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Red poll fans gather

Red poll cattle enthusiasts from Jamaica, Kenya and Australia joined Wairarapa fans of the ancient breed this month at the start of New Zealand’s hosting of the 16th Red Poll World Congress.

Midweek caught up with congress delegates at Helen McKenzie and Warwick Potts’s Rosemarkie Rare Breeds Stud Farm in rural Martinborough, one of several stops on a multi-day tour of farms around Aeotearoa specialising in raising this “extremely adaptable and docile” animal.

The breed was established in England in the early 1800s by combining Norfolk and Suffolk cattle breeds – and is, consequently, good for both beef and milk production.

The New Zealand Red Poll Cattle website describes them as medium-sized with “good, strong legs for mobility” and “a deep red colour with good eye and udder pigmentation [to avoid sunburn], and are naturally polled [that is, no horns].”

They were first introduced to Aotearoa by Sir Heaton Rhodes at his Otahuna stud farm in Christchurchin 1898.

“When Sir Heaton died in 1956, Otahuna was 5000 acres. There was a dispersal sale in 1957, and [the farm] was cut up into returned serviceman blocks,” Ian Fleming, president of the New Zealand Red Poll Cattle Breeders Association, said.

“My grandfather, Morris Fleming, managed Otahuna for 25 years, and that’s where my father and his sister grew up.”

It makes Fleming a “third generation red poll-er”, he said.

As well as being a favourite with the late Queen Elizabeth II, red poll cattle have a number of other characteristics that make them a popular breed, Martinborough-based McKenzie said.

“You need a bit of land – they are not suitable for really tiny smallholders. But if someone is keen on cattle, they are a good choice, McKenzie, who has a herd of 26 cattle, said.

“They are not big heavy cattle, compared with some breeds, and so suit wet conditions as they don’t pug [churn up or push down] the soil, and they do well on rough feed. They forage.”

Red poll cattle’s temperament is also in their favour, Alan and Cheryl Couch, who run a 70-strong herd in Braidwood, New South Wales, said.

“They are very easy to handle and have excellent maternal traits. They grow wonderful calves and look after them really well.”

Devon Sayers and Orville Palmer, from Jamaica’s Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries, explained that the Jamaican red poll breeding programme was established in the 1940s, when the country was still a colony of Britain, and is still thriving.

“They’ve done pretty well because they’ve been in Jamaica for a long, long time,” Sayers said.

“So the ones that we have are quite adapted to our tropical climate. They don’t carry a lot of hair like the ones here. They are slick-coated.”

The “slick gene” – which was discovered by scientists in 2014, and gives cattle a short coat and improved heat tolerance – is becoming an increasingly popular trait to achieve in breeding programmes, as farmers seek ways to adapt herds to the effects of climate change.

The Red Poll World Congress, which is held every three years, is “an excellent opportunity” to get breeders and farmers from around the world who share an interest in the breed together, Robin Dawes from New South Wales said.

“It gives people a chance to see what else is available around the world.”

Delegate Eric Owino, a veterinarian from Kenya, is using the congress as a fact-finding mission in his journey to establish his own herd of red polls.

“I worked with a farmer for three years, developing the breed, and loved it. They are easy to work with and docile,” Owino said.

“We actually milk them in Kenya. It is very tasty milk with a very good butter fat content.

“In Kenya, smallholders will keep one or two animals because they are not big animals and they get milk from them, and this really works, along with their adaptability and disease resistance.”

The congress concludes in Auckland on April 23. Jamaica will host the 17th Congress in 2027.

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