Bendoc is a border town in the Far East Gippsland ranges of Victoria, ‘south-of-the-border’ sister to Delegate, NSW. There is still a sign on the Gap Road that says ‘Population 53’, but, according to more recent records (http://www.theage.com.au/news, 2005), there are thirty people in the town with 600 in the wider area. Nevertheless, whichever way you look at it, Bendoc is certainly not a bustling metropolis. Wagra was the early name of Bendoc. According to local folklore, it was also the name of the wind that blows through the Cottonwood Range, the warning for the local aborigines to head down towards the coast before the snows. That wind can be heard roaring well before any movement is visible. An alternative meaning of Wagra is said to be ‘black eyed crow’. Whatever the literal translation, Wagra is the name chosen by Graham and Margaret for their farm.
Graham has been the publican at Bendoc since 1987, and has had the Post Office almost as long. Even though he had no large-animal or farming experience prior to the venture into Dexter cattle, he is the brawn behind all the heavy work associated with farm fencing, buildings, and machinery. Margaret provides assistance, researches history and pedigrees, disbuds the calves, and AIs the cows when outside bloodlines are required.
Margaret first developed an interest in Dexter cattle after reading a reference made to them by Bill Mollison in a Permaculture magazine in about 1980. Ten years later interest was renewed, instigated by a conversation with friends. After further research, Graham and Margaret purchased two Grade 1 cows and became members of what was then called the Australasian Dexter Association. Their names are on the Welcome New Members list in the association bulletin of December 1990. Three Grade 2 cows were bought in 1991, with unregistered ‘commercial’ crossbred calves being bred for the next few years. Finally, in 1994, with the purchase of the dun bull, Bindalee Celtic Chieftain, Graham and Margaret became seriously dedicated and obsessed breeders.
Margaret’s family grew up surrounded by livestock; horses, house-cows, goats, and poultry; so the venture into Dexter cattle was viewed as unremarkable at the time.They were all busy working hard to establish their careers and only came home for holidays; and continue to work hard balancing happy family lives and highly successful, heavily-scheduled professions and/or businesses. However, after they had children of their own, they became more aware of natural nutrition; so the family Dexters have taken on a entirely new role of importance: providing naturally grown meat, free of growth-promotant hormones, with better quality and flavour than the shop-bought alternatives. The family has now become interested and involved in all aspects of the health, well-being and breeding policies regarding the Dexter cattle herd.
It is the grandchildren who have truly inherited the passion; particularly Caitlin and Maddy, cousins, shown in the photo (Caitlin left, Maddy right). Caitlin, who is actually a ballet dancer and athlete, took on Agricultural Studies including Cattle Handling when she started high school. She was chosen to represent the school at the agricultural shows; and on 18 February, 2012, she won Champion YR 9 Parader and Supreme Champion School Parader at the Gundagai Show, parading an 11 m/o commercial cross-bred steer. Still to come are the Canberra, Tumut and Adelong Shows. Maddy, for most of her life, had big plans for her parents to move house back to Bendoc in her desperate need to be close to the Dexters. In her ‘other life’, at home with her parents, she is a horse-rider and spends much of her time at the local indoor riding school, or going on long rides with her friends on the outskirts of Canberra. Whatever she does, wherever she goes, she has a natural animal rapport and the calm self-confidence required for successful stock handling. Much of the yard work on Wagra is held over for school holidays when the girls are available to give a willing hand.
History of the Wagra Herd
Authored by Margaret
Dedicated to Mrs Beryl Rutherford 13/06/1924 – 29/12/2009.
Bindalee Celtic Chieftain:
The first imported Dexter embryo born in Australia.
The first Dexter bull at Wagra was the dun Bindalee Celtic Chieftain. He was also the first imported Dexter embryo born in Australia, bred from the Woodmagic/Doesmead cattle imported into Canada from UK. His original owners were Dr Ron and Mrs Ellyn Howes, previously of Bindalee Dexter Stud, Wagga Wagga, to whom we will always be grateful, for their support, hospitality and generosity over many years.
We used three more Bindalee bulls during the 8 years that we owned Chieftain. Firstly we leased the Kahoka Dunbuster bull, Harefield Hadlee, for one season. Then we bought Rebel Richo by Dorthealyst Finalist, and finally the split embryo twin Tweedledee by Dorthealyst Linton. We also purchased several full-blood Bindalee cows during those years. With Ellyn we arranged collection and importation of semen from Woodmagic Hedgehog 3rd.
Woodmagic Hedgehog 3rd & Mrs Beryl Rutherford:
An inexhaustible source of history and wisdom.
Hedgehog was bred and owned by Mrs Beryl Rutherford (author of My Love Affair With The Dexter) and was at that time the senior sire at her Woodmagic Dexter Stud in UK. The first Australian Woodmagic Hedgehog 3rd calves were born in 2001 and they were all that we expected they would be. Beryl had been selecting her bulls on the basis of the qualities of their female relatives for about 50 years by that time so we are privileged to have been able to take a short-cut to the type, size and quality we were trying to achieve.
Beryl became a very good friend and we were in constant contact. She was an inexhaustible source of history, information and wisdom, absolutely dedicated to the conservation of what she called the medium-leg Dexter, the stocky, small Dexter, which she believed to be the original type, prior to the introduction of the dwarfing gene, chondrodysplasia. Born in London, 1924, Beryl passed away in Devon on the 29th December, 2009, at the age of 85.
Bindalee devastated by drought:
Despite adversity, the bloodline lives on.
In the grip of devastating drought, Ron and Ellyn made the decision in 2003 to retire and sell the farm, and we decided to buy as many of their cows as we could. Eventually more Bindalee cows then left their birthplace in the Riverina and travelled east for six hours, over the Snowy Mountains Range and south to their new home in Bendoc, bringing the total to fourteen Bindalee cows at Wagra. We had to sell some of our home-bred cows, quite a wrench after generations of upgrading, but necessary to give the full-blood cows the space and fodder they required. The imported matriarch, Stormie, had been buried at Bindalee but we had three of her beautiful daughters here with us, and at the time of writing we have 42 descendants from Stormie at Wagra.
Although Wagra cattle are basically Woodmagic breeding, other lines are also used. After several intervening generations, causing a deviation from our desired type, we line-breed back to Woodmagic Hedgehog 3rd using sons and grandsons, apart from which we like to breed at least a couple of Hedgehog calves every year.
The farm has been running at full capacity for years, so replacement selection is stringent. The calves that are weaned each year will fit into one of three categories: A few will be retained as replacement heifers and bulls; several will be available as stud stock for sale; and some will be used as meat stock. We do not milk our cows but selection for ‘dual-purpose’ is attained by selecting, as bull-mothers, those cows which fatten the best weaners while holding some condition on their own backs. In Dexter terms the best weaners are not necessarily the biggest, but those calves which are in the best meat condition at 9 to 10 months of age.
Molecular Value Predictions (MVPs) are considered when selecting sires, but not to the extent that Dexter height and type is compromised. There have not been enough Dexter cattle tested yet to indicate whether there are any extremely outstanding families from GeneSTAR point of view, but even if there were, it would not be worth risking the loss of any valuable ancient genes for the sake of meat attributes, especially as all Dexter meat is so very good anyway. Disease resistance/immunity is a quality that is not yet tested, but anecdotal evidence from the UK indicates the possibility that Dexters may have resistance to some diseases. Genetics will eventually explain why our Dexter cattle are such fantastic little animals. Meanwhile we do not need genetics to tell us that they are well worth conserving just the way evolution made them. We maintain a zero-chondrodysplasia and zero-PHA policy for our Dexter cattle, but respect that both types of Dexters have equal merit.
History of the Dexter Breed
Dexter cattle originated in the south-west of Ireland where, for centuries, small cattle of Dexter type were the preferred livestock of the peasants and smallholders. The creamy milk and high-quality meat, along with their predominantly calm nature and strength as plough-animals and beasts of burden, made them the ultimate multi-purpose cow; while the diminutive size of the Dexter cattle made them ideal for the small acreages and restricted grazing areas.
Even though the Dexter has since been declared a unique breed, certain dictionaries still define the Dexter as ‘a small breed of Kerry cattle’ (Collins 21st Century Dictionary). We know they evolved within and alongside the Kerry herds, with both breeds stemming from the same ancient breed. We also know that what we now call Dexter cattle pre-date herd-books and pedigree breeding to a time when cattle were bred by natural selection for survival and by peasant selection for cottagers’ requirements. Yet it is apparent that nobody knows the full truths of the Dexter history. There is the strong probability that Dexter cattle, although nameless at the time, date back to when herd-records (if any) would have been no more than perhaps notches on a stone. The remains of Dexter-sized cattle have been found at Stonehenge, and were dated back to the Iron Age.
Curiosities for the English Gentry gained world-wide popularity
Written references to ‘Dexters’ by name date back to the 1800s. In 1845, it was reported that the manager of Lord Hawarden’s estate on Valentia Island, County Kerry, had developed a “curious” strain based on the local mountain cattle. That manager was apparently Mr. Dexter. This raises the question, however, based on the bones of Stonehenge and references (by description, not name) from several significantly earlier sources, did Mr. Dexter develop the strain, or had he merely stumbled across a strain that had been around the British Isles for millennia? It is a contentious question, and may never be answered.
” In view of the foregoing it is difficult to accept that a Mr. Dexter evolved in Co. Kerry, and launched in 30 years or so a breed of cattle which has spread to many countries and whose characteristics have persisted and are clearly recognisable. The significance of Mendel’s discovery on genetics, and the fate of other small breeds whose names are rarely heard today increase one’s doubts and curiosity regarding the real background of the breed.” [Mrs. D.M.Whelehan, of Transvaal, South Africa from The Dexter Bulletin Dexter Cattle Society (UK) April 1970]
In 1882, it is reported, Dexter cattle were bought by the English gentry as mere “curiosities” yet the breed’s popularity as being ‘attractive and practical’ spread through Britain and abroad. The first recorded exportations to America were made from 1905 to 1915 (with later exportations to Argentina, Australia, Canada, Europe, and South Africa).
At that stage, Dexters were still considered to be a smaller version of the Kerry, so both were lumped together as one breed in cattle societies, herd books and registries. It was 1919 before the two breeds were recognised to be separate types, and deserving of separate registries. By 1925 there were more than 1100 registered cows in Britain, across almost 70 herds
A world in crisis sees the Dexter cattle breed heading for extinction
During the 1930s and 1940s, while the world concentrated on wars, very few breeders were concentrating on the “curious”, hardy little worker from Ireland. Numbers world-wide were depleted. And, when the war was over, it seems they had either forgotten about the Dexter, or perhaps they saw “bigger” as being “faster” in returns. Whatever the reason, Dexter numbers continued to fall, while the larger breeds thrived. In the 1970s, the Dexter was listed by the Rare Breeds Trust. It was heading towards the threat of extinction.
Dexter Promotion Groups determined to help conserve the breed
The realisation of the threat to the Dexter prompted a steadily growing number of people across the world to dedicate their time and efforts into the conservation of the breed. Ongoing scientific studies and research continue to ensure the conservation of Dexters for future generations, as does international marketing of genetic material such as semen and embryos for transfer.
Earlier Australian Dexters had long since faded away, so there were no Dexters in Australia until the early 1980s when the first crosses were being born. Since then, much time and effort has gone into upgrading from foundation cows of other breeds, mainly Jersey and Angus. (4th cross cows and 5th cross bulls are considered pure-bred). At the same time, Dexter cows, bulls and embryos were being imported by dedicated breeders. Only a handful arrived from UK before quarantine closed that door, but quite a few arrived from Canada & USA. Many of the imported cows were used to produce embryos, so expanding the national purebred base considerably.
In a shared interest, groups have been formed across Australia and around the world to promote the Dexter, to ensure this hardy little breed never again comes under threat. To do so, we are determined to prove that the Dexter is far more than just a cute face; the by-products of Dexter cattle (milk, meat etc) are equal-to-better than the commonly accepted ‘best breeds’ in each. Moreover, they are the practical and economical livestock choice for the smallholder, and make the ideal house-cow for the cottage farmer.
Tragically, in the wild-fires of 2019-2020, some members of the South-east NSW Promotion Group (of which Wagra was a member) suffered devastating losses of life and property. The group has never recovered.