Origins of the Jersey cow

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Origins of the

Jersey Cow


Nantaise and Jersey cows

This article by Alasdair Crosby, and based on the research of Societe Jersiaise history section chairman at the time, Frank Falle, was first published in the Jersey Evening Post in March 2007

The Jersey cow is distinctive, with its brown coat, small stature and fine bones. There is no similar breed either in north Brittany or Normandy, but there is old and now rare breed called the Nantaise, which has a strong resemblance to the Jersey breed.


It comes from the Nantes area at the mouth of the Loire, and although at present there are only 164 milking cows, it is an ancient and once important breed, greatly valued as a producer of high butterfat milk as well as meat.

It is part of a group which also includes the Parthenais breed, located mainly in the Loire and Charente areas of France. Its population size is estimated at just over 2,000.

The Nantaise and Parthenais cows are the nearest 'lookalikes' to the island bred. Further breeds of somewhat similar animals can be found southwards from there, near Bordeaux, in Gascony and along the Pyrenees.

This chain of similar looking breeds suggests a primaeval joint origin in Spain and historical references to the breeds show that they were in place by early medieval times, with many references in southern Brittany and the Loire region to 'herds of brown cows'.

A Jersey cow from 1880

The story now shifts to the career of a Danish chieftain, called Haesting, a name more familiar in Jersey in its French version, Hatain. He was a prominent and powerful war leader in the Viking world of the 9th century. Jersey's own medieval chronicler, Wace, calls him 'an arrogant pagan', and that seems to sum him up well.

He formed one half of a formbidable team with a younger Viking princeling: Bjorn Ironside, the son of a king with the charming name Ragnar Hairybreeches.

Together they and their followers fought and bullied their way down the Atlantic coastline, sailing down the North Sea and English Channel (where Wace tells us they laid waste to the Channel Islands and adjacent areas), until they arrived at Nantes. This former Roman town was then being settled by the Danes and was on its way to becoming as much of a Viking settlement as Dublin, York or Rouen.

From there they sailed further south with the general aim of causing havoc, and with the specific ambition of sacking Rome. They failed, and left the Mediterranean with just nine ships out of an original fleet of 20.

Danish outpost

They returned to Nantes and got as close to 'settling down' as was possible for them. But life was always likely to be exciting for Haesting and Bjorn, and so it proved. They quickly became the leaders of this Danish outpost and for 20 years, from 862 to 882, supplied sword power in the quarrels of neighbouring rulers.

On one occasion in 869, by accident or design, Haesting and his warriors were able to block access by a Breton host to vineyards in Anjou, where the Bretons wanted to harvest the grapes. To get the out of the way the Bretons were prepared to trade cows for wine, and paid a tribute of 500 brown cows, presumably of the local breed. Haesting's men obligingly moved aside.

Although other rulers were prepared to accept a fait accompli of Viking settlement in Nantes, it became obvious to them that the Vikings were extending their settlement up-river into the interior of France. The king of the Franks, Louis III, made Haesting a generous offer - perhaps one he could not refuse. He could leave Nantes with his followers and all their wealth, and resettle on lands 'on the Channel coast'. Or else.

This concession in the opinion of Mr Falle would have solved a double problem for the king. First it wouldhave stopped 'Viking creep' up the Loire into the wealthy vineyard area; second, by moving the nuisance to the north Brittany coast, it would be an irritant to the Bretons, and keep their attention away from the French interior.

'A deal was done', said Mr Falle. 'Plenty of vacant land, which Haesting might have helped to empty 20 years previously of its inhabitants, was given to him on the Channel, with an encouragement to raid north Brittany.'

So, off they went, taking with them, one can only suppose, the main elements of their wealth, the successor animals to those 500 'brown cows' they had won from the south Bretons.

This was in the year 882. What happened next?

The chronicles are silent about his movements for the next decade, after which Haesting turned up on the English south coast, waging war on King Alfred. Ultimately the Vikings were defeated, but Haesting lived on, and there are reports that as an elderly man he was an adviser to 'Ganger Hrolf' (Rollo) as he established his own territory in Normandy. He certainly know something about French politics.

But in those ten 'missing' years, the chronicles are very quiet about where exactly he went 'on the Channel coast', with his followers, and their portable four-footed wealth of cattle.

Heifers in 1905

Channel Island waters

Mr Falle is convinced that they were in Channel Island waters, giving the following reasons:

  • Before 882 most records of Viking raids in western France show that the biggest concnetration was in the area around the Loire estuary. Afterwards the action seems suddenly to have switched to north Brittany.
  • Names of Channel Island localities preserve the names of Hatain and Barne (Bjorn). For many reasons the centre of Viking settlement in Jersey seems to have been in the central part of the island. In St Lawrence there is the Vingtaine name of Coin es Hatain.

The word Coin means a promontory of high ground extending into lower ground; in other words, a natural defensive spot suitable for a camp or settlement.

  • Coin es Hatain overlooks Dannemarche, now a reservoir, but once the 'marsh of the Dane'. Nearby is Goose Green marsh, by legend the haunt of a dragon, and wide flat beaches where boats could be drawn up on the sand.
  • Near Coin es Hatain are the former mills of Dannemarche and Vicart, which translates as 'observation point', and the lane called Mont du Bu de la Rue - a name which could derive from the Viking word 'bu', meaning a homestead. [It could equally translate from the French as 'end of the road' - Editor].
  • In Guernsey, in the Fief de Barneville, is the old strong fort of Jerbourg. Mr Falle suggests that this would have been, most probably, headquarters of Haesting himself (there is a Hougue and Vingtaine there which bears his name), but his followers from Nantes would have settled throughout the Channel Islands, since these would have made a base both difficult to attack, and an easy place from which to sally forth on raids to the south.

Mr Falle believes that these details give credence to his own theory that the Danish (Norman) settlement of the Channel Islands represents a wave of migration not so much from the north and east, as is usually assumed, but of settlers returning from the south, following the Danish exodus from Nantes and the lower Loire region.

Mr Falle does not claim that modern Jersey cattle were descended exclusively from 500 cows in the 9th century kept as 'pirate's loot' by Haesting and his followers. Other elements of the breed may have been brought by immigrants arriving later from Scandinavia with their own cattle.

But comparative genetic studies indicate that it is probable that the genes of cattle highly similar to the Nantaise breed are predominant in the modern Jersey herd. In that sense, pirate's loot has, in the course of centuries, evolved into the treasure of the Jersey breed.
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