Cattle Raiding
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The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter;
We therefore deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter.
We made an expedition;
We met a host, and quelled it;
We forced a strong position,
And killed the men who held it.

We brought away from battle,
And much their land bemoaned them,
Two thousand head of cattle,
And the head of him who owned them:
Ednyfed, king of Dyfed,
His head was borne before us;
His wine and beasts supplied our feasts,
And his overthrow, our chorus.

(from)The War-song of Dinas Vawr Thomas Love Peacock

Basic Information

Cattle Raiding is a form of very traditional low intensity warfare, common to many pastoral tribal cultures. Essentially militarised cattle rustling it involves armed raids against another community with the express purpose of stealing their livestock. Cattle being traditional, high status livestock made an obvious target - although the word cattle could also be used as a generic for livestock in general, somewhat confusing the issue1. Sheep, camels and other animals can all be raided for and horse nomads are often fond of stealing horses from one another.

Broadly, wherever livestock are of significant economic value and where you have two communities happy to raid one another, cattle raiding will be likely to develop. Pigs may be the exception to the rule - historical records of pig raiding appear scarce … possibly because pigs are quite hard to herd and prone to object violently if not well handled.

Normally, the raiders will put a war band together, enter the territory of their enemies and attempt to locate a herd of livestock, defeat any guards and escape with the spoils before the raided community can put a force together to pursue them. If they are detected early, or if the response force can catch them, actual battle may ensue. Raiding forces that fail to locate herds may instead attack other targets of opportunity, depending on their (perceived) relative strength and the desperation of the raiders2. The usual response to a cattle raid is a counter raid to steal the animals back - preferably with interest. In culture, cattle raiding is not to be taken as a personal affront - everyone does it and what goes around comes around. Note, however, that the object is to steal - slaughtering of the animals (aside from any required for immediate consumption, including thanksgiving offerings and victory feasts) is likely to be considered barbaric, much like burning crops in an agrarian culture.

Irish Myth in particular is fond of cattle raiding episodes - the Táin Bó Cúailnge ("Cattle Raid of Cooley") being a major classic of the genre.

More organised cultures are liable to raid livestock mainly as part of foraging for supplies, although low level raiding may be common over a disputed and poorly policed border (for example the Welsh Marches into the C13 or the Scottish Borders into the C17).


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • PCs from an appropriate culture are likely to encounter this - a lot - from both ends.
  • PCs who border an appropriate culture may also be on the receiving end of this - as may those living on a lawless border.
  • They may also be attempting to move through an area where there are raiding bands moving about.
  • Since a cattle raid is "nothing personal", it might be used to cover up something else such as an assassination or another theft.
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