The Common Cow

There’s a show running on the BBC in the UK at the moment called What to Eat Now. It’s a 4-part series about eating seasonally, and the first show of the second season (the first season ran last autumn) was about barbecuing. Divided into segments, the host Valentine Warner does a little bit of cooking, a little bit of foraging, and also interviews local food experts.

One of the segments on the first episode was about a herd of cows being kept on the Midsummer Common in Cambridge. With students and local residents walking, cycling or even rowing past, the herd of 11 Red Poll cows, as well as a bull, appear unfazed. The rare breed of East Anglian cattle were chosen for their exquisite taste as well as their gentle temperaments (they have no horns or “polls”) , and aside from the occasional drunken university student giving chase, it appears that most of the locals have become quite protective of the cows, even putting up protest when a local butcher shop began to advertise their meat for sale. (Which might be unnerving, but that’s the point of raising cattle, one would think.)

The laws regarding “common land” or a “common” date back to feudal times when British upper classes owned all of the land, and commoners had to use a shared piece of property on which to hunt, fish and graze their cattle. The idea came with the Colonists to North America and cities created by British settlers featured large common areas. In Halifax, despite its designation as Canada’s oldest urban park, the commons, mostly recently known for hosting massive concerts featuring the likes of The Rolling Stones or Sir Paul McCartney, was originally created for pasturage and military use.

In the What to Eat Now segment, Warner explains that the woman who owns the herd found a centuries-old law on the Cambridge city books that permitted commoners to use the common to pasture cattle. Similar old laws on city books around England have also been cited by agricultural activists to create local community-run gardens. Turns out that if you can find a bit of unused city-owned land and enough people to take part in maintaining it, the law there says the city has to turn it over to the group as long as it is maintained for the requested use.

So I can’t help but wondering… if North American cities, especially Canadian cities, were created based on a British standard that existed at the time, do we still have some of those old laws on the books here? Could we see herds of cattle showing up on the Halifax commons? Or a patch of scrub land on city-owned property in Toronto or Calgary turned into a community garden space? Here in Toronto, locals can apply to create a community garden in an existing park, but the red tape to get it going is a horror. Many cities, even if they haven’t updated their bylaws regarding common spaces, have updated the list of animals that residents are permitted to keep, so a herd of cattle might not be in the cards. But for the growing number of urban farmers, it’s an idyllic thought.