Animal elegance: Minhoto cattle

Tuesday, June 7, 2016, 22:01

Minhoto cow near Val de Poldros

Now how do you like those horns? Aren't they wonderful? They are the very shape of Orpheus' lyre but even though they make no music, they charm. Nature unaided provides such pleasing shapes!

Minhoto cattle have long been integral to the economy of the far north. To read about the cattle and the love and respect the farmers in the Minho have shown their animals, click here.

Minhoto cow near Soajo

All around the mountains of the Peneda Geres you will come across Minhoto cattle grazing by the roadsides and on the mountain slopes. In the above picture, a cow is searching out grass between huge broom plants and a wall on the road from Soajo to Mezio. This particular animal is being considerate by keeping off the tarmac but many don't so, if you are driving through the national park, be wary. You may think you have the right of way but the cattle don't necessarily agree. An accident with a cow could cause you considerable distress and cost you dear as both car and beast could end up as write-offs.

Minhoto cattle are versatile, providing milk, meat and draught labour. In fact, they were so important to the lives of people in northern Portugal – and over the border into Spanish Galicia – that specially decorated yokes were made for the oxen which provided much needed motive power in villages. No subsistence farmer would spend precious time carving a yoke when there is so much to do in the fields unless he loved his animals: even on wet days there are tools which require sharpening and equipment that needs mending. Below there is a fine example of a rustic yoke from the vinho verde promotion centre in Ponte de Lima. (See I'm no longer as green as I used to be but the wine still is!

Carved Minhoto yoke

Once rustic carts laden with forage could be seen all around the Minho, often with a black dressed farmer's wife sitting atop the load or leading the beast. That sight can occasionally still be seen here and there but mini tractors are taking over. The Portuguese are pleased about this. The fact that outsiders find rustic travel and labour romantic and picturesque only annoys them. To them a machine instead of a beast of burden is a sign that life is becoming easier.

I hope that the breed will be protected because they are so hardy and attractive. Fortunately, their versatility should prevent them from going the way of cart horses, which were once seen everywhere in the UK from fields to breweries but which are now only to be found on specialist farms, where they are bred to keep the gene pool alive and provide colour for costume dramas. As their brute force becomes ever less needed for transport, in order to compete in the farming world Minhoto cows must be as productive of milk and meat as other breeds.

Times and farming are changing in northern Portugal. Progress brings loss as well as gain. Once well-tilled terraces are often left fallow now, villages are becoming depopulated and houses are falling into disrepair as I reported in Over the hills and far away. (

Ruined houses in the Peneda Geres

To the romantic eye the countryside sometimes seems poorer after great change but I think we should put aside our selfish desire to keep the picturesque and instead celebrate the improvement to people's lives. In short, I shall miss the ox cart under the control of the lady in black but at least the beautiful, chestnut-coloured cattle are still grazing by the roadside in the Minho.

Do you know more about the history of the distinctive Minhoto cattle?  Do you have a favourite Portuguese animal?  Do write in and tell us. If you are Portuguese, please feel free to write in your own language. You don't have to write in English. (O que é importante não é a língua mas a contribuição.)

jeremy pickard wrote:
Wednesday, June 8, 2016, 09:32
Hi Margaret. The cattle also produce cash via EU agriculture subsidies. This sometimes tempts farmers to rear more cattle than they have pasture available - hence some of the summer wanderings. In a de-populated landscape this should not matter, but many locals are extremely jealous of the grazing rights of even absentee neighbours and this can lead to nearly as much tension as diverting a stream other than in accordance with the relevant rights!
Margaret Bradley wrote:
Wednesday, June 8, 2016, 09:54
Ah the dreaded EU subsidy! And, of course, village jealousies! New Zealand did away with subsidies some time ago. This was accompanied by dire warnings from some that farming would become a basket case. In fact, though some businesses failed, agriculture has done well there. Perhaps the EU should take note but I bet it won't. Governments find it difficult when farmers dump manure all over their roads and squares as they do in France. As for village jealousies.... I don't think there's any way to do away with them. I still like the cattle even when they wander over the road.
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