the breed, though some historians suggest they may have been brought here by the Vikings, who have records in Ireland as early as 795 AD. Others suggest that they could be related to Icelandic cattle or even Normande cattle, which were again brought here by the Vikings. Either of these theories are yet to be proven, however. Chair of the Irish Rare Breeds Society, Mark McConnell, gave his views on where the breed may have originated.
Mark says DNA testing will show the true origins of the breed and he expects it to show either Brindle Shorthorn or Brindle Kerry genetics.
“We don’t know what the animal is really. I would tend to lean towards a Brindle type Kerry.” He said.
“Any of the literature we have on the Bó Riabhach, doesn’t allude to what type of animal it is or characteristics it had in the past…We are kind of going in blind and don’t even have a good photograph.” Mark added.
Perhaps the most significant feature of Bó Riabhach cattle is the brindle pattern of their coat.
The standard is this unique red/brown colour with the significant brindle pattern. Calves are usually born bright red with a purple crown, tail tip and eyelashes. Some calves are even born with the brindle pattern, though this usually starts developing at four weeks old. It starts developing around the eyes first before the head and face begin to turn darker and brindle patterns begin also showing up on the spine. By 8 months, the brindle pattern should be fully developed.
"The brindle pattern is the main thing, the colour scheme. In reality, there is a lot of Shorthorn breeding in them." Darren McLoughlin explained.
"With traits and things we can't say yet until we increase numbers to the point where you see common traits coming through." he added.
Darren explained to That'sFarming that the traits specific to the breed are as of yet unknown, due to a lack of completed genetic testing and because the surviving Bo Riabhach are not purebred. He did though, hypothesize that the breed may have been originally kept as dual-purpose animals, as they are both beefy and produce good quantities of milk for their young.
A picture of the Brindle markings of An Bó Riabhach cattle.
Conservation and the future of the breed -
The group of breeders and the Irish Rare Breed Society are doing all they can to save the Bó Riabhach breed from extinction and since July of this year, a further 15 animals have been identified.
Historically, the survival of the breed is down to the small handful of 4-5 breeders who worked tirelessly throughout the 70’s to save the breed. These include Gillian Smith, Robert Boyle, Willie McCarthy and Noel Kiernan. They were joined in recent years by more breeders, such as Darren McLoughlin, Liam Byrne, Michael O’Halloran, John Pat Long, Shane Daly and another breeder in Donegal.
“It was all down to a small handful of breeders…They reared animals amongst each other and fair play to them.” Mark said.
Mark, chair of the Irish Rare Breeds society, says they have previously applied to the department for funding for the flushing of their current stock, though received no answer.
“It came to €14,330 at the time and we never heard anything back from them.” He said.
Bó Riabhach breeder Darren McLoughlin says this would enable them to increase numbers in a better way.
"At least then we could increase the numbers better that way. I really don't think the breed is going to survive if we keep breeding conventionally," stressed farmer Darren Mc Loughlin.
The team hope to eventually be able to carry out a comparative DNA analysis at some stage, where they will compare the DNA of different breeds with that of An Bó Riabhach to help determine whether there are any surviving breed which are closely related.
“We would do a comparative analysis with other breeds that look similar, to see if there are any differences.” Mark O'Connell told That’sFarming.
“We would see the what unique group of genes it has and breed then accordingly.” He continued.
Mark says it is inevitable that some of the DNA will be lost, though noted it is the job of the Irish Rare Breed Society to try an preserve as much of the original genetics as they can.
Have you any Bó Riabhach cattle? Or do you know a farmer who does? If so, the Irish Rare Breeds Society want you to contact them! Anyone with any information on the breed is urged to contact 0857210439 or the Irish Rare Breeds Society on Facebook here.
"Get in contact with myself if somebody has a primitive type animal." Darren said.
"Anything that looks primitive and the genetics come back unknown then we are interested in it." Darren concluded.
Due to the potential links with the Normande and other breeds featuring the brindling markings, the Irish Rare Breeds society are also urging any Normande, Aubrac, Paranthenaise, Piedmontese. breeders in the country to contact them. They aim to carry out a comparative analysis on the breeds against the Bó Riabhach, thanks to funding from the Department of Agriculture.
“Any of them animals that have the brindling type gene…We will then do a comparative analysis with those against the Bó Riabhach that we have and see then from there.” Chair Mark McConnell concluded.
Pictures - Irish Rare Breeds Society.
Note - All information on the breed on the Bó Riabhach breed was obtained via the Irish Rare Breeds society.