While the presence of cattle in south-west England can be traced for some 7000 years, the South Devon is thought to have existed in these parts for about 400 years. It is believed to have evolved from the large red cattle of Normandy which were imported to England at the time of the Norman invasion. Historical evidence indicates that isolation caused the divergence of the North and South Devon into physically distinct types, though occasional crossing between the two breeds occurred until the mid-19th century.
Over 100 years of selection for performance have given the South Devon its outstanding qualities of beef and maternal characteristics.
The South Devon is the largest of the British native breeds, being large-framed, more muscular in conformation, later maturing in terms of fat deposition, but early maturing in terms of puberty.
Its colour is a rich, medium red with copper tints, though it varies in shade and can even appear slightly mottled. The skin is exceptionally thick, loose and mellow. The breed is mostly horned although many naturally polled individuals do exist and polling is now being actively pursued. The South Devon temperament is excellent, giving rise to the nickname "gentle giants".
South Devons yield leaner carcases than do other British breeds. In research in the USA and Australia the South Devon has proved to be amongst the foremost breeds for intramuscular fat ('marbling') - a highly desirable trait for taste and tenderness - as opposed to subcutaneous fat. Although most herds were milked during and soon after the Second World War, since the 1960s the trend has been increasingly towards beefier sires. Although it is now a purely beef breed, the dual-purpose heritage has significance for the suckling of calves.
SDHBS (South Devon Herd Book Society)
The Society was formed in 1891 and exists to register, regulate and assist in the breeding of South Devon Cattle, and to promote the breed. The South Devon Herd Book Society operates Breedplan International for both pedigree registrations and performance recording and evaluation.
South Devons World-wide
The breed is exceptionally adaptable to varying climatic conditions and is presently well established on five continents. Wherever they have been introduced South Devons have been well accepted and exhibited strong performance for production and profitability.
South Devons were one of the few British breeds to have been selected for drought purposes as well as for beef and milk. The first importations into Australia were of milking cows carried on sailing ships. Several large importations occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s but the breed then lost its identity through crossbreeding. Importations from Britain took place in 1969, and the first purebred animals were imported from New Zealand in 1971. The breed occurs in most states of Australia.
The first South Devons were taken to the United States in 1969, and in 1974 the North American South Devon Association was formed for the purpose of development, registration and promotion of the South Devon breed in that country.
The breed is also well represented in South Africa and New Zealand and Canada.