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The Shorthorn breed of cattle, which we know today, has evolved over the last two centuries, from Teeswater and Durham cattle found originally in the North East of England.

In the late 18th Century two brothers, Charles and Robert Colling started to improve these Durham cattle using line breeding techniques established so successfully by Robert Bakewell on Longhorn cattle. In 1783 Charles Colling found four particular cows recorded as Duchess, Cherry, Strawberry, and Old Favourite among others, and at the same time his brother Robert had noticed the superiority of calves in the local market bred from a bull known as Hubback, which he subsequently bought for £8.

It was a combination of these bloodlines, which led to the birth of the bull Comet bred by Charles Colling in 1804, and later sold at the Ketton sale in 1810 for 1,000gns. This was the first 1,000 guinea bull ever recorded, but the wisdom of this bid was later to be justified by his progeny and he has since become a legend in cattle breeding.

Other outstanding breeders at this time, Thomas Bates of Kirklevington, and John Booth of Killesby were developing the Teeswater cattle, and their names and fame live on today. The Bates strains were subsequently developed for their milking qualities, whereas the Booth families were developed for their beef qualities. Both were convinced of the value of inbreeding or line breeding to a degree previously considered unacceptable in cattle breeding.

In 1822, Mr George Coates published the first Herd Book containing 710 bulls and 850 cows, and Coates's Herd Book became the first pedigree herd book for cattle in the world. The first four volumes were published by Mr Coates, after which Mr Henry Stafford took over the ownership and publishing of the Herd Book, which retained the name "Coates's Herd Book." After the formation of the Shorthorn Society of Great Britain and Ireland, in 1874, the Shorthorn Society purchased the copyright of the Herd Book from Mr Strafford, and they have continued to compile and publish Coates's Herd Book ever since.

The breed was used in the early part of the 20th Century, primarily as a dual purpose breed, but specialisation for beef and milk led to the beef breeders starting their own section of the herdbook in 1958. Since that time the Beef Shorthorns have been developed as a separate breed, and in 1976 in an effort to improve the muscling in the breed, the Directors of the Beef Shorthorn Cattle Society sanctioned the use of Maine-Anjou blood into the breed. The Herd Book was then closed again to outside blood in 2001, except by introduction through the Grading Register.

The dairy breeders also sought to improve the dairyness of their animals, and a blending scheme to introduce outside blood from other breeds was introduced in 1970. Some breeders did not wish to participate in this scheme, and so there is now quite a diversity of type within the Shorthorn breed. This diversity of type means that the Shorthorn can be used in a variety of different systems. In Ireland, the majority of Shorthorns are used for their suckler/beef capabilities, whereas in the UK the milking qualities of the breed have been developed.

The importance of the Shorthorn breed in the development of other cattle breeds is enormous, and Shorthorn genetics have been used worldwide in the development of over 40 different breeds. The breed has a very long and distinguished history, and developments on both the beef and dairy sides have ensured that the breed also has a very bright future.