The Red Devon is one of the oldest beef breeds in existence today. No one is sure when the Devon established itself as a distinct breed. They could be descendants of the Neolithic Longefrons, or the Urus which followed the Anglo Saxon Conquest. There is a chance that the beef breeders of ancient times were just as keen on continental imports as many beef breeders are today. There is for instance a marked similarity between the Devon and French Saler.
Its distinctly possible that the Devons tropical survival kit is an inherent characteristic dating back to the time when the Phoenicians came to South West England for tin. Red cattle from North Africa could have been among the goods they bought to barter for the precious metal which is still mined in Cornwall. Early Historians talk about the heavy red draft oxen the Romans used during the invasion for road building. This could explain the fact that while the Devon is wonderfully resistant to the snow, cold and wet of winter, the breed is virtually indifferent to the extremes of heat. With hundreds of years of development the Devon is a genetic history book in itself.
The Devon is not a historic curiosity, it’s a practical weather-proof animal requiring the minimum of husbandry and capable of earning its living in distinctly inhospitable surroundings. Believed to have been the first purebred British cattle in America, it is an established fact that the red cattle from Devon were taken to America by the Pilgrim Fathers. In 1623 the sailing ship, Charity, brought one bull and three heifers to Edward Winslow, the agent for Plymouth colony. In the new colony they supplied meat, milk and muscle power.
The Quartely family of Devon established their version of the breed between 1793 and 1823, but before that the family had been busy with the “Red Rubies”; from the mid 18th century onwards. There was a set back during the Napoleonic Wars. Breeding stock was sold to victual H. M. ships of Devonport dockyard and this prompted Francis Quartely to redouble his efforts to save the best cattle.
In 1797-98 the Devon cattle were first performance tested on the estate of the Duke of Bedford against Sussex, Hereford and Leicester cattle. This test was claimed to be proof that when the cost of production is taken into account the Devons had a better yieild in return for feed consumed. Nearly two centuries later this is still relevant with the field of breeds much wider.
The features prominent in selection criteria in those early days were good muscle development, docile temperament and ability to thrive under adverse conditions. The success of this selection has been the foundation of the cattle we are farming today and trials continue to show they are one of the most efficient and early maturing breeds available.