Jersey has a long history of habitation and farming on the coastlands. Bands of hunters visited the coast at sites such as La Cotte de St Brelade in the south-west as long as 250,000 years ago and more recently, Neolithic peoples established more permanent sites such as those at Le Pinacle on the west of Les Landes. These activities that utilised our coast pre-date the separation of Jersey from the mainland, an event that may have been as recent as the 14th Century.
Since people established a more permanent presence in what is now Jersey, their activities have had a huge impact on the land. During the 17th century the wool and knitting industry dominated the rural economy with coastal areas right up to the cliff edges heavily utilised. Many small farms were established and field boundaries set. People living in this typically marginal land not only grazed their animals but planted out arable crops and used heathland plants like gorse and bracken for firewood and animal bedding.
In the 19th Century the growing and export of early potatoes became the major crop in Jersey. In 1878, a major development in the potato industry took place with the discovery of a new potato variety, the Jersey Royal. The Island’s well drained and sunny slopes proved perfect for potato growing and many cliff tops were converted to potato production. By the beginning of the 20th Century some 20,000 vergées (a vergée is the equivalent of or ha) were devoted to early potato production.
Cattle-breeding expanded rapidly during the 19th Century and lasted well into the 20th Century. This industry’s importance results from the unique nature of the Jersey cow. The Jersey Herd Book was formed on the 4th April 1866 and the ancestry of all pedigree ‘Jerseys’ in the world can be traced back to the Herd Book here in the Island. In the three years from 1830, some 5,756 head of livestock were exported. Jersey cows are rarely kept on the steeper slopes but have grazed cliff top areas.
During the Occupation (1940-1945) farming and self-sufficiency were of vital importance and the cliff tops were essential. After the end of World War 2, food production remained essential as Europe recovered from the hardships of the conflict. However, from the latter parts of the 20th Century, farming the marginal, increasingly uneconomic, cliff tops and slopes has declined. Within even the last 20-30 years many fields on the coast have been abandoned.
It is probable that the bird populations that were thriving in the coastal farmland were not necessarily those of pristine, un-anthropogenic Jersey. It is unlikely that farmland birds such as yellowhammer Emberiza citronella would have been here before farming was established. The red-billed chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax may not have been common before grazing livestock were established. When farming and direct management ceased, the land reverted ‘to nature’ but not necessarily to a habitat that is useful for the birds that had adapted to the farmland. Other species such as heathland specialists including the stonechat Saxicola rubecula have also suffered as bracken has colonised the abandoned farmland and established almost a wildlife desert that is little use for any wildlife.
Today, looking at the north coast of Jersey at almost any site it is possible to see the areas of former farmland. The field structure, walls and tracks are still obvious and it is easy to see the lost land that restoration may bring back. Current and future conservation-based management will return former fields back to be of use to farmland birds like buntings and finches, while further removal of bracken dominated landscapes will allow grazed grasslands and heathland to flourish once more.