The history of the Dexter breed is a story of Irish innovation and survival. This was the smallest cow breed in Europe, it was commissioned in 1776 by Lord Hawarden – the Earl of Dundrum, Down County – and selected for by his agent, Christopher Dexter. The Dexter was bred by genetically selecting South Tipperary Mountain cattle of the Kerry breed, with the goal of producing a small breed of hardy animals. Known as the poor man’s cow, its meat and abundant milk have been a reliable source of sustenance for local farmers and their families for decades.
The Dexter breed is black, brown or red in colour, and possess two types of physiognomic forms: one characterised by normal bodies and very short legs, the other proportionally small in every dimension. Due to their small size and adaptation to climate and open air, they are used for grazing in conservation areas. Traditional breeds have the ability to exploit patches of low-quality grass: Dexters have proven effective in controlling invasive species such as Juncus juncus through grazing.
Changes in the agricultural industry, with advances in technology and machinery, have had an impact on the conservation of this breed. As more specialised dairy and beef breeds were introduced from the continent, and were encouraged by government subsidies, the number of dexters began to decline. Breeders have faced many challenges with climate change, rising energy costs, food security, and rural decline. In addition, a reduced gene pool has brought genetic diseases, such as Chondrodysplasia, which causes great losses due to the animal’s poor performance; structural instability and reduced reproductive potential.
The meat is tender, with a sweet and slightly nutty flavour. Their rich diet of wild herbs ensures that the product is rich in CLA, Omega 3, Omega 6 and Omega 9. The artisanal salami is produced using traditional methods, without the use of chemicals; the milk is extremely creamy, similar to Jersey milk; dripping production ensures that the level of waste from each carcass is drastically reduced, increasing the shelf life and sustainability of the product.
Finally, products such as leather and bone and horn processing are an opportunity for the local economy and the continuation and enhancement of ancient traditions.