The Kerry Cow is Ireland’s oldest breed, and it still faces the possibility of extinction. Now the humble black bovine is slowly building up numbers, and people all over the world are treasuring it for its traditionally uncelebrated benefits.
The humble Kerry Cow looks different to modern industrial dairy herds. It is small, black all over (or rarely sometimes red…typical for a Celt!) and it doesn’t produce a whole trough of milk. But the milk it does produce is very rich in fat, tastes amazing, and is compared more to goat’s milk. This is because the fat globules are small, and easy to digest. So people with allergies, small children, and older people find it easier to slide it down their digestive tract.
And the reason this cow produces such an amazing milk? The breed has not been ‘improved’ by humans over time. It is milk as nature intended. In comparison, modern “improved” cows have been bred for producing large quantities of milk, rather than quality milk.
This makes the Kerry Cow a very interesting proposition for anyone who prefers quality over quantity. Even the Slow Food Movement have also extolled the virtues of this humble beast. Its renewed popularity just might save its bacon.
But here’s the biggest selling point: the Kerry Cow can survive on pastures that are slightly dodgy. They are so hardy, in fact, that they thrive where other more modern breeds keel over and die. Because of their small stature they are also easier on the land, and don’t damage it like other big modern hefty breeds do.
Kerry cattle are very intelligent, are great mothers, and often distrust strangers but grow very close to their owners. They are cuter than the modern dairy cow, being small and nifty. So it is amazing to think that these black creatures are on the brink of extinction.
The Kerry Cow In Ancient Ireland
The Kerry Cow is an animal that was kept by Irish people purely for its milk. They were perfect for the small subsistence-types farms that littered Ireland. The Kerry Cow is considered native to Ireland, and is one of the oldest breeds in Europe. In fact, Irish folklore is littered with references to such cows, and they were even a form of currency at one time.
The Kerry Cow has a skull that is very similar in formation to the ancient aurochs of the Stone Age though smaller in size. The aurochs were the ancestor of domestic cattle. But don’t let that fact fool you; you wouldn’t want to come across one of them in a field on your way back from your poitín festival.
Aurochs were huge wild cattle, now extinct (and have been since 1627) but they weren’t as docile as the Kerry! They could impale a stinky ancient Celt with just one look. However we can thank this huge ancient beast for being the forebearer of our common cow.
The Kerry Cow is also thought to have descended from the Celtic Shorthorn, brought to Ireland as early as 2000 BC. Neolithic man probably dragged the Celtic Shorthorn with him in his migrations northwards from the Mediterranean basin.
The Kerry Cow’s main job throughout history was always that of milk maker. Prehistoric man from Asia, Africa and other parts of Europe were breeding cattle for pulling heavy stuff and for meat. But the Irish were busy keeping the Kerry for their dairy needs.
The ancient Irish diet was based on milk and milk products; meat wasn’t eaten all that much. And if so it was pigs that got the chop. Historians note that Kerry milk was used to produce cheese and butter, but is was also mixed with herbs and kept in jars underground…sounds like the recipe for a posh cheese! Certainly beats supermarket cheddar.
Despite this great history of underground herb cheeses and other epicurean fare, by 1983 there were only around 200 pedigree Kerry cattle in the world. They had been imported to the United States in 1818 and prospered in the nineteenth century, but had become scarce by the 1930s. Today there are only a few herds in North America, mostly more recent imports in Canada. The Irish Department of Agriculture has since taken steps to support the maintenance of the breed and numbers are again creeping upwards.
If you like your milk delicious and natural, you might like to get yourself a Kerry Cow. However you may have to sell your granny to do it: obtaining a breeding cow is nigh on impossible. Breeders hang on to the females and will probably continue to do so until the current population of 1,100 grows greater in girth.
But until then, you can enjoy Kerry Cow milk in many Irish products such as Murphy’s Ice Cream, based in Dingle. And any excuse to sample ice-cream can only be a good thing.