Jersey's farmers call for repeal of cattle purity law

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Among the dairy farmers of Jersey there is talk of a foreign invasion. For centuries Jersey cows have only ever been allowed to breed with indigenous bulls, and since the late 19th century the lineage of every cow has been recorded in an enormous tome called the Jersey Herd Book. The purity of Jersey's stock is something that many on the island are fiercely proud of.

But now a number of farmers are asking their government to consider a radical proposal. They have requested a change in the law that would allow frozen semen from overseas cattle on to the island for the first time. Such imports are common in other countries, but since 1789 foreign cattle have been banned in Jersey, despite the island exporting its own livestock and semen.

The request has shocked a traditionalists within the dairy-farming community, and has sparked an increasingly bitter row with those who support the idea.

Most of those in favour are dairy farmers who still work in the industry, while those against are predominately from the older generation of cattle breeders, many of whom are no longer involved in the trade.

"While there are a few active farmers who are against the idea – I'd say at the most five – the main opposition comes from the older generations, most of whom are retired anyway," said Paul Houzé, a dairy farmer on the island and one of the chief campaigners for a change in the law. "They're against foreign importation for sentimental and emotional reasons, not because of the scientific evidence."

Those advocating a change say Jersey desperately needs an injection of fresh genes because the number of cows on the island has rapidly decreased in the past 30 years. In 1973 there were 8,000 head of cattle on 344 farms, but by 2003, the last time a survey was carried out, there were just 3,500 on 35 farms. Critics say this diminishing gene pool risks harming the productivity of Jersey cows and the quality of the end product – the breed's famously creamy milk.

Supporters of the new plan say only semen from bulls with absolutely pure Jersey genetics would ever be used, thus safeguarding the island's herds. "This is not about importing non-Jersey breeds into the island," says Mr Houzé. "We don't want to import any other breed but we do need the rest of the world to get our genes from. In effect we're just asking to re-import the same genetics we exported 150 years ago."

Worldwide there are an estimated 10 million Jersey cattle. Since the mid-19th century, the island has exported vast numbers to countries including the United States, New Zealand, Canada and Denmark, all of which now have herds bigger than those left in the Channel Islands. As Jersey cows are virtually useless to dairy farmers unless they are pure-bred, each importing country has also recorded its animals' lineages. Jersey's parliament is due to vote on the issue next month.

Artificial insemination – the facts

* Semen from top bulls can net breeders £1.5m a year.

* The average dairy bull can sire up to 10,000 male and female calves via artificial insemination in a lifetime.

* A Dutch bull called Sunny Boy is believed to have sired 500,000 female calves in 22 countries.

* In the US, semen sales have risen by more than 39 per cent in 10 years.

* 75 per cent of all dairy cattle breeding in Britain is via artificial insemination.