One of the most interesting of New Zealand’s minority breeds of cattle is the Dexter; the smallest and also one of the oldest breeds of British cattle. The Dexter evolved from the native Irish cattle, and although the characteristics of the breed were described from the 1700s, they were not recognized as an identifiable breed until the 1870s. The first Dexters were imported into New Zealand in 1904.
They are undoubtedly two of the purest remaining lines of British cattle – the ancient Celtic breed from which they descend is known to have occurred in Ireland at least as early as the Neolithic (New Stone Age) which began in Britain some 5000 years ago.
The Dexter is a dual-purpose breed suited to both meat and milk production. They may be black, red or dun coloured (although black is the most common), and naturally horned although many are polled. Relatively short-legged and solidly built, Dexters nevertheless have a grace all of their own. Purebred cows ideally average around 100 centimetres (40 inches) in height, with the bulls some 5 centimetres (2 inches) taller. By comparison, the common Friesian is 135 centimetres and 150 centimetres respectively.
As a breed they have great advantages for the small farmer. They are quiet and easy to handle, requiring less in the way of fencing and yards than larger animals. They are fine milkers and produce excellent beef providing smaller cuts. Dexters are easy to get in-calf, and calve easily; they can also be used for multiple suckling. And on top of all this, as lightweights they are better for the land, especially under wet conditions.
Although Dexters were imported into New Zealand in 1904, the breed was maintained for only a few years. In 1979 Dexter semen was brought into the country. On July 31,1993 the first provincial committee meeting of NZ Dexter Breeders was held. That year this group of breeders joined Dexter Cattle Australia (DCA). In 1994, NZ Dexter Breeders’ Association (NZDBA) was formed and held its first AGM. Two groups of Dexter Breeders subsequently developed; in the best interests of the breed they amalgamated in 2000. The AGM of both groups (NZ Dexter Breeders’ Association - NZDBA & Dexter Cattle Society of NZ - DCSNZ) was jointly held, resulting in their amalgamation. The name 'Dexter Cattle Society of NZ' (DCSNZ) was adopted and the Society became incorporated in 2001, giving us the Society (DCSNZ Inc) as we know it today.
The conservation of the Dexter breed is considered an important project; both because of its ancient lineage, and because it is a minority breed the world over, besides possessing some highly desirable attributes.