The survival of the Kerry cattle breed, believed to be one of the oldest in Europe, is under threat. Today there are 90 herds totalling 900 of these cattle in Ireland. Small herds are also present in the US, Canada and Britain.
However, there are fears about the survival of what was once the dominant breed in Ireland, with a reputation for producing quality milk. One reason for the decline was the increase in popularity of other breeds, such as Friesian and Holstein.
Kerry cattle are black animals no more than 38 inches high at the shoulder and are noted for docility and an ability to thrive in a variety of conditions.
Raymonde Hilliard, Cahernane, Killarney, who keeps a celebrated herd of Kerry cows, said she is concerned about the future of the native breed. She is the current secretary of the Kerry Cattle Society, which was founded in 1917 to promote and maintain the purity of the breed. Ms Hilliard is the third generation of her family to keep the cattle, which were first recognised as a breed in 1839.
“They are smashing animals,” she said, calling for increased support to ensure the survival and development of the breed.
Kerry cattle graze the Killarney National Park demesne grasslands and can also be seen on the State-owned Farmleigh Estate in Dublin.
Back in 1951, the then agriculture minister James Dillon said Kerry cattle were the only breed in the world which could live on the mountain and give milk on a scale which justified it being kept as a milch cow. Sixty three years later, his words are an interesting reflection on how cattle-breeding in Ireland has developed.
Mr Dillon, speaking in the Dáil, confessed to being irritated on learning that “certain sophisticated farmers” were bringing in Jersey, Guernsey and Ayrshire cows. He said there was no respect for the Kerry cow because it was the Kerry cow, but if it was an Andalusian cow people would be paying 200 guineas for it, and would bring it in on a passenger liner.
Dillon said one of the most distinguished breeders in Scotland hoped to establish a model farm in the south-west of Ireland to assemble consignments of Kerry cattle for shipment to Palestine.
A profitable market existed for the Kerry breed in Palestine for precisely the same reasons as they were proving a success in West Mayo and West Donegal.
“If we could make Kerry cattle as remunerative a business as the people of the Channel Islands have made of Jerseys and Guernseys, we would have secured for the kingdom of Kerry a not insignificant source of income,” he said.
Dillon warned, however, that the deplorable tendency of the Irish people to look down their noses at their neighbour’s son or their neighbour’s beast was a problem.
“If it is ours, it is no good and it is only a ‘cod’ to be trying to sell it to the people in Palestine, or the people here, there or elsewhere; but if it is a Jersey or a Guernsey, everybody kneels down in front of it and says: ‘Is it not wonderful? Is it not lovely?’” Dillon said he did not know why the Irish people possessed that supreme contempt for the neighbour’s son or the neighbour’s beast, but that son and beast conquers the world when they get outside Ireland.
“I have no doubt that contempt will be heaped upon me for suggesting that it is anything approximating common sense to send a Kerry cow a couple of thousand miles away from Ireland — ‘sure, the poor creature will die of the lonesome’.”
Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney was recently asked by Wexford TD John Browne in the Dáil to outline the measures being taken to support and encourage breeders of Kerry cattle.
Deputy Browne warned of extinction due to declining numbers of pedigree cows and cross breeding.
Mr Coveney said his Department is aware of the importance of conserving and maintaining the genetic resources native to Ireland. He said a number of supports to assist the keepers of rare and native breeds, including Kerry cattle, is in place.
They include a rare breeds’ option under the Rural Environment Protection Scheme and the Agricultural Environment Options Scheme, involving a payment of €200/livestock unit.
In addition, under the Kerry Calf Grant Scheme, a payment per live calf is given to keepers of Kerry cattle (€66.18 in 2013). The Kerry cattle breed is the sole recipient of a grant of this nature, at present.
Also, a total of €70,303 was provided between 1997 and 2012 for research projects on conservation of the Kerry breed.