A little known breed of cow on the island is helping to protect the habitat for birds finds Nick Theodoulou. And also provides great meat
Ever heard that Cyprus has its own breed of cattle? It wouldn’t be surprising if you hadn’t because until recently they were verging on extinction. But now, thanks to a handful of dedicated cattle breeders, as well as a governmental subsidy programme, the Cyprus brown cow is making a comeback.
It’s still vastly outnumbered by the black-and-white dairy cattle that gained ascendancy during British colonial times because they produced far more milk. To survive, the Cyprus brown cow has had to reinvent itself. No longer needed as a beast of toil – once its main purpose – it has now found a new role as a sort of landscape gardener. And it’s also prized among those in the know for its fine-tasting beef.
On a stretch of marshland in the Akrotiri peninsula a free-ranging herd of these friendly, inquisitive ‘brown beauties’ – as they are referred to by some admirers – flick out bristly, blue-black tongues and give the hands of anyone in the area, myself included, a rasping lick.
Ensuring their survival is Andreas Christodoulou, one of Cyprus’ few remaining cattle breeders. “This breed was facing extinction; other imported cows began replacing them as the Cyprus cattle became less economically viable,” he explained.
Christodoulou strikes an impressive figure in denim jeans, checkered shirt and a cowboy hat; he wouldn’t look out of place on a Texas cattle ranch. Beaming fondly at his herd, he says, “they’re happier, friendly and less irritable due to the way they’re raised and live – the young drink from the mum and wander free”.
Separated from Lady’s Mile beach by a salt lake, the peaceful Akrotiri marshland has an otherworldly feel, a vast expanse of grassland and reeds, with orange groves and vineyards beyond. Yet it’s just a 15-minute drive from the hustle and bustle of Limassol’s city centre skyscrapers.
Here, instead of the noise of traffic and car horns, you hear only the mooing of contented cows, birdsong and croaking frogs. “I’ve been here since I was a child – nine or ten years old, I’m now about 60,” Christodoulou said.
In the past, he added, the Cyprus cattle constituted much of the muscle behind laborious agricultural work, dragging ploughs and tilling the soil. As mechanisation gathered pace, they became increasingly irrelevant. With less reason for them to be bred, their population plummeted.
That’s now changing, thanks to a recently formed association of the Cyprus cattle breeders which, with the assistance of various government departments and NGOs, now has 22 members with about 1,000 cows. Four of the breeders are in Akrotiri.
Its chestnut brown colour aside, the Cyprus cattle have other distinctive features, such as a whiter tone around the nose and mouth. Christodoulou said there are differences, however, between the cows of the various breeders within the organisation. Those bred in Skouriotissa, for instance, tend to be taller.
Think cows in Cyprus and the image likely conjured up in your mind is of black and white cows penned in and huddled together baking in the heat. If the questionable conditions they’re kept in don’t make you feel uneasy, then the stench from the farm likely will.
But at Akrotiri marsh you feel fresh, and the cows do too – even the manure blending into an earthy smell.
Out here on the Akrotiri marsh the Cyprus cattle have been given a new lease of life, reinventing themselves and securing a niche in the labour market: these beasts of burden have become landscapers.
As Phoebe Vayanou from BirdLife explained, the Cyprus cattle are excellent grazing animals, used in Akrotiri for reed management and habitat restoration. A project was launched in 2015 to create a mosaic of habitats and increase species diversity while improving conditions for priority breeding bird species in Akrotiri marsh.
“By opening up the reed-bed, more space for grazing will also be provided and therefore opportunities for livestock keeping will increase, a traditional activity at the site. Grazing is a key sustainable management action that will also contribute to longer-term reed management,” she explained.
Since they’re not used for dairy or for their muscle, the xerothermic Mediterranean cow is considered the ideal candidate to clear the reeds. A job they alone could do in Cyprus? “Well unless you have some water buffalo then no,” Vayanou joked.
That leaves the third reason cattle are bred: their meat.
“These Cyprus cows have meat that tastes five times better but there’s still not that understanding in the market, some butchers will sell it along with the rest of the beef,” Christodoulou said.
And butchers really should differentiate between cattle breeds because there is a major difference in the meat. “The cows here are raised with their mothers, they get the mother’s milk and roam free, then about three to four months before they’re slaughtered we switch their diet from the greens – say, grass – to grains,” he explained, emphasising that they don’t use antibiotics.
But Christodoulou said he doesn’t sell the meat to shops but instead to customers who come to him directly.
Vayanou said efforts are underway to raise awareness of the premium product that is Cyprus cattle meat so the sector can become more economically viable.
And while the cows on Akrotiri marsh make an impressive site, they are not only to be found here. “These cows could do well wherever in Cyprus, but of course here they do exceptionally well – this whole area was covered in reeds until they chomped it down,” Christodoulou said, spanning the horizon with both hands outstretched.
But if the survival of the breed is linked to continued human interest in keeping them around, what does their future look like?
“If you don’t like animals then you’re never gonna get it, I’ve got three sons but none has expressed any interest – they never come down this way.
“Now, sure, someone will ask me ‘so you like animals but then you slaughter them for meat?’ and I say that if some aren’t slaughtered then the others won’t survive as it won’t be viable for us to breed them,” he explained.
“If I had the black and white cows I’d be getting money from both the milk and the meat, right now with the Cyprus cattle it’s money from the meat and the government subsidy,” he explained.
So what’s the money like?
“If this was my only income then my wife would have kicked me out a while ago, so no – none of us can survive on this alone,” he joked.
Other breeders also have a range of other incomes – one is a community leader, another owns a slaughterhouse, another is in the building industry, and so on.
The lack of wider recognition of the breed in Cyprus leaves many questions unresolved: just how distinct is this breed from neighbouring populations, say in Egypt or Syria – and how long have they been here, hundreds of years, or thousands?
Are they as Cypriot as the Cyprus donkey?
Ouranios Tzamaloukas from Eratosthenis Center of Excellence at the Cyprus University of Technology is working alongside the Cyprus Environment Foundation to answer those questions but merely said more precise results are expected within a year.
But the Cyprus Environment Foundation said the cows are an indigenous Cyprus cattle breed which is an endangered species, adding that they are the only local cattle breed that evolved and adapted to local environment for thousands of years.
They said the absence of appropriate research regarding the Cyprus cattle breed led to the absence of acknowledgment by the public regarding the value of this animal and its high-quality products as a unique, environmentally-friendly, low-input and well adapted to local extensive farming practices, consequently driving the future of indigenous Cyprus cattle to extinction.
With over 1,000 recognised breeds of cattle worldwide, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the Cyprus cattle may just earn a place on that list.
For those interested in checking out the area for themselves (I got hopelessly lost): if Malcom’s Cats sanctuary is on your left, after having taking the turning off the main road, continue on the tarmac road until there’s a fork – take a right and continue on the tarmac road – ignore the misleading dirt path.
You’ll soon see the start of the reedy marshland, with a signpost with a map of the area to the left of the road – keep going another fifty metres or so and you’re there.