GUERNSEY BREED HISTORY
W. G. de L. Luff, Vice-President Royal Guernsey Agricultural & Horticultural Society
Earliest known painting in oils of a Guernsey 1841
By permission W Luff
Much has been written about the origins of Guernsey Cattle and many claims have been made about the way in which the 'Guernsey Breed' came to be established on a small island in the English Channel. In fact, very little concrete evidence exists about the cattle of Guernsey prior to the nineteenth Century and most theories, such as one that suggests that cattle brought to the island by monks who had been banished from Mont St. Michel in the year 960 A.D. formed the foundation of the present breed cannot be verified and must be regarded as conjecture or pure fantasy.
There may be some truth in the theory that the Isigny cattle of Normandy and the Froment du Léon breed from Brittany were ancestral relatives of the modern Guernsey. Indeed the Jersey, the Guernsey and the Froment du Léon are the only members of the Channel Island sub type of European Blond cattle.
The "Froment du Léon" is a high fat producing breed that was common to the district around the town of St. Pol de Leon, in Brittany. It is slender, wheat-coloured, lyre-horned and looks very like the old dun Shetland cows of the early twentieth century. While similar in colour to the Guernsey, it is smaller and of variable conformation. Indeed the Froment du Léon breed society imported semen from Island Guernsey bulls some years ago in an attempt to improve both conformation and milk yield. Breed numbers now indicate that its current status is 'at risk'.
The large Normandy brindle took its name from the rich butter district of Isigny. Isigny cows were heavy producers of a high quality and fine-flavoured milk of a rich primrose colour, while the exterior skin and interior fat carried that yellow pigment so characteristic in the Guernsey breed. The horns curved forward and inward similar to the Guernsey. The breed has been absorbed into the present day Normande.
The main ancestor of the Normande
As far as definitely traceable ancestry is concerned no records
exist at all prior to the publication in 1878 of a privately
subscribed register of Guernsey Cattle, initiated by the Reverend
Joshua Watson of 'La Favorita" and Mr. James James of 'Les
Vauxbelets' and based on rules of selection including conformation.
In 1881 it was decided to publish Volume 1 of the Herd Book of the Royal Guernsey Agricultural and Horticultural Society, the Committee having agreed to take over the work done on the original 1878 and 1879 publications. For 15 years the General Herd Book was published in competition with the R.G.A.&H.S. Herd Book, but the latter increased in general recognition on the island and especially in America.
But what of the history of Guernsey Cattle prior to the nineteenth century? Generally this must have been influenced by two main factors, the natural development of indigenous wild cattle and economic and social pressures on the human community. It is also worthy of note to state here that no 'breeds' of dairy cattle are known to have existed anywhere in the world until the late nineteenth century. Regional differences of "race" in cattle before the eighteenth century were largely the outcome of geographical distance or isolation by natural barriers rather than of deliberate attempts to maintain purity of breed.
Early man discovered how to cultivate wheat and to domesticate wild animals about 10.000 years ago in the Middle East in the Valley of the Tigris and Euphrates and the hills of Turkey. The cattle that were originally domesticated were the large Aurochs which stood up to six feet at the shoulder and were noted for their savage temperament. Cave paintings indicate that the Auroch was variable in colour but generally brown with a darker stripe down the back. It was from these early domestications that Bos Longifrons soon developed and over the next millennia may have come along with human migration from the Middle East probably via North Africa up through Spain and into France. Alternatively a parallel development of the Bos Longifrons type could have occurred from domestication of Western European Cattle. The Guernsey breed is unusual among European breeds in possessing both the bovine haemoglobin B allele and the Beta Casein A2 allele, which are prevalent in African and Asian cattle, indicating that the former theory may be the most accurate. Bones of domestic cattle have been identified in Jersey from approximately 4500 B.C. and there is no reason to doubt that they existed on the other islands at similarly early dates.
In Roman times the introduction of larger Italian Cattle resulted
in a cross that had something of the appearance of the Brown
Swiss breed, but with a greater variety of colours including
mouse and fawn together with black and red. Later on, when the
Norse invaders swept along the coasts of Europe and England they
brought with them small dun coloured cattle, noted for their
rich milk. These when crossed with other races resulted in cattle
of broken colour, often yellow and white, and of small size,
and these are thought to have populated the coasts of France
and the Channel Islands.
It appears that during the late 18th Century and up until the end of the Napoleonic Wars, a general degeneration in local cattle occurred due possibly to the uncertainty of the times and the fact that a large number of Guernseymen were then in the employ of the owners of Privateers that sailed out of the Island, or engaged in the trading of wines, spirits and other commodities that could enter the islands from France free of duty and be legally re-exported to England without the imposition of tax.
During this period large numbers of cattle were exported from the Channel Islands to England often under the name of 'Alderneys', local communities being forced to sell in order to obtain grain to feed the population. By this time the cattle had become small again and were not greatly favoured as they did not fatten well, but they could be bought more cheaply than the native English Cattle and together with Normandy cows found a good market in English Dairies. Records show that between 1764 -1775, 6303 cattle were imported into England from the Channel Islands, though many of these are thought to have been French cattle brought to England via the islands in order to avoid customs duty. In fact, the trade with Normandy became so great that it severely affected the trade in island cattle, local farmers being unwilling to sell at the low price of the French cattle, which were, it appears, indistinguishable from island stock.
In 1815, Mr, Thomas Quale in his 'General view of the Agriculture
of the Norman Isles' states that up until the time 'No individual
has attempted, by the selection of cattle and breeding from them,
to attain any particular object'.
GUERNSEY CATTLE Circa 1850
It was not until 1877 that the door to importation from England
began to be closed due mainly to the need to protect the Island
from diseases such as Contagious Bovine Pleuropneumonia and Tuberculosis.
The R.G.A.&H.S. finally 'fixed' the colour of purebred Guernseys on February 24th 1883 by adopting an article for the judging scale indicating that this should be 'red or fawn and white' and this has continued to be the accepted colour for the past 120 years. The Golden Guernsey Breed had at last reached an advanced stage of development.
The subsequent history of the breed is well documented in Guernsey and other parts of the world through various Herd Book registers, many of which trace back to the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Prior to this period 'Guernseys' had of course spread far afield but had never been kept 'pure bred' and became mixed with other breeds. It was not until the agricultural improvement societies sought to develop and maintain 'pure' bred Guernseys (cattle that conformed to an accepted general type) firstly on the Island, but very soon afterwards in America and England, that the Guernsey Breed as we know it today was finally established.
The cow was then in her prime - a veritable queen and could never be forgotten - Joseph L. Hope in 1891