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Guernsey Cattle: Heritage Livestock Breeds

The Guernsey cow is a British dairy breed with a great reputation as a milk producer.

| August 2010

Guernsey cattle are strong milking cows, but are a heritage livestock breed that is rapidly dwindling in its population numbers. The lovely Channel Islands are the home of three famous breeds of dairy cows that bear their names: Alderney, Guernsey, and Jersey. From the early 1700s, when they were first exported, these famous milk cows were often collectively called Alderneys, perhaps because that island was the closest to Britain. These island breeds differed from each other but were alike in one unusual way. Along with the South Devon, they possess a specific allele that is common in African and Asian cattle but is not present in any other British breed.

Island isolation shaped these cattle. The nine islands that make up the chain together have an area of just 75 square miles. The islands enjoy a mild Mediterranean climate, and the residents have traditionally used all the available land to cultivate fruits, vegetables, and flowers and to pasture cattle and other livestock. In the Middle Ages, Guernsey was under the protection of Robert, Duke of Normandy, who sent a group of monks to the island to help the residents defend and support themselves. The first monks came to the island in A.D. 960, bringing cattle from Brittany with them. In the eleventh century, another monastery was founded, and these monks imported brindled cattle from France. The Guernsey cow does resemble some French breeds, including the extinct Isigny and the gravely endangered Froment du Léon. All Channel Island cattle were used for dairy production as well as draft and meat production.

The first Channel Island cattle were imported to Britain in 1724. Within fifty years, hundreds of cattle were being imported annually. Two-thirds of the cattle came from Jersey, and the remainder came from the other islands. At first the “Alderneys” in England and Scotland were kept mainly by the rich and supplied butter for the table. Refined in appearance and light in color, they also decorated the aristocracy’s estates. Channel Island cattle were exhibited in Britain by 1844, and they were separated into their different breed classes in 1871.

Jersey and Guernsey placed self-imposed restrictions on their breeds around the beginning of the nineteenth century to prevent French cattle from being imported to the islands and mixing with the native cattle. On Jersey, the breed standard was established in 1834. The herd book was established in 1866, and a society was organized twelve years later. The recording of Guernsey pedigrees began on that island in 1881, and by 1901, milk recording was undertaken by the Royal Guernsey Agricultural and Horticultural Society.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were about 100,000 Jersey and Guernsey cows in Britain. They continued to grow in popularity in commercial dairies as providers of bottled milk and cream. Guernseys were also widely exported to Ireland, North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Kenya, Japan, and South America. In 1955, the Guernsey represented about 5 percent of the dairy herd in England and Wales, with more than 130,000 cows, or twice the number of Jersey cows.

Guernseys were first imported to the United States by two schooner captains in the 1830s and 1840s. Impressed by the quality of the breed’s dairy products, Captain Prince brought the first Guernseys back to his home in Boston. Three “Alderneys” brought to New York and Captain Prince’s two heifers and bull from Guernsey became the basis of the American Guernsey herd. Large imports were made about 1850 and then again from 1870 to 1880. The first Guernsey association was founded in 1877.

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