The Jersey cow population is under threat with the majority of fresh milk now supplied by just six herds, writes Tom Bevan.

The sharp decline in the Channel Island's iconic cattle population has threatened the entire future of the famous breed there, an industry leader has warned.

In 2015 there were 23 dairy herds comprising 2946 milking cows.

Today, following farmers retiring or leaving the industry, the total has dropped to 2,147 over 14 herds, all but one of which are members of the Jersey Milk Marketing Board, the co-operative that supplies Jersey Dairy.

But crucially just six of those farms now meet 85 per cent of the demand for fresh milk.

This has fallen from seven decades ago when there were about 6,000 cows over 1,000 farm holdings.

And the industry is also facing potential land loss with fields used by two dairy farms, including one of only two organic milk producers, being proposed for housing.

President of the Royal Jersey Agricultural and Horticultural Society Rob Perchard said he was "only too aware" how fragile the situation was, with such a small "critical mass" of producers left.

He said: "The island of Jersey without its iconic cow is surely unthinkable - yet it is a distinct possibility given recent trends in the decline of numbers.

"And it's not just about milk supply, there are many other benefits that dairy farming brings to the island in the form of our wonderful scenery, brown cows in fields and the ability of our pastures and hedgerows to sequester carbon."

Mr Perchard said it was not just about milk production but also the "quality and unique sense of place" the Jersey cow - the second-most numerous dairy breed in the world with more than four million animals - brings to the island's sense of identity.

He said: "I want to stress this point - the island's decision-makers, influencers and indeed the whole island community needs to understand that these are hugely important qualities, the characteristics that set Jersey apart, only come about as the result of the work of farmers.

"The 8,000 vergees for which our dairy farmers are custodians are only the way they are because of their commitment, knowledge and passion."

While Jersey has always relied heavily on imports to feed its population, it is self-sufficient in meeting demand for fresh milk. Imports of fresh milk are banned by long-standing legislation to protect the dairy industry.

The purity of the Island herd is further protected by a centuries-old import ban on all other cattle breeds and newborn cows must be registered in the RJAHS Herd Book, the first bovine registry in the world, started in 1866.

Mr Perchard added that the agricultural industry in general deserved greater recognition.

He added: "It is an appreciation of how much more farmers do than just putting a few spuds or tomatoes on a supermarket shelf. Farming is a massive part of what people see and where they go to enjoy open spaces and that is what comes with a litre of milk."

In spite of the decrease, improvements to the breed since the ban on importing semen from pedigree Jersey bulls overseas was lifted in 2008 have increased positivity, improved milk quality and animal health.

This means fewer cows are needed to meet local demand for fresh milk with surplus used to make products such as UHT milk, butter and ice cream for export.