Posts Tagged ‘feral livestock’

Florida Cracker Cattle (Bos taurus)

May 23, 2018

Even if there were no historical accounts, modern scientists could determine when European livestock were introduced to the Americas.  Scientists can take cores of sediment, radio-carbon date it, and measure the amount of sporomiella in each dated layer.  Sporomiella is a dung fungus spore found in the excrement of large mammals and is used as a proxy to estimate megafauna populations.  Scientists know when Pleistocene megafauna populations collapsed in some regions based on the amount of sporomiella in sediment, and they also can determine when European livestock were introduced using the same method.  Following the introduction of cows, horses, and pigs; the amount of sporormiella in the environment spiked to levels often equivalent to those of the pre-late Pleistocene extinctions.

Introduced livestock frequently outlasted the initial expeditions that brought them.  Early Spanish explorers of the 16th and 17th centuries perished with regularity in the harsh New World environments, so far from their accustomed European civilization, and some were massacred by Indians, but the cattle, pigs, and horses they brought with them ran wild.  The Europeans and their livestock carried contagious infections that decimated Indian populations with primitive immune systems as well, and feral livestock thrived in environments with low numbers of people.  The husbandry practices of early European settlers facilitated the increase of feral livestock populations.  Busy missionaries and homesteaders let their animals forage in the woods and fields, and the beasts often escaped and joined their free cousins.  Local environmental conditions shaped the evolution of feral livestock, weeding out those not adapted to living wild under each region’s unique conditions.  New breeds were born.

The Florida cracker cattle, also known as the piney woods cattle, rapidly evolved to thrive in the open pine savannahs of Florida and south Georgia.  They are related to the better known Texas longhorn cattle and also descend from cattle brought by the earliest of Spanish explorers.  They were already adapted to the warm climate of Spain, but in Florida the breed evolved tolerance for the humidity and local parasites. The tough cattle readily produced many calves on the low quality grasslands of the region, and their ferocity helped them fend off cougars, wolves, and bears.   Florida cracker cattle may be the “buffalo” that William Oglethorpe, the man who founded the state of Georgia, hunted during the early 18th century.  Colonial Europeans used the term “buffalo” interchangeably for both bison and feral cattle.  William Bartram saw great mixed herds of Florida cracker cattle, horses, and deer when he traveled through Florida in 1776.

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Florida cracker cattle.  They are small–bulls weigh between 800 pounds to 1200 pounds.  Most are brown or partly brown and white but they come in a variety of coat colors.  The name cracker comes from the British settlers, known as crackers, because they cracked whips when they drove livestock on the road.

Florida cracker cattle were the best breed of cattle able to survive in the deep south until Brahman bulls from India were introduced during the 1930s.  Then, scientists invented antibiotics and medicines to treat parasites, and farmers were able to raise more productive breeds of cattle which they crossbred with the native cattle.  The Florida state legislature passed a law in 1949 outlawing free ranging cattle because farmers wanted to prevent the transmission of diseases from wild cattle to their preferred domestic breeds.  The Florida cracker cattle population plummeted.  Now, there is an effort to save the breed.  38 people still raise Florida cracker cattle, and herds are maintained at the Tallahassee Agricultural Complex, Withlacoochee State Park, Lake Kissimmee State Park, Payne’s Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, and Dudley Farm.  Customers who like free-roaming grass fed beef pay top dollar for meat butchered from the breed.