by Marian Burros
IN 1985, a breed of cattle that may have helped win the Revolutionary War was about 15 animals away from extinction.
Today between 300 and 400 of those animals, Randall Linebacks, are providing some of the country’s most desirable rose veal (the name for the meat of grass-fed calves). Still, Randall Lineback veal is in such short supply that it is available at only six restaurants in the Washington area and a farmers’ market in Connecticut, in Litchfield County.
Many of the cattle, most of them with a white belt down the back, black sides and a black muzzle, are living a pastoral life on 475 acres of prairie grass and clover at Chapel Hill Farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, about 65 miles from Washington.
The animals, also called Randalls, belong to Joseph Henderson, who lives with his wife, Lucia, in a stone house that began life in the late 18th century and grew into a substantial estate.
“I could have had race horses on the land,” Mr. Henderson said, “but I’m coming from a background of Trout Unlimited and conservation of species, and I’ve got a hunk of land that can do something good for cows. So I got in touch with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and found the cow in most desperate shape of all, ‘critically endangered.’
The herd, descendants of cattle shipped from Europe in the 17th century, had been raised on the Randall farm in Sunderland, Vt., since 1912 and never crossbred. The family sold them in 1985. They were eventually bought by Cynthia Creech, who lived on a farm in Tennessee. She had heard about the animals and wanted to save them.
Tennessee proved too warm for cows used to New England’s climate. In 2002 Mr. Henderson invited Ms. Creech and her cows to his farm in Berryville, Va. In 2004 she moved most of them farther north, leaving behind 15 she sold to Mr. Henderson. Those helped form the nucleus of his herd of 184 animals. Ms. Creech has 85 in Amenia, N.Y., and others on farms in New England and elsewhere. This year, two returned to the original Randall farm in Sunderland.
No matter how historic the animals, or how wealthy the owner, few people will rescue a breed just to look at.
On a recent evening Mr. Henderson entertained guests under an arbor. The pièce de résistance: slow-roasted rack of Randall Lineback veal with smoked peaches. “You save critters that are doomed for extinction by finding a job for them,” he said.
Mr. Henderson says he works in his Washington real estate business a few days a week so he can afford to raise cattle, not yet a profit-making venture.
“We grew some animals to find out what they were good for,” he said. Raised as veal, they provided tender meat with fresh, bright flavor. The calves stay with their mothers in pasture until they are weaned at four months, when they go into a pasture of their own. They are slaughtered at eight months and then hung for three weeks.
Mr. Henderson looked for chefs who could butcher; he sells whole animals. He has sold to Robert Wiedmaier of Marcel’s and R. J. Cooper of Vidalia in Washington, and to Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Va.
The Randall Linebacks appear to be the last of the “all purpose” local breeds that were popular before cattle were bred for specific purposes, said D. Phillip Sponenberg, a professor of pathology and genetics at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, who works to save rare breeds. The animals provided milk and meat, and also did agricultural work.
Historians say Randalls may have been the oxen that pulled cannons captured at Fort Ticonderoga to heights above Boston in 1776, cannons that were used to dislodge the British.
Mr. Henderson is looking for five farms near cities, where cattle could be raised and sold. He needs people with time and money, he said, “and most people don’t find cows beautiful.”
“You have to find a wacky person when you are trying to rescue something in danger of extinction,” he said.