The Jersey Cow

000248-1.jpgThe small, docile Jersey cow with its rich milk became noticed by dairy farmers in England, in the era that the so-called agricultural revolution was transforming farming and livestock breeding into a science.

During the second half of the 1700s many cattle from Normandy were shipped to Jersey, to be sold on to English markets after being pastured in the Island for a few months. Being sold on as 'Alderney' cattle in England, they escaped the excise duty on cattle from foreign countries.

In 1763, pressure was put on the States to stop this illegal trade, and it responded by banning the importation of live cattle from Normandy into Jersey, imposing heavy fines to discourage infractions.

However, the law was not observed by some farmers engaged in this lucrative trade. It needed four more acts passed ÷ the last in 1878 ÷ before a stop was put finally to it. As the 19th century progressed, even cattle sent over to English shows were not allowed to return, and the trade of live animals within the Channel Islands was also prohibited.

These laws ÷ still in effect ÷ have proved to have many benefits to the breed in the Island. It has served to isolate them from bovine contagious diseases and most importantly, it has enabled the breed to develop its purity and strengths.

Island farmers have concentrated on developing their cattle from the limited local population, and their skill 'fixed' the special characteristics of the Jersey, resulting in the breed we see today. But the origins of this strong, pure bred Jersey cow remain unknown.

The president of the World Jersey Cattle Bureau, Anne Perchard, believes that the breed's characteristics of early sexual maturity, fine bone, thin skin and tolerance to heat means that at one time it had been bred specially to enable the animals to thrive in a hot, semi-tropical climate.

So this would suggest a Middle Eastern origin, she believes, and cites the existence of Jersey-type cows in Egypt and Morocco as support. Were some of these animals brought to Jersey by returning crusaders? Or did they come much, much earlier, with the slight-statured people who were the Island's first farmers, and who worshipped at La Hougue Bie?

These settled in the Island about 7000 BC, after wondering northwards from North Africa across what is now Spain and France.

Another, quite different view is held by those scholars who suggest a Viking origin for the breed. Historian of the Island's Viking connections, Frank Falle, said that the Vikings were successful farmers and cattle breeders, and may have introduced their typically small Norse cattle into the Island, as they also did in Iceland and the Shetland Islands.

It is also interesting that during the ninth century, Vikings from the Loire accepted 500 brown cows as tribute from a Breton king.

And the correct answer? The new science of genetic testing may one of these days provide an answer based on more than guesswork.