History of The Group

The formation of the first NI Dexter Cattle Group took place in 1991, with Veronica Schofield appointed by the Society to assist the Group.

Many thanks to Mike Frazer, Deirdre and Howard Hilton for documenting this fascinating history. 

After the export of the first Dexters to England there was a growth period in popularity of the breed with a range of breeders from larger owners such as King Edward VII (Breed President 1901-02) to the many small holders/farmers who used the Dexter as the farm ‘house cow’.  However over the years with the introduction of larger continental breeds and the scaling up in size of some other native breeds the popularity of the Dexter fell away, particularly in its native Ireland. By the late 1980’s the only registered Dexter herd of any size in Ireland, North or South was the Bellevue Herd under the supervision of John Strong at Belfast Zoo.

After a few false starts V K Byrne was involved in the first import of Dexters from England which took place in 1991 from the prize winning Knotting herd of H J Paynter.  This was followed in 1992 by 7 females and 1 bull from the renowned dexter breeder, Beryl Rutherford and her Woodmagic Herd. It is interesting to note that the Woodmagic Herd was famous for the milk produced; Dexters really are a dual purpose cow.

The first few years saw limited growth of interest in the breed in Northern Ireland and the reintroduction of Dexters to NI perhaps only finally gained traction when Deirdre and Howard Hilton relocated from England to Boveedy, near Kilrea in 1994 bringing their Dexter herd with them. Along with other key influencers such as Ian and Joan Simpson, Newell and Andy Bingham,  Bertie Mairs, Niall Donaghy and Andrew Montgomery they became the nucleus of the reformed NI Dexter Group.  As the Dexter numbers nationally had reduced to such a level as to make them an endangered breed the group was supported by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust NI, with for many years the former RBST NI Group Show and Sale at Cultra being the focal point for the promotion of the Dexter Breed in Northern Ireland.


Apart from the imported cattle one of the first Dexters bought for the Bingham start up herd was Bellevue Tabatha from the Belfast Zoo herd. It is a matter of pride for the NI Group that the lineage of these two foundation Hillhead (Hilton) and Ballykeel (Bingham) herds can still be traced through to several of the current leading herds in Northern Ireland.  We also still have the influence the original Woodmagic and Knotting imports in our regional herd.


From these humble beginnings the NI Dexter Group has seen the number of Dexters in Northern Ireland grow to nearly 800+ animals in 2020. They have been strongly supported during this process by the main Society in England and in particular by Mary Kay who as a Trustee and Chief Judge of the Society had offered to support the NI Regional development. There are now approximately 80+ Dexter herds in Northern Ireland with many farmers using them as a high profile selling point for their ‘farm shop’ business.  The quality of the regional herd has increased dramatically over the last 10 years with the import of semen, bulls and cows from the leading herds in England and Scotland, with the Northern Ireland herd as a whole now being recognised as containing many of the best bloodlines in the Society.


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Having lost their place as a breed in the 1930’s at the Royal Ulster Agriculture Show because of the dwindling number of entries the Dexters made a comeback in 2013 when the Show moved to the Maze Balmoral site. Prior to this return to Balmoral the Dexters had been relegated in many NI Shows to being part of a mixed rare breed class. But as part of the promotion of the cattle, owners such as the Hilton’s, Bingham’s and a few notable others such as Ken Briggs and Fintan Murphy worked hard on the show scene promoting the Dexter. 


The progress made since this RUAS return in 2013 has been phenomenal, with the Dexters now the largest cattle breed at the show in numbers, not size, with 70+ entries at the 2018 and 2019 RUAS Shows.  The involvement of many young breeders from multiple herds in showing has perpetuated the growth of the overall ‘showing’ side in NI, and there are now six official Society shows with Dexter Breed Classes in NI (RUAS Balmoral, Ballymena, Lurgan, Castlewellan, Gosford and Antrim) with Antrim being the NI Premier show with annually 70+ Dexter entries.


Parallel to this the beef side has shown significant growth in NI with many restaurants and hotels now offering Dexter as part of their ‘authentic’ Irish fare. They are supplied by breeders with both small and larger herds some of whom have their own butchery facilities


Throughout this period of tremendous growth and consolidation of the Dexter breed in Northern Ireland, Deirdre Hilton was the guiding figure and in 2013 the NI Dexter Group were delighted when Deirdre was awarded her MBE at Buckingham Palace for “services to the Dexter Cattle Breed’ . As Prince Charles said on the occasion “can I take it the Dexters are now safe’ .... and in Northern Ireland they are ... and still growing in numbers

Text above is the property of The NI Dexter Cattle Group.

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