Temporal changes in genetic variation within and between 13 North European cattle breeds were evaluated using erythrocyte antigen systems and transferrin protein as genetic markers. Current data on allele frequency distributions of markers in large commercial and smaller endangered native cattle breeds were compared to data published during 1956 to 1975. Intrabreed genetic variation was quantified by conventional parameters (e.g. heterozygosity, average number of alleles per locus) and migration by the effective migration rate. The neighbour-joining dendrogram of relationships between old and present cattle populations was constructed using Nei's standard genetic distance. Variance effective population size was estimated from changes in allele frequencies over time. Comparison of old and new data indicated some significant changes in allele frequencies. In six of the breeds, a few low-frequency alleles in the old data were absent in the present samples. Heterozygosity remained stable in most breeds. The harmonic means for variance effective population size ranged between 30 and 257. Current results indicate that despite marked declines in total population sizes, North European native cattle breeds have retained a reasonably high genetic diversity. However, their genes contribute less than previously to genetic variation of Nordic production breeds. Commercial breeds do not appear to have a larger effective population size than native breeds. The present effective population sizes imply that Nordic breeds could have lost from 1 to 11% of their heterozygosity over a 20-40-year period.