The Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young Faber & Faber, 160pp
What is it like to be a cow? If Rosamund Young is to be believed, it’s pretty much like being human. Cows are “besotted” by and “dote on” their newborns, and nurture and counsel them as they grow up. They form “devoted and inseparable” friendships. They talk to each other, discuss the weather, pass on wisdom, introduce themselves to newcomers, mers, go for walks, kiss, babysit, love to be stroked, ed, play hide-and-seek, have running races, take ke offence, hold grudges, lose their temper, get stressed and grieve over the death eath of a parent or child. They hey also tease, pressurise, rise, question, retaliate against and “show baffled gratitude” towards their keepers. . In short, they are the same as we are, though hough perhaps morally superior.
Young’s parents began an farming in the Cotswolds in 1953, 3, when she was 12 days old, and nd she and her brother Richard chard have continued the family mily tradition, with a large herd of pedigree Ayrshires and some sheep. From the start, she was used d to stroking cows, speaking ng to them by name and enjoying joying their individuality. y. And she soon came to see that hat they were individuals to each ach other too, tied by birth or other her forms of kinship. For example, mple, the “White Boys”, two white bulls close in age, would walk alk around shoulder to shoulder and sleep with their heads resting ng on each other.
Her book was first published by a specialist farming press 14 years ago. After the success of James Rebanks’s The Shepherd’s Life in 2015 as well as recent nature writing that invites us to reappraise the inner lives of animals, its reissue looks timely. But media interest in the Young family and Kite’s Nest Farm dates back to at least the 1980s. Theirs is a leading example of organic farming, based on the idea that livestock treated with kindness and consideration will have happier lives – and produce better meat.
Young is well aware of what she is up to. No more carping about whether animals feel the same emotions as humans do. And no more herd mentality: every cow must be seen as unique. She writes about them as though they were characters in a novel: “The angry expression that had taken hold of her face relaxed and she turned and walked out”; “She looked after him of course but was visibly relieved when he went off to play with his friends”; “Stephanie and her daughter Olivia enjoyed a normal close relationship”; “Durham was psychologically balanced but rather small”; “Charlotte and Guy got on like a house on fire”. At other times she’s zoomorphic, to comic effect: cows eat “like a horse” and calves “like caterpillars”, while hens are “busy as bees” and bulls “a different kettle of fish”.
Her evidence for the qualities she finds in cows (empathy, guile, altruism, happiness, eccentricity) is anecdotal rather than scientific. But some of the stories are certainly compelling. There is the cow that wakes her with its desperate mooing, then leads her to its sick (“blown”) calf; the cow that uses its nose to wriggle a rope over a gatepost in order to get to a trailer full of hay; the cow that consistently removes a woollen hat worn by one of the farmhands (but never anyone else’s); the cows that use their stares to reproach or cajole; the cows that eat willow to recover from illness; the hens that act as bodyguards to their injured sister and mourn her eventual death.
In this benign view of nature, the lion lies down with the lamb – or rather the lamb (Audrey) and the pig (Piggy) ignore differe differences of size and species to become best frie friends (Piggy being better company than Audrey’s A “boring” fellow orphan lamb S Sybil). Two bulls almost co come to blows and occas sional deaths are noted. B But there’s none of the ha hardship and agony you find in i Rebanks’s memoir or Ted Hughes’s Hugh Moortown poems. The tone is r relentlessly upbeat: “All birds are happy hap clever creatures” etc. There’s even a soppy poem addressed to one of the author’s favourite cows, Am Amelia.
Will t the book do anything to app appease those who see cattle fa farming of any kind as “catastr “catastrophic”? Probably not, though i it claims that two-thirds of farmland farmlan in the UK is grassland, mostly “unsuitable for crop productio production”, and points out that a switch to arable farming usually means the removal of hedgerows, which are vit vital for carbon storage and partly offset m methane emissions.
What the bo book does highlight, by contrast to its own shining example, is the immorality of in intensive farming. No one who has read h her book will look at cows
in the same lig light again.