It’s a cow’s life – Red Poll roam free in Cambridge

red poll in Grantchester Meadows

Continuing the scuseme what interviews with interesting people around Cambridge. The Red Poll cattle come onto the Commons in Cambridge on the 1st April. I meet with Angelika von Heimendahl to find out how they got there.

Cattle on the Common

cam cattle cambridge scusemeThe landscape of Cambridge is defined by its college spires, medieval cobbled streets and the swathes of green that border the Cam for most of its passage through the city.  And pivotal to this historic scene are the cattle that graze these meadows.  Notably on Midsummer Common, as well as the gentle slopes that run down to the river from the Grantchester path.  Grazing rights have been fundamental on this common land for hundreds of years, but cattle have returned only over the last 10 years, thanks to the intervention of grazier and Cambridge vet, Angelika.

A common for a commoner

Angelika studied agriculture in her native Germany. She had long had an interest in farming, but her day to day dealings with people’s family pets in her Cambridge practice, as well as raising a family left her little time to pursue this interest.  “I was walking the dogs one day on Midsummer Common with a friend not long after the Foot and Mouth epidemic.  He told me that the common had lost its grazier.  We were worried about the fate of the land, and whether it would simply become unmanaged parkland.  It was then that I had my lightbulb moment.  I had the knowledge and interest to farm, but no land.  So, I applied to the City Council and became a Commoner”.

Red Poll roam

By 2007 Angelika had bought her first eight Red Polls, a traditional East Anglian breed of cattle, which are now quite rare.  Their relatively small size, docile nature and inherent lack of horns (polled means without horns) makes them ideal for locations where they are likely to encounter people.  “Eager customers quickly made themselves known and my first eight were sold over a few weekends.  So, when Grantchester Meadows became available to rent from its owners, King’s College, I was able to expand my stock”.

Meat market days

With a growing herd (Cam Cattle now has 70 steers), Angelika needed to find other ways to sell the meat.  “We started doing (and continue to do) Cambridge’s Sunday market and we also sell our meat in St Ives (every 1st & 3rd Saturday of the month), Impington (every 3rd Saturday) & Fowlmere (every 2nd Saturday).  We sell through Mr Waller’s butcher on Victoria Road, Chesterton, as well as through the Lensfield Road Farmers Outlet”.

Happy cattle

The tranquil scene of grazing cattle on a summer meadow belies the hard work and management required.  In the winter the cows need to leave the meadows, and Cam Cattle has a “bed and breakfast” arrangement with a local farmer.  Although red polls can be used for milking, Angelika just has beef cattle.  “Calving would be a problem in an urban environment, with dogs and people around, and the cleansings dropped in the grass after birth.  We buy 9-12-month-old calves that have been weaned from their mothers from two fantastic Norfolk breeders that supply us every spring”.

Food provenance

Food provenance and the way the beef is produced is fundamental to Cam Cattle.  “We produce excellent, grass fed, local, organic meat and are part of the ‘Pasture for Life’ farming association that tries to reduce the environmental footprint that livestock farming can have”.  Angelika feels that industrial food production has separated people from the food source. That additives have become so widespread and that it is impossible for the consumer to read every label. Local farmer’s markets make it easy to buy the basic ingredients for every meal and know what you are eating, with the added bonus of local and seasonal produce.

“I respect vegans and vegetarians because they think about their food and live by their principles.  The customers that I find difficult are those who say ‘I couldn’t eat them because I see them every day’.  That is the point: if you eat meat, then you should know where it comes from.  Surely, it’s good to see what kind of life they have had.  Who would know that a Cornish leg of lamb bought in Waitrose in Truro will have been taken to their single slaughter house in Pontefract and then brought all the way back again?  Even so called free-range chickens are kept in tens of thousands.  I would personally rather reduce my meat intake than eat something that I think has had a bad life.”

Spring pleasures

Angelika gets so much pleasure cycling through Midsummer Common and seeing her cattle in full view of the public.  “When the cows get turned out in the Spring, they put their heads down and you can see how happy they are being outside again.  They don’t look half as nice inside; there is something about the beautiful russet colour of my cattle set against the green pasture”.

Easy going cows

Angelika believes humans are hard wired to connect with livestock.  “I have favorites, problem children. Last year we had one that didn’t want to get too near to people.  But it’s those that are too tame that can be more of a problem. This is because people can become silly; like trying to put their kids on the cows’ backs or shove the buggy under a cow.  I had someone report me to the RSPCA because they said the cattle had diarrhea not realizing that cow poo comes out like that. The guy from the RSPCA found it highly amusing”.

But generally, people get on just fine with her cows.  “Dogs and cattle are usually all right because they strike a balance.  When the dogs get too cheeky the cattle will turn around and put their heads down because they have had enough”.  Angelika’s advice is simple.  If you approach don’t get eye contact as this makes them see you as more of a threat.  Also approaching them from behind is worrying for them. If you have a dog and the cattle get worried; let the dog go.  If they chase your dog it will run away and escape under a hedge. But she has not had an injury or a problem in ten years.   “My cows are pretty easy going”.

So if you fancy some happy (and very tasty) beef, come to any one of the Cam Cattle outlets.  Beef, pies, pasties, biltong (from a lovely South African who lives in Grantchester), and lamb from a farmer in Willingham.

To find out more visit: here

Dawn Giesler is the founder of scuseme, a recommendation service that provides an essential and honest resource to help your family run smoothly. Dawn has lived in Cambridge for over 20 years and offers advice based on her own experiences. Contact Dawn if you want to have a question about our services or visit scuseme for more information.