Farm­yard tales

The Guardian Weekly - - Books - Blake Mor­ri­son

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.

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