A Critical Look at the Cows About Cambridge

In Spring 2021, after ten years living in various parts of Birmingham, I moved to Cambridge for my work. I now live with my partner in a village a couple of miles north of Cambridge city, and have spent the last few months settling into our new quieter and slower pace of life. We moved during the third lockdown in England, in March 2020, and spent little time in the city before April. As restrictions eased, I had the pleasure of meeting people in the city centre for the first time and was quickly introduced to the bovine pride of Cambridge: herds of free-roaming cows. A few months later, as pandemic restrictions eased further, a ‘spectacular public art event’ Cows About Cambridge, was launched. In this blog, I recount some of my encounters with Cambridge’s cows, both actual and artistic, writing about a city who lives alongside cows without grappling with the violence of this co-habitation.

A cow at the living farm at Sandwell Valley Country Park © Catherine Oliver, 2019

City Cows

During my PhD, I interviewed vegans across Britain about their veganism and their relationships with animals. One of these people was based in Newcastle in the North-East of England and told me a story about him, his dog, and the city’s herd of cows:

In Newcastle, we have something called the Town Moor which is a huge moorland right within the city centre. The Freemen of the city are allowed to graze cattle there, so there’s all these cows in the city centre. The cows are only on the Moor between March and November every year. In a weird sense, I never really thought about it. [I thought] the cows are out here during the nice weather and then they put them inside in the winter. But they’re not dairy cows, they’re beef cows, and obviously its new cows every twelve months.

We walk our Great Dane there. He loves playing with these cows and because he’s not a little terrier who chases them, he just walks amongst them and they like him. Anyway, there’s this weird moment where the first walk after I turned vegan, when they came back again – huh of course they didn’t come back again – a different set of cows came back. It was emotional when we saw them, my wife and I and we just had this kind of moment. These aren’t the same cows who we built a relationship with. The cows came out and they were skittish and jumpy. I thought, ‘that’s weird, they were fine with us last year.’ My wife said, ‘you know these aren’t the same cows?’

It was a moment of realisation: oh my god this is horrible. It’s so horrible because in a city you don’t often encounter the meat that people consume because they live elsewhere, so there’s this disconnect. So, we’ve got this new set of cows and we’re building up this bond with them again. I was out there this morning for 45 minutes, and they were lying down and they don’t mind us being there. I’ve got this newfound bond with these cows, which I think I always had but because I now have this stark new reality that come November, they’re going off to slaughter.

Quote from a vegan in Newcastle, interviewed in 2018

These cows returned year after year, until they didn’t, because they never had. When he meets these cows again, they don’t remember him because they have never met him before. Where previously the cows’ behaviours were understood as forgetting and refamiliarization, after he became vegan, the world was transformed . The human-cow-dog relationship is forever changed as the urban gaze opens to what Richard White (2015) might call the invisibilized interspecies violence of the urban space.

I was taken with the story and dedicated a significant amount of space to it in my PhD thesis (and also in my forthcoming book), in a chapter exploring how people’s navigations of space transform after veganism. When I arrived in Cambridge and met the city cows, I already knew that when I learned more about them, I would be hurt. I began to steel myself for the future, cyclical traumas that will punctuate my life in this city as the cows appear in Spring, are disappeared in Autumn, and return in new bodies.

Cows pictured at Cuerden Valley © Catherine Oliver, 2021

Cambridge’s Cows: A Brief History

Cambridge’s bovine history is a long one, which is closely entangled with the history of the commons in England. At one point, almost half of the land in England was common but today, only 3% remains common land. Cambridge’s city centre is punctuated with open green spaces woven into the city:

‘These pieces of land are hardly ever mentioned in historical literature but Cambridge would be unrecognisable without Jesus Green, Lammas Land, Stourbridge Common and many more such areas. They make what Green Badge guide, Gerald Smith, calls the ‘Cambridge Green Belt’, green spaces woven throughout the city, often taken for granted but used by many. And what’s incredible is that these commons have developed by accident, used for grazing and recreation because they couldn’t be used for anything else.

‘Come and explore the Commons of Cambridge,’ Open Cambridge, https://www.opencambridge.cam.ac.uk/news/come-and-explore-commons-cambridge
Google maps view of Cambridge city

Cambridge residents, and those further afield, may well have heard of one of these green areas in the local and national media in Summer 2021, when the public use of Grantchester Meadows was threatened by the landowners, King’s College. Although the ban was ultimately recalled before being implemented, its announcement was met with anger by those who used the area.

Other areas of Cambridge remain commons, meaning that the people of Cambridge have traditional rights over the land, including the right to graze “livestock” animals on it.

Midsummer Common is one of these areas, located just a few minutes walk along the river, to the north-east of the city centre. As you can see in the map, Midsummer Common is divided by Victoria Avenue from Jesus Green, a road built in 1890. Prior to this division, Midsummer Common (including Jesus Green) had been used to graze cattle since 1381, which was met with ‘a serious riot when the mayor was compelled to assert the rights of commoners to pasture cattle in [the] meadows’ (The History of Midsummer Common).

Cows grazing in Midsummer Common © Catherine Oliver, 2021

In 1624, the Vice-Chancellor of the University issued an ordinance that included that:

Every occupier of an ancient tenement having of old time broad gates may turn out two head of cattle. Every occupier of other tenements and cottages may turn out one. Every person having six score acres of land in Cambridge field may turn out six, and so in proportion for any greater or less quantity of land

The History of Midsummer Common

And, according to the Friends of Midsummer Common:

An 1861 Common Seal of the Borough, the Rights of Common on Midsummer Green or Jesus Green were for geldings, mares and cows from Old May Day to Old Candlemas Day. Similar Rights existed for Butt Green but starting earlier – from Old Lady Day, but in the day time only. In 1923 the Council decided to exclude animals from Jesus Green.

Friends of Midsummer Common, Grazing on the Common

As for the rules around grazing on Midsummer Common today, the 1965 Commons Registration Act allows residents and landowners in the City of Cambridge to graze geldings, mares and cows from 1st April to 30th November each year, up to a total of twenty animals. The Cambridge City Council Act 1985 ‘allows the Council to prescribe the procedure for the registration of commoners entitled to graze animals, to set the number of grazing animals, and to make a reasonable charge’ (Friends of Midsummer Common. For many years, animal grazing was absent from the common, but this changed in 2007 with the introduction of a herd of Red Poll steers by a commoner.

Table showing the rights to crazing on Cambridge Commons, Friends of Midsummer Common

Today, five local farmers pay £38.98 a head for a herd to graze on designated parklands from the beginning of April to the end of October. One of those grazing cattle is vet Angelika von Heimendahl, who bought eight Red Poll to the Common in 2007, which is ‘derived from
the original cattle of Norfolk and Suffolk – the Norfolk cow was crossed with the Suffolk polled bull. In the first half of the last century it was one of the dominant breeds in English dairy farming’ (The History of Midsummer Common).

As reported in The Independent in 2018:

She now keeps about 80 [cows] on Midsummer Common and another meadow, putting some of them up for the winter on Wright’s farm. Her income barely covers her expenses, she says. But she has made the best of it by selling her Red Poll beef in local markets under the brand CamCattle, for Cantabrigians who enjoy dining on meat that they may have passed in the park not so long before. “The commons are my shop window,” she says.

The Independent, 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/cambridge-cattle-cows-commons-why-parks-livestock-countryside-urbanisation-a8460171.html

The meat of these Cambridge-grazing cows is sold for a premium, and marketed as sustainable, locally-raised meat who have lived a life of so-called freedom.

Meeting the Midsummer Cows

On a walk with a new friend out from the city centre, I was surprised to see a herd of red-brown cows lounging and grazing on the common. I can’t remember what I said, but I do remember immediately thinking of the man who, years before, had told me his shock and sorrow about learning the fate of the free-roaming cows of Newcastle. Later that day, I texted a couple of friends who used to live in Cambridge to ask if they could tell me anything about these cows. They replied quickly and adamantly that these were dairy cows. Despite their confidence, I knew that this was not the case.

If these were dairy cows, who is milking them? And where were their calves? There was no doubt in my mind from the moment I saw them that these were cows bred for meat. My suspicion was later confirmed, when I found out that their free-roaming bodies in prestigious Cambridge fetched a premium price. That day, our walk continued up through the common, passing another herd of brown and white cows further east of the city.

Cows in Midsummer Common © Catherine Oliver, 2021

A few weeks later, I met another friend on Midsummer Common on a warm late spring day. Armed with an oat milk latte, we settled on a quiet part of the common, some distance away from the cows. In England, we were recently out of lockdown, and were still under restrictions that meant socialising was limited to outdoors. The warm sun and work from home directives meant that the common was filled with people. Conscious that I did not want to impose on the cows, we left them alone and they provided a peaceful, if somewhat jarring, urban presence.

Having developed and adopted an approach of friendship through my work and in my personal life to others, human, animal, and earthly, my sense of leaving the cows to their day and getting on with my own is one that resulted from practice and nurture over many years. It involved putting what their needs and desires above my own excitement to be around a cow in the city. For my fellow urban dwellers that day, this interspecies ethic had, of course, not been widely cultivated. As we sat in the common, people flocked to the cows, attempting to take pictures and to pet the cows heads and bellies.

Brown cows grazing on Coe Fen © Catherine Oliver 2021

The cows for a long while seemed to bear with the constant flocking of people towards them, their exclamations, and a human desire to be in brief community with the cows. Then, suddenly, were you not attuned to the cow’s growing discontent, one animal began loudly shouting and whipping their tail. Just a few moments before, I had thought that this cow did not look happy. Across the common, other cows joined in expressing their growing discontent, but people were not deterred even when the sounds of distress continued and grew louder.

After a few moments, people began to realise that the cows weren’t happy, as the herd which had been atomised just moments before began to draw together. Sleeping cows stood up and headed to the group, mooing all the while. Quickly, people began to make space for the cows, somehow realising that these huge animals might actually be capable of harming a human, despite the widespread idea of cows as docile. When the humans of the common had given the cows a wide enough berth, they began to settle and headed off across the common away from these disruptive humans.

A cow in Midsummer Common © Catherine Oliver, 2021

In this encounter, it was clear that the people in Cambridge, as Carol Adams proposes, objectify, fragment and consume these cows long before they reach the table. These cows are constantly consumed as they graze. They are not granted agency or empathy by virtue of living amongst humans, but are exceptional objects on Cambridge’s landscape. These cows are living commodities, but this commodification is not only in their bodies but also their affective and emotional presence in the city creating cultural capital. These free-roaming cows present an idealised version of eating animals, removing the violence, and simultaneously enlisting them to undertake novel forms of byproductive labour for the humans and culture of Cambridge.

One Cambridge councillor, Anna Smith, said of the cows in 2017:

Not only does [cow grazing] contribute to making our city such a special place, but it also enhances the biodiversity of our open spaces. I look forward to seeing the cows return for the grazing season.

Cambridgeshire Live, 2017

The closer that I look at these cows, the more kinds of labour and anthropocentric ‘goods’ are written onto not only their bodies, but their urban presence, as cultural commodities, workers in ‘austerity environmentalism,’ and eventually as premium cuts of beef.

King’s College rents out their land on The Backs to a local farmer to graze a small herd of cows. Unconfirmed rumours say that ‘the cows have, on occasion, found their way onto the College Formal Hall menu’ (Varsity, 2018). Image: Cows on The Backs © Catherine Oliver, 2021

Representing Cows: The Art Trail

The cultural capital that the cows attract to Cambridge is nowhere more explicit than in the ‘Cows About Cambridge’ art trail launched in 2021. Described as a ‘spectacular art event weaving its way around the city’ across the summer months of 2021, 90 cow sculptures have been placed around the city centre. 44 large sculptures have been designed by artists, and 46 smaller cows have been designed by schools and community groups:

Cows of Cambridge, 2021

This kind of art trail is not a new phenomenon. In Birmingham in 2015, the city was flooded with 89 brightly painted owls in another ‘spectacular mass art event’ trail called The Big Hoot. In 2012, Melbourne saw a parade of hybrid creatures designed by artist Alexander Knox flood their streets in the Me and UooUoo art trail. The fictional UooUoo, pronounced you-you, merged a wombat and a dugong and were installed to celebrate 150 years of the Royal Children’s Hospital. In 2019, The Bristol Zoological Society Bristol commissioned 20 bear sculptures and ran a bear sculpture trail at The Wild Place Project.

While the concept of the animal art trail is not new, the proximity of the cow art and the city cows themselves present an interesting comparative spatial case. Describing the trail, Cows about Cambridge say that the cows will:

graze outside for 10 weeks, forming a fun, free, family-friendly art trail for residents and visitors to follow. Smaller sculptures adopted and decorated by schools, colleges and community youth groups as part of the Learning Programme will also be displayed as part of the adventure called the Mini Moos!

Cows about Cambridge brings communities together to help them celebrate their city through creativity. Trail explorers young and old will have fun rediscovering their city, learning about the artwork, and spending time together. They will get outdoors, walk more and share their stories.

Cows About Cambridge Art Trail, https://cowsaboutcambridge.co.uk/about/

Located in streets and shop windows, on greens and by key landmarks, the cows celebrate iconic sights of the city, as well as some of the city’s rich histories. The cows also each have names related to their design, which range from the punny to the perverse.

Honey, New Square Park© Catherine Oliver, 2021

At the train station, a cow painted almost entirely in green with a blue river crossing their stomach and small white cows stencilled on is called Around the City, inspired by Cambridge and its green belt. Located at the Cambridge Judge Business School is a design by Emma Graham inspired by George Orwell’s Animal Farm. It depicts the main characters and storyline and is meant to portray, without irony, the message that ‘all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.’

Can you find 100 beetles? Cambridge North Station © Catherine Oliver, 2021

Cowbridges, located at the University Arms Hotel, depicts the bridges that cross the River Cam, evoking a sense of place on this cow’s sculptural body. Punting Along The Cam, located outside the Graduate Hotel, similarly takes up the representation of Cambridge’s iconic scenes on the cow’s body. Painted by day on one side and by night on the other, this cow depicts Cambridge’s river scene.

May-Belle, Christ’s Pieces © Catherine Oliver, 2021

On Christ’s pieces, one of the city’s large green spaces, the Dairy Curie cow, sponsored by the Royal Society of Chemistry, features ‘expressionist patterns reflect the importance of continuous experimentation within chemistry, showing how experiments combine for breakthroughs to take place.’ In a similar theme, on St John’s Street, a busy road in the centre of Cambridge leading to King’s Parade, Sir Isaac Mooton stands outside the Old Divinity School. The cow is dressed in a historical outfit, and decorated with images of Newton’s discoveries.

The Doodle Cow, Grafton Centre © Catherine Oliver, 2021

Amidst these Cambridge-centric cows are also some more troubling sculptures. In the basement of John Lewis, a cow painted in Wellington boots is called Beef Wellington, described by the artist and sponsors as a ‘great play on words’ and with no commentary on the connection between the bodies of this cow and those grazing just a few minutes walk away.

There are also two sculptures that break the fourth wall of the art trail and speak directly to their audience about the actual living beings they take the form of. These are The Doodle Cow, pictured above, and The Enviromoontal Cow, pictured below.

The Environmoontal Cow, New Square Park © Catherine Oliver, 2021

The Doodle Cow, located outside one of Cambridge’s city centre malls, presents some facts about bovine bodies and cows. For example, it depicts the four stomachs of cows, notes that there are over 800 breeds of cattle, and, connecting to the local cows, points out the poll on the cow’s head right between the ears, which the Red Poll takes their name from. On the cow’s rump, there is a cloud (presumably a fart cloud) in which it is written that cows produce 250-500 litres of methane a day. Amidst these facts, there are no judgements.

On The Environmoontal Cow, there is a more explicit engagement with the climate crisis and the role that beef and dairy farming plays in environmental destruction. The cow notes crises of deforestation, methane production, high water usage for milk, the loss of biodiversity to cattle farming, and the rise of greenhouse gases. While the cow is clearly more politically and environmentally engaged than the other pieces on the trail, it falls short of articulating who might be at fault in this crisis. If anything, it continues to individualise the blame for climate crisis onto, strangely, cows themselves.

The Environmoontal Cow, New Square Park © Catherine Oliver, 2021

On the art trail, the cows of Cambridge have become a source of pride in the benevolent city, the city that creates space for “nature.” The art trail encourages people to engage with the city in new ways through these bovine sculptural representations. When I headed out on a mild Saturday afternoon in July to photograph some of the cows, both actual and sculptural, I had the added opportunity to witness people’s engagements with the cows on a leisurely afternoon. When I had passed the cows in the city before, both I and the other people around had been rushing through: to work, to meet friends, or to the shops. On a Saturday, the city is filled with dwellers, lounging and relaxing.

At New Square Park, just opposite the larger and busier Christ’s Pieces, there are two cows: the Environmoontal Cow and a cow covered in flowers called ‘Honey.’ As I photographed Honey, a small child ran up to the cow and immediately grabbed the sculpture’s udders. The child called to their nearby parent, and was delighted with the presence of this cow figure in the city. Everyone else was indifferent to the cow.

Over at the Environmoontal Cow, a young person was carefully reading all of the facts and information decorating the cow’s body. As I waited to photograph the cow, I watched them carefully engage with the sculpture for five minutes or so. As they moved on and I photographed the cow, another toddler immediately dashed over, trailed by their parent, and leapt immediately for the udders. “Sorry,” the parent said to me, “are you finished photographing it? She can’t get enough of the udders!”

Connecting Trails, Cambridge North Train Station © Catherine Oliver, 2021

Lots of people are encountering these cows in the city. Some are playing with them, others are photographing them, and some seem to be deeply engaging with the message on the cows that aim to shine a light on the place of cows in contemporary society. The art on the cows ranges from representations the city, writ upon the bovine body but unrelated to it, to sharing facts about the cow as a “climate villain.” The art trail itself encourages people to seek out and tick off the cows as points on the urban landscape. It encourages people to follow the trail to rediscover the city. The cows are instrumental to human’s urban lives, much like the actual cows grazing nearby facing an ever-closer death.

In the final section of this blog, I sit with these juxtaposed bovine bodies and trouble the vision of the tranquility that is obscuring the violence of these urban cows in Cambridge’s heart.

Where’s the Body?

I have often reflected on how fortunate I am to have come to work in the field of animal studies by way of vegan-feminist theory and activism, and ecofeminist writing. During my Masters’ study in 2014-15, I read pattrice jones’ book The Oxen at the Intersection, which introduced me not only to nuanced feminist and queer animal studies work, but also articulated the importance of embodiment in animal activism. I recently reread the book to help me think more carefully about more-than-human resistance.

Red Poll cows grazing in Midsummer Common © Catherine Oliver, 2021

In the book, the cofounder of VINE Sanctuary, pattrice jones, tells the story of how two cows, Bill and Lou, had been condemned to death in the town of Poultney, Vermont. After a long campaign, Bill escaped death, but Lou was killed, and his body never found. jones had fought to bring both community members into the sanctuary but, despite a bitter battle, Lou was killed and buried alone in a dark spring night in 2012.

Where did we go wrong? I bear some responsibility for what allies of Bill and Lou did or didn’t do in a campaign we tried to coordinate. Even before the college killed Lou, I began to suspect that we, the oxen’s allies, had erred badly in allowing so much of the discourse about the oxen to be so disembodied

pattrice jones, the oxen at the intersection, 2014, p.13

jones had launched a campaign to prevent Bill and Lou from being killed, made into hamburgers, and eaten. For years prior to this, Bill and Lou had been enlisted to walk in circles, generating electricity every day at the agricultural college who ‘owned’ them. On special occasions, they were co-opted into ‘parading’ through the town centre, with crowds gathering to watch this spectacle. When looking for Lou’s buried body, jones finds herself frustrated with what she describes as her own misplacing of the body in the campaign for Bill and Lou’s life.

The disembodiment of this campaign has stuck with jones, and VINE sanctuary today foregrounds the material circumstances and spatial specificities of their community members, whilst emphasising multispecies life and friendship. As an ecofeminist thinker, writer, and founder, pattrice jones, offers a vital defence of eros in beyond-human community: ‘what we want, most of all, is connection’ (2014, 91). For jones, it follows that thinking and living with animals needs to ‘resuscitate the queer spirit of rebellious and generous connectedness’ (ibid).

ButterCup, Midsummer Common

As I walked around Cambridge looking for cows on the art trail, I passed through Midsummer Common to say hello to the cows. After talking to the cows for a little while, seeing how they were, and speaking about other things with them, that a casual observer might have dismissed as slightly odd, I walked out of Midsummer Common towards the Grafton Centre. As I came to the edge of the common, I was faced with an art trail cow, ButterCup. Stopping to photograph the cow, I saw the herd of Red Poll cows had begun to walk across the field, and captured them just a couple of hundred metres behind this sculpture.

In the common, there are often people near the cows, trying to interact with them. Sometimes the people are scared and nervous, other times brazen and imposing. Watching the cows, watching the people, I am struck by the impending failure that I am destined to repeat each year that I live in Cambridge, when I lose these cows in Autumn, and someone else finds them, slaughtered and disembodied, on the nearby market stall. If somewhere were to ask me of these cows, “where’s the body?” I could not answer them. They’re here, with me, but they are also, in so many ways, already gone. I say goodbye to the cows, tell them I will see them soon, and carry my mourning self away.

A cow grazing in Midsummer Common © Catherine Oliver, 2021

The Cows About Cambridge Art trail produces a sense that the cows are part of the city, valued and important to Cambridge’s sense of itself. It is an extension of the positioning of the actual cows grazing in the city as valued and special to the city, its people, and its urban history. There is a long history of grazing on this land, which farmers and the council co-opt as a long history of these cows being on this land. But these cows only see this land for one summer. They only experience any world for such a short time.

I can’t help but ask the troubling question that seems to be ignored in Cambridge cow stories: is this really a good life for these cows? Or are these cows only here to serve an alternative urban imaginary that, really, doesn’t exist?

A cow grazing in the long meadow of Midsummer Common © Catherine Oliver, 2021

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