Breakneck Hill Cows leaving the hill

Above: According to the cow fund, the last autumn for the belties on Breakneck Hill has already passed. (Photo by Susan Fitzgerald)

On Friday, I posted that the fate of the Breakneck Hill Cow Fund is still up in the air. Later that day, the Operations Manager Paul Bourdon posted news that they are throwing in the towel.

Laying partial blame on a  a “toxic relationship” with the Stewardship Committee, Bourdon announced that the beloved Belties are leaving the conservation land.

Most of the herd will be sold off over the next several months. (For those of you who have been enjoying the beef – sides and cuts will be available for another 6 months.)

The good news is a couple of cows will be kept on Breakneck Hill Farm with their other animals. And Bourdon says they welcome visitors. But the days of a herd grazing on Breakneck Hill conservation land will be over.

The Belted Galloway cows have been at the site for the past 14 years. But the hill’s historic association with cows dates further back in town roots. According to past BCHF writings:

through most of the 18th century the Breakneck Hill area was referred to as the Cow Commons.

Sadly, it doesn’t appear to be the first time regulations led to a setback for Southborough’s heritage at the site. Thirty years ago, the orchard at Breakneck Hill closed down after the operator blamed the Conservation Commission for forcing his hand.

The Stewardship Committee has recently stated that they want the cows to stay on the land. Chair Jim Gorss said he was hopeful they could work out a plan that worked for the cow fund.

The dispute is rooted in concern about cows on lower wetlands and ground nesting birds in upper pastures. Reduced grazing pastures this summer would make it too difficult to maintain the herd for the fund.

Another roadblock popped up last week. The Conservation Commission claimed it would need state approval to allow grazing on the upper pastures.

Here is Bourdon’s post from the BHCF blog:

Cow Fund will Have Last Season on Conservation Land

Written by Paul on April 3rd, 2015

Conservation Commission meeting Thursday night produced an additional obstacle to the Cow Fund’s future. A letter from the bowels of the agreement file stating that changes to the pasture must be approved by the state has forced the issue. The uncertainty of this and the toxic relationship with the stewardship committee chairman has forced the Cow Fund to come to the conclusion that its time to face the reality of the situation. We will sell off the remaining cows over the spring and summer and remove our equipment from the conservation land. 

Its not all bad. Beef sides and cuts will be available for the next 6 months. We will also be donating cows to a food pantry in Roxbury we have developed a relationship with.

I will also be keeping a couple cows on my property with the pigs and chicken. All are welcome to come by to see them. I will also still continue to have programs on my property.

Finally, we want to thank our supporter and all the people we have met over the past 14 years.

Please feel free to contact me for beef, pork, eggs or to come by and say hi.

Paul Bourdon

Operations Manager, Breakneck Hill Cow Fund

For the more on the cows and their recent plight, click here.

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Shame Shame Shame
9 years ago

I for one will miss seeing the Belties. Guess we all can look forward to watching nesting ground birds. Oh wait, nobody knows if there are any making nests????

9 years ago

tragic! but o so typical…

I think that this Stewardship Committee decision needs reversing immediately. I like birds as much as the next guy but I also like what these cows have contributed to the character and appearance of the town… where’s the ‘stewardship’ for that?

9 years ago

This would seem to be yet another town “problem” that cries out for selectman Rooney’s attention. He seems to be one of the only people in our government who is able to get disputing parties to the table and comes up with ways to resolve conflict. I agree with previous posters that it would be a tragedy to lose the cows as it will reflect our movement away from what keeps us different from our neighbors. I hope he reads this blog and my sentiment is shared by others.

Jeff Rudd
9 years ago

Its a shame the views of one man on the Stewardship Committee could destroy such a good thing. I never had purchased the beef but enjoyed visiting the cows and even donated a good amount of time helping take care of the cows one year. Having grown up in town with cow pastures all around town, one in my own back yard, they will be missed. I also have never seen any “nesting birds”. Special thanks to Paul Bourdon and Chris Molinaro for there years of hard work.

David Parry
9 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Rudd

What an unexpectedly sad story. The cows are among the last, visible, remnants of our “rural character”, which this town’s Master Plan calls for “preserving”. It seems as if the situation has reached the point where our Selectmen need to assist.

Dan primack
9 years ago

This is extremely disappointing. My family moved to the breakneck hill area a few years ago, and the belties never fail to make us smile as we walk or drive by. “Can we go watch the cows?” is a constant refrain from my daughter in the summertime. They have been a wonderful presence in the area, and it’s hard to believe that red tape is causing them to be sold off. Not a proud moment for southborough.

Davi Jensen
9 years ago

I am disappointed in the leadership of this town and their actions in allowing bureaucracy to create such significant hurdles that a tradition that dates back to the towns origins is no longer part of our community.

While I understand that the Stewardship Committee’s recent request may not be unreasonable given the variety of interests they are serving for this public space. In my opinion, the owner of the cow’s did not make his decision based on this single event. There seems to have been years of contention with the committee and a systematic attempt to wear down the operators; perhaps this was just the hay that broke the cow’s back.

laurie bourdon
9 years ago

Dear Southborough Community,

The Breakneck Hill Cow Fund board members are meeting to discuss our next steps. There are many factors that have contributed to our consideration, and probable vote, to discontinue our operations. Farming and operating a sustainable non-profit agricultural organization entails resources that are not always readily available, too time consuming for volunteers, or not agreeable by all parties involved. We will continue respectful conversation with the Town to ensure that the BHCF ends in a positive manner that celebrates the accomplishments of the BHCF over the past 14 years.
Thank you for all your support,
Laurie Bourdon, President
Breakneck Hill Cow Fund

9 years ago
Reply to  laurie bourdon

A graceful statement in light of a sad situation for the town. Thank you and the others in the Breakneck Hill Cow Fund for all your hard work over the last 14 years.

Daphne Leavitt Phalon
9 years ago

I am so incredibly disappointed to read this. My mother Annie Leavitt is wiping a tear and shaking her head as she watches from Heaven. The Belties were so important to her in her effort to preserve the farms and grace of our town. They have become our icon. My children grew up feeding them bales of hay in the manger and watching as spring calves were born and visiting them in the orchard. The cows were such a symbol of our heritage and our farm town community roots. Thank you all who have supported the Cow Fund over the years. Thank you to the Bordens who have tried so hard to continue this adventure. It was a good run and I’m sorry to see them go.

Andrew G
9 years ago

Is there anything we can do to keep them?

9 years ago

Such a shame. Another example of small town Southborough politics and committees focused on the process and not the root of good. We saw it earlier with Gulbankian just down the street. 40Bs driven by high powered politics and committee after committee and politics supporting it all. My kids and I will certainly miss one of the only nice remaining attributes of this expensive for nothing town. Looking forward to the kids graduating so we can move on.

Al Hamilton
9 years ago

I think this is a real shame too. I have always like the idea that kids should understand where their food comes from.

But, in the words of Walt Kelly, “We have met the enemy, and he is us”. We live in a state where the power is increasingly placed in the hands of government. We, the voters, have handed that authority to layers upon layers of well meaning boards, committees, departments, agencies, authorities, legislatures, and executives. Each of these players may be trying to do the best job possible but the intersection of their actions is often inaction and failure.

Next time you vote for some bylaw, rule or politician consider the course that does less not more.

Who killed the “Belties”? We did.

Frank Crowell
9 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Al – you are 100% correct. If it weren’t the ground nesting birds, it would have been a protected frog or salamander or some plant life.

On a more positive note, I do wonder if the beef will be sold to residents at a discount?

Frustrated Cow Lover
9 years ago

I’ve been following this closely since March, and have attended some of the meetings in question. While there is a lot of mistrust on both sides that has built up over the years, I also know some people on both sides and they are all good people and neighbors who have contributed a lot to this parcel of land that we all love, and we shouldn’t trash the reputation of anyone who dedicates this much time and effort to a public good. Priorities may be different, but the visions are not really incompatible, and I believe that obvious compromises that would keep the cows on the land are there to be had. The stubbornness and hard feelings are getting in the way of an agreement happening, and hardening those feelings further isn’t helping anyone.

I haven’t really heard that Stewardship wouldn’t approve an agreement eventually, and I’m taking their assurances in that regard in good faith. However, they don’t seem to be able to do so nearly as quickly as the Cow Fund wants them to. This conversation should have happened much earlier. That said, I do think the cows unquestionably need more land to graze on if the herd is to be a sustainable size, and they also need some certainty that that additional land will be there before they can breed the cows this summer, which is necessary to make the herd a sustainable size going forward. That certainty has to come quickly. There may be some flexibility on what land that is, and parcels of land least likely to be bird habitat could be chosen to meet the goals of some on the Stewardship Committee, but there is plenty of grassland up there to find some extra acres. That and better pasture management techniques (many of which are already in the Cow Fund’s new plan) should be enough to make the herd sustainable.

Perhaps most importantly, they need a well-defined agreement that works for an extended period of time, so Stewardship and the Cow Fund aren’t fighting again about some detail of land use a few months from now. Few things would be healthier for everyone’s blood pressure than an extended cooling off period here.

From Laurie’s post, it’s not clear to me whether this can be salvaged. I, for one, hope it can, and ask the community to look for areas of compromise rather than points of disagreement.

9 years ago

Can the cows be moved or loaned out to areas in town that have available grazing land? St. Marks field in the center of town looks like a good candidate to me.
Maybe we could even have an event that sees them walked to the new pasture, traffic stopped and children watching, donations taken along the way and t-shirts sold.
I don’t even know how many cows this would mean or any other logistics so please pardon the question if it is beyond reasonable.

Where have you been?
9 years ago

The Breakneck Hill Cow Fund is a 501c3 – non-profit organization. As such they are dependent on volunteers and financial support from the public. That means it is your responsibility to step up and support them. The decision to dissolve is not because of any Town Committee or Board it is because the Cow Fund does not have the money or volunteer labor to manage the herd on the land they have been given by the town to use.

It was easy for a member of the cow fund to point fingers at someone he has a personal grudge against. And to blame town Committees and Boards. Easy but irresponsible.

Here are the facts:
1. If the Cow fund had enough money to suport their organization and feed the cows on the land they were given, and enough volunteer to help them manage the herd, they would not be leaving Breakneck Hill.
2. The only reason they were looking for more land was because they don’t have enough money to manage the herd on the land they already had.
3. If you the want to save the cows, instead of writing negative comments and complaining about town government, you should be writing checks and calling the cow fund offering to do manual labor. And not once in a while – manual labor on a weekly basis and substantial financial contributions on a monthly basis.

The Cow fund has been struggling for years. It is not the fault of town government.
So it is time for you – the citizens who want to see the cows remain in town, to step-up.

And if the Cow Fund decides to disolve, it is up to you to accept responsibility for not doing more to help them stay afloat.

9 years ago

Misleading. This is not factual. I’m deeply involved. It’s local government pushing agendas. “Officials” getting voted into positions they can’t manage properly and abusing power.

9 years ago

My husband and I raised four boys in Southborough and we are a stone’s throw from the former Davco Farm property – the home of the belted galloways. I know from the time our eldest son was born, we’d walk up to the cows and let the kids share in the wonder of it all. In fact,later in the years another son would work for Ray and Penny Davis on the farm and help with beekeeping and feeding the cows. It was a great alternative for a teen boy rather than get into trouble – and both Ray and Penny enjoyed having him. The following year our eldest son did his BSA Eagle Project on the property with parents and other scouts, clearing walking paths and assigning and marking names to each path (with the help of Ray Davis). It was a wonderful place to walk – up the hill by the beautiful cows grazing on bittersweet and such, to the top of hill with a picnic basket and sit there and enjoy the countryside. The belted galloways have been an attraction for us as a family – and when Ray died and the Cow Fund took over, we’d hoped to see them for many years to come – our grandkids like to see the “oreo cows” when they come to visit. Let’s preserve the rural character of Southborough and leave the cows alone. This whole issue sickens me terribly.

Frustrated Cow Lover
9 years ago

I think we could fund the entire operations of the Cow Fund and the Conservatiin Commission by launching a “Real Cows of Southborough” reality series.

9 years ago

This story was a bummer to read……I grew up walking distance from this area and loved going there and walking my dog and enjoying the scenery and the cows. I obviously don’t have all of the information after reading the article, but this seems like an easy fix.

They could just re-work the layout of the fence so that these nesting areas are outside of the fence perimeter, while also reducing the size of the herd by as few cows as needed for the newly sized grazing space. By reducing the herd size slightly, that could also potentially cut costs of maintaining the herd, which also seems to be an issue that could be resolved by this solution.

How large are these nesting areas anyway? are they really so large that my suggestion, or some version of it wouldn’t work? I’d be curious to know if anyone involved has entertained this idea.

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