THE EARLY YEARS: The South Devon of today originated in South West England, in an area of Devon known as the South Hams from where they spread right across the counties of Devon and Cornwall. Their predecessors were taken from the port of Plymouth to the North American colonies in considerable numbers, including a few on the Mayflower in 1620, and during the Napoleonic wars they supplied the needs of the Royal Navy. The main expansion of the Breed across the whole of the country did not happen until the 20th century.
THE BREED IN THE 19th CENTURY: The South Devon had established as a Breed by the year 1800. With a light red coat, they were powerfully built and supplied rich milk and good beef, finely grained and marbled, and were relied upon to pull ploughshares until well into the 19th century. During the middle years of that century careful selection of breeding stock improved the Breed considerably. The South Devon Herd Book Society was founded in 1891 when it was recognised by the Government as an official body, and the South Devons become one of the 14 breeds of cattle whose Herd Books date back to the second half of the 19th century.
THE BREED IN THE 20th CENTURY: During the early years of the 20th century the Breed was considered as triple purpose – for the production of beef, milk and butterfat. Many exports helped support the South Devon farmers’ income at this time, with cattle regularly being purchased for the overseas markets at Society sales.
By the 1960s the gradual progression towards a specialist beef breed began when a beef recording scheme started for South Devons, whose successor, BLUP, is applied today by Breedplan. In the early 1970s a beef boom in the UK saw an increase in demand for South Devon cattle in the regions outside Devon and Cornwall, some 5,000 head of cattle being taken each year for finishing to other parts of the country. This led to a demand for breeding stock as well. Exports also increased to a high, with 170 bulls being exported to Canada alone, followed by 90 to South Africa and 150 to the USA. They quickly showed themselves able to adapt to extremes of temperature.
A book is available to purchase from the SDHBS in soft or hard back which contains more detailed information and photographs about the history of the breed.
A two-volume book filled with graphics and history entitled ‘South Devons in their Verdant Pastures’ was published by Society member Mr Colin Pearse in 2019 and is available to purchase from the Society.