The Faroe Islands and the Smallholder’s Cow

March has been a busy month for us. After a lot of waiting and planning, we went up to the Faroe Islands. The recent eclipse provided the perfect motivation to get us to a place we have long wanted to visit.

The farm museum at Saksun with the tidal lagoon and mountains beyond

The farm museum at Saksun, Faroe Islands, with the tidal lagoon and mountains beyond

So with farm sitters in place, we loaded up the bikes and began the long journey.

We cycled to Carmarthen to catch the direct train to London, the only one that has space for a tandem. After a pleasant explore (London by bike is much prettier then by the Underground) we caught another guard-van-with-room-for-a-tandem equipped train to Newcastle Upon Tyne.

The following day we boarded the MS Princess Seaways and began a 36 hour voyage to the Faroe Islands. 60 hours after leaving home, we arrived!

The Faroe Islands were amazing. Where to begin? Perhaps the story of the Faroese Cow, as it links in with other exciting happenings here on the farm.

The climate in the Faroes is agriculturally challenging to say the least. Today, the majority of agriculture is linked to the Faroe Islands Sheep, part of the Northern short-tailed group, which includes breeds such as the Shetland, Hebridean and Islandic.

Traditionally, cows were also kept. The Faroes had it’s own breed of cow, a small dual purpose animal that could provide milk and meat off of the available grazing (for more information and pictures see here and here.). Sadly, the Faroese cow is now extinct, as we heard from a farmer in the village of Saksun. As AI became more accessible, the keeping of bulls declined. However, semen from Faroese bulls was not available so the local cow was lost to out breeding to breeds such as the Norwegian Red. Efforts are now being made to resurrect the breed from the existing gene pool in the islands.

The Faroe islands are self sufficient in milk, with dairy farms concentrated on the more agriculturally favoured areas of the islands. Although the modern dairy cows used are arguably more productive then the traditional breed, they are much less well adapted to the environment. As we were told, the large animals are now too heavy for the wet soils of the islands. Consequently, most dairy cows are kept indoors all year round and forage is bought to them.

Many British farm breeds nearly met the same fate as the Faroese cow, including the Shetland cow. Numbers fell as low as 40 pure bred animals, before concentrated efforts were made to save the breed. Numbers are now much improved and we are lucky enough to have a cow and calf ourselves.

Penlan Iris and her calf arrived last week. As a small hardy breed we expect that they will be lighter on the land and require less in the way of housing. Cattle grazing will be helpful in the management of the grassland. Iris, as a house cow, should provide adequately for our household from the forage we can provide for her on the land and the calf will be reared on the same.

Oh and in case you were wondering, yes, we did see the eclipse. We did not have perfectly clear skies (I think cloud is the default weather in the Faroes) but saw enough to be happy, and thoroughly enjoyed the dramatic experience.