Antarctic Cows

The issue of non-native species in the Antarctic has been on the agenda at the Antarctic Treaty meeting in Sofia this past week. Usually the sorts of critters in the sights of the treaty parties are things like the king crab, rats, seeds and microbes. Occasionally larger mammals make an appearance – such as the reindeer in South Georgia. Cows, however, are rarely mentioned in the same sentence as “Antarctica.” I’m currently in Wisconsin, dairy capital of the USA, and I am aiming to change that, thanks to the help of the local archives, a well-known Antarctic hero from the USA, and this state’s enthusiasm for all things that go “moo”.

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Fresh milk is something that modern day expeditioners and Antarctic programme personnel can only dream of – it sits alongside oranges and bananas at the top of the wish list for those who overwinter. One of the long-standing jokes at the Trans-Antarctic Expedition Hut at New Zealand’s Scott Base is the 1950s style glass milk bottle that still sits in the letterbox, just like back home. Powdered milk was (and is) the order of the day – but for the USA’s Admiral Byrd, an ample supply of Horlick’s was simply not enough. Instead of the product, in 1928 he carried the source.

Any farmer round these parts will tell you that a cow is not just a cow. Byrd was discerning, and chose three award-winning Guernsey cows to take south because of the quality of their milk. A fourth, christened “Iceberg”, was born en route to Antarctica. As he was a bobby calf, Iceberg was not a useful addition to the expedition in terms of milk production. He was, however, very handy when it came to publicity. Cue the column inches back home, detailing the most southerly birth of a cattle beast, the cows’ first steps onto the icy continent, and the eating habits of the miniature dairy herd.

Not only were the adventures of the cows chronicled in the US press during the expedition, they were also hailed as heroes upon their return. Iceberg was invited to official luncheons, displayed at farm shows, and featured on pin badges. At the annual meeting of the American Guernsey Cattle Club, he was served “hay cocktails – heaps of hay with cracked ice” atop his very own table, laid with white linen. His female companions even featured in advertisements for surge milking apparatuses back home in the USA, where they were touted as having travelled the farthest distance since the famous cow jumped over the moon. There’s something to ponder next time you nip down to the shops for a tub of ice cream.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian


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