Buffalo are now living in the fens of Kent. Why – have we slipped into the metaverse of Lewis Carroll? ‘He thought he saw a buffalo/ Upon the chimney-piece.’ But these are not African buffalo, those fierce beasts that recently charged but narrowly missed killing my wife at home in Kenya. No, these are the more docile water buffalo and so this story isn’t nonsense. ‘He looked again, and found it was/ His Sister’s Husband’s Niece.’
Clever scientists on sabbatical from modelling pandemics and climate change have introduced four water buffalo to the Ham Fen nature reserve, near Sandwich. These wetlands become clogged with silt, causing floods, and the idea is that the buffalo, with their huge bodies, will bulldoze channels through the mud. I’ve seen hippos do something similar in Rift Valley lakes.
Here is the complete opposite of feather-footed through the plashy fen. This is bodacious bovids splooshing around in poo. The Ham Fen plan will allegedly save money on machinery and, because buffalo voraciously eat back rank fluvial vegetation, the hope is they will open up jungly quagmires so more amphibians, insects and birds can thrive.
So let’s leave our new Kentish immigrants waggling their hairy ears beneath drop handlebar horns, sinking in a fetid jacuzzi of marsh gases and oomska. It’s time to pay tribute to the water buffalo as a species, since it helped bring us both history’s greatest invention for teenagers and an alibi for Prince Andrew. Pizza.
Europe was home to a prehistoric water buffalo but this became extinct in Pleistocene times, probably leaving its bones alongside all the lions, elephants and hippopotami fossils that have been discovered beneath Trafalgar Square.
All today’s water buffalo are Asiatic. They came from that cluster of cow-like species, the aurochs, bantengs, gaurs and gayals, while in Europe they were domesticating their variety of auroch, which became the Bos taurus – the breeds you see today in Britain. Meanwhile the Harappans out east were taming Asian aurochs to produce Bos indicus, the dewlapped, humped zebu cow. High in the mountains were yaks, ponies and small stock, down in the deltas and flood plains appeared the water buffalo.
As Rome went into decline, the story is that Asiatic nomads called the Pannonian Avars menacing Byzantium brought water buffalo along with them. In time, the Avars vanished; water buffalo spread into Europe. Armies used them for transport and milked them. They spread to southern Italy from the 10th century, thrived in the Volturno and Sele plains and produced buffalo’s milk and cheese for the markets in Naples and Salerno. This part of Italy remains home of the Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, the history and strict regulation of which you can read about on the website of the Consorzio di Tutela Mozzarella Di Bufala Campana DOP. Bourbon kings, the Neapolitan poor who invented the pizza, the pizza’s global conquest after the second world war – it’s a fascinating story of the porcelain white stuff that isn’t even a cheese.