The Silence of the Cows

After watching the wonderful film, ‘the Moo Man’ I have become interested in how cows behave, and how we interact with them. It is not enough to go along with John Berger in his ‘Looking at Animals’ which describes how we have lost touch with nature, and how animals used to be our intermediaries between humanity and wild nature. By understanding animals we come closer to understanding ourselves, and in reading W H Hudson’s books on England in the early 20th century, I am constantly struck by how different animals were then. There is also a sense in his encounters with country people that those who worked on the land seemed to be very sound, contented people, not the ignorant hicks of stereotypes. Adn the more I read these stories, the more I am driven to wonder about our relationship with what we call the natural world, but is clearly far from natural. Here is another excerpt from his book ‘Afoot in England’

“Three or four miles from Ottery St Mary [Devon] I overtook a cowman driving 9 milch cows along a deep lane and enquired my way of him. … the cows he was driving were all pure Devons, perfect beauties in their bright red coats in that greenest place where every rain-wet leaf sparkled in the new sunlight.

Naturally we talked about the cows, and I soon found that they were his own and the pride and joy of his life. We walked leisurely, and as the animals went on first, first one, then another would stay for a mouthful of grass, or pull down half a yard of green drapery from the hedge. It was so lavishly decorated that the damage they did to it was not noticeable. By and by we went on ahead of the cows, then, if one stayed too long or strayed into some inviting side-lane he would turn and utter a long, soft call, whereupon the straggler would leave her browsing and hasten after the others.

He was a big, strongly built man, a little past middle life and grey-haired, with a rough-hewn face – unpreposessing one would have pronounced him until the intelligent, kindly expression of the eyes was seen and the agreeable voice was heard.

In our talk I told him of long rambles on the Mendips, along the valley of the Somerset Axe, where I had lately been, and where, of all places in this island, the cow should be the most esteemed and loved by man. Yet even there, where, standing on some elevation, cows beyond one’s power to number could be seen scattered far and wide in the green vales beneath, it had saddened me to find them so silent. It is not natural for them to be dumb; they have great emotions and mighty voices – the cattle on a thousand hills. Their morning and evening lowing is more to me than any other natural sound – the melody of birds, the springing and dying gales of the pines, the wash of waves on a the long shingled beach.  The hills and valleys of that pastoral country flowing with milk and honey should be vocal with it, echoing and re-echoing the long call made musical by distance. The cattle are comparatively silent in that beautiful district, and, indeed, everywhere in England, because men have made them so. They have, when deprived of their calves, no motive for the exercise of their voices. For 2 or 3 days after their new-born calves have been taken from them they call loudly and incessantly, day and night like Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted; grief and anxiety inspires that cry – they grow hoarse with crying; it is a powerful, harsh, discordant sound, unlike the long musical call of the cow that has a calf, and remembering it, and leaving the pasture, goes lowing to give it suck. I also told him of the cows of a distant country where I had lived, that had the maternal instinct so strong that they refuse d to yield their milk when deprived  of their young. They ‘held it back’, as the saying is, and were in a sullen rage, and in a few days their fountains dried up, and there was no more milk until calving-time came round once more.

He replied that cows of that temper were not unknown in South Devon. Very proudly he pointed to the small herd that followed us as an example. In most cases, he said, the calf was left from 2 to 3 days to a week, or longer, with the mother to get strong and then taken away. This plan could not always be followed; some cows were so greatly distressed at losing the young they had once suckled that precautions had to be taken and the calf smuggled away as quietly as possible when dropped – if possible before the mother had seen it. Then there were the extreme cases in which the cow refused to be cheated. She knew that a calf had been born; she had felt it within her and had suffered pangs in bringing it forth; if it appeared not on the grass or straw at her side then it must have been shnatched away by human creatures that hoered about her, like crows and ravens round a ewe in travail on some lonely mountain side. That wsa the character of the cow he had pointed out: even when she had not seen the calf of whoich she had been deprive, she made so great an outcry and was thrown into such a rage and fever, refusing to be milked, that, finally,, to save her, it was thought necessary to give her back the calf. Now, he concluded, it was not attempted to take it away: twice a day she was allowed to have it with her and suckle it and she was a very happy animal.  “

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