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13 November 2014

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You are in: Guernsey > Places > Places Features > Farming in Guernsey

Guernsey cows

Guernsey cows

Farming in Guernsey

Before Guernsey became a world renowned financial centre a major part of the island's economy was based on farming which shaped the landscape, roads and houses we live in.

A major feature of Guernsey's landscape is the fields which lie between and behind the island's houses. While most are now divided by large hedges, according to historian Richard Hocart, this was not always the case.

Richard Hocart

Richard Hocart examining a field

Despite there not being a large amount of records of how the fields look or were managed, what there is suggests that few of Guernsey's fields were clearly divided by hedges before the 1500s and a very different method of farming took place.

Richard said, "Where there were open fields after the harvest the people could let their cattle out into the field and in March you had to bring the cattle back onto your own part of the land and tether them for the growing season and the harvest."

A hangover from this style of farming continued until the introduction of barbed wire and electric fences where cows were tethered, however this was a very labour intensive system of managing animals.

The development of the hedges between fields was a very gradual process and the bulk of it took place over a period of 200 years between the 1500s and 1700s, though some fields in Guernsey still remain open.

Another aspect of farming life that is synonymous with Guernsey is our own breed of cattle. The breed can be traced back to the Aurochs which are the ancestors of most European cattle and died out in 1627.

Bill Luff with his cows

Bill Luff with his cows

According to farmer Bill Luff there is a myth as to how the Guernsey cow came to be that dissident French monks moved to Guernsey bringing two types of cow with them which cross bred to create what we know as a Guernsey Cow.

While this probably bears some truth the exact details are unknown but the breed was first recorded around 1700. Bill added that due to be being "developed in isolation" the Guernsey breed was "very distant from any other of the European breeds".

Guernsey's breeding programme for its cattle has been internationally commended by the European Union and the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Farming historian Nigel Jee described Guernsey's association with agriculture as "enormous" saying it dated back to "the new stone age... the people who built the dolmens".

Kings Mills

Part of the Kings Mills farming community

"Every development leaves its mark on the country side," he added and some are in places you might not expect. The settlements at King's Mills and around St Martins Church are good examples of this as they were built together for mutual protection and used semi-communal fields a short distance away.

However the development of 'closed fields' divided by hedges brought an end to this and most of the farmers became labourers on the farms of wealthy land owners.

A major part of farm life is the traditional farmhouse, and Guernsey has its own unique version of these dwellings.

Andrew Dyke at Les Caches Barn

Andrew Dyke at Les Caches Barn

Architect Andrew Dyke said "Guernsey probably has more farm buildings per square mile than probably almost anywhere in the world" and they evolved from the landscape around them.

Most notably they are part of the landscape thanks to the granite used in their construction but they are also constructed from other local materials such as reeds used in the thatch roofs.

Andrew described the Guernsey farmhouses as "completely unique" and added "we can learn a lot from how they used natural materials... Guernsey farmhouses are built in a very sustainable way".

Guernsey cows

Some of Julian's herd

Farming has changed a lot with the development of new technology. Farmer Julian Ogier said, "We can control the output of the land so much more these days with artificial fertilizers and the like and better bred crops -  we can get more out of the land without stripping it of all its nutrients."

Julian added: "The most important job we do is giving fresh milk... the other thing is we've got to work in harmony with the environment."

With the development of other industries on the island farming has lessened in Guernsey, of this Julian said, "You look at this type of business to keep it rolling along and you take whatever life throws at you."

last updated: 13/08/2009 at 16:51
created: 03/08/2009

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