News, Culture & Society

Female farmer reveals cows play games and bear grudges

Nestled halfway along a potholed track lined with mature poplars, Kite’s Nest Farm is bordered by sun-drenched meadows and trickling streams.

Perched on the northern escarpment of the Cotswolds, its 390 acres overlook the sweeping Vale of Evesham in a landscape of ancient trees and, in spring, a riot of wild flowers such as primroses, violets and wood anemones.

In the misty dawn of an autumnal morning, as the air fills with birdsong, Rosamund Young leads one of her beloved herd of much-admired cows to the milking shed.

In the misty dawn of an autumnal morning, as the air fills with birdsong, Rosamund Young leads one of her beloved herd of much-admired cows to the milking shed

It is a daily ritual that she or another member of her farming family have performed for decades since they bought this very special place in 1980.

Since then it has been turned into one of the most respected and successful organic farms in the country, rejecting the intensive techniques of modern agriculture well before the organic movement – as it has become – had been conceived.

The farm shop sells only beef from hand-reared animals fed on the lush grassland of the surrounding fields. 

Their practices can even claim to have influenced Prince Charles’s commitment to organic farming – it was following a visit to the property in the late 1980s that he was persuaded to adopt fully a similarly natural approach.

But theirs is a family affair in more ways than one. Beginning with Rosamund’s parents Mary and Harry, the Youngs have kept cattle since 1953, and all but a handful of their current herd are descended from five pedigree Ayrshires.

It is their innate understanding of the nature of these docile, gentle-eyed animals – their second family – that has underpinned the way they farm.

The cattle roam free and are allowed to live in extended families themselves. In doing so, they ‘look after each other’, with mothers teaching their daughters how to bring up calves.

Rosamund knows that if you have a field of one-year-olds ‘you get the same problems as if you leave children alone – a herd of delinquent boys who, instead of grazing calmly, roam around looking for something to do’.

Her insight is unexpectedly charming and fascinating – so much so that she has channelled everything she has learned about these creatures into a wonderfully evocative and enlightening book, The Secret Life Of Cows.

 Her insight is unexpectedly charming and fascinating ¿ so much so that she has channelled everything she has learned about these creatures into a wonderfully evocative and enlightening book. File photo

 Her insight is unexpectedly charming and fascinating – so much so that she has channelled everything she has learned about these creatures into a wonderfully evocative and enlightening book. File photo

First published in 2003, it sold more than 10,000 copies but it is now being reprinted and is tipped to be a surprise Christmas bestseller after being championed by the playwright Alan Bennett.

In the book, Rosamund not only divulges that her animals are known by name rather than number (from Horatio to Desdemona, Mrs Ogmore and Mrs Pritchard, Straw Beret and the orphan calf Jane Eyre) but that they also possess personalities as diverse as our own. 

They even have individual moos that not only set them apart but can communicate, to the educated listener at least, a range of complex emotions.

Cows make friends, Rosamund attests. They play games, nurse grudges, babysit for each other, grieve and form lifelong friendships that can begin shortly after birth. 

In fact, they are remarkably similar to the animals we see as pets, with the same idiosyncrasies that maintain their individuality, despite typically being kept in larger groups.

Take Amelia, for instance. She was, Rosamund writes, ‘an unusually delightful calf, more trusting and understanding than we would have thought possible’. Her mother, meanwhile, was ‘offhand, to say the least’.

‘From day one, Amelia did everything slowly. She seemed thoughtful. When the gate was opened and all her contemporaries rushed eagerly to the next adventure, Amelia would take her time and emerge when she felt like it, sometimes when the others were nearly out of sight. She made a mental note of everything, as we were later to find out.’

Sadly, Amelia was plunged into noticeable grief after her twins were stillborn. Her grieving was, Rosamund recalls, ‘far more acute than any we had ever witnessed’. 

For her own comfort, Amelia had to be milked by Rosamund’s brother Richard every day after the birth and she developed such a strong friendship with him that she would eye him up jealously if she spotted him paying attention to other cows.

On one such occasion, says Rosamund: ‘Richard went straight to apologise to her but as soon as he got near she tossed her head in high dudgeon, turned her back on him and walked off.

‘Richard went after her, grabbed her round the neck and gave her a determined bear-hug then held out his hand for reconciliation. Amelia hesitated for a second then licked his hand and said, slightly huffily, that he was forgiven.’

Such was Amelia’s affection for him that when Richard left the farm for any reason, Amelia would wait to spot his little red car returning. ‘As soon as he drove up the road, she ambled down and waited in the yard for him. She never mistook any other red car for his.’

Decades of observation have helped Rosamund work out what makes her cows happiest and she has noted the effect this has on them physically. File photo

Decades of observation have helped Rosamund work out what makes her cows happiest and she has noted the effect this has on them physically. File photo

That close relationship was far from unusual and Rosamund describes many amusing anecdotes which illustrate the warmth of feeling between the family and their individual animals.

But what is more common is the tight friendships between the cows themselves, which often begin when they are just a few days old. Fascinatingly, there are even bovine cultural norms that dictate how – and between whom – such bonds tend to form.

In one touching example, Rosamund describes The White Boys – two nearly identical calves born within 24 hours of each other.

‘We had never had such white calves: grey, cream, buff, off-white, silvery, golden but not pure white. The first calf walked over to greet the new arrival and stared at him as if looking in a mirror.

‘They became devoted and inseparable friends from that minute. The two mothers, now of secondary importance in the lives of their two offspring, became firm friends too, forced as they were to spend all their time together, waiting around to provide milk on request.

‘Nell and Juliet had both had their own childhood friends but their new circumstances threw them together.’

It was to be a lifelong friendship between the pair. They lived ‘in a world of their own’, Rosamund recalls fondly.

‘They walked round shoulder to shoulder, often bumping against each other, and they slept each night with their heads resting on each other.’

WINDED… BY MUM WITH THE HUMP 

Fat Hat II was usually gentle and intelligent. But the birth of her second calf temporarily changed her. The newborn, named Black Hat, had been found cold, wet and hungry on a steep slope and had contracted pneumonia. Having nursed her back to health, Rosamund returned her into the care of her mother in the field.

But when Black Hat again needed to be removed after it began to rain, her mother ‘become suspicious of our actions and, it is painful to remember, became very unco-operative and generally unfriendly to me’.

Fat Hat II taught her daughter to ‘mistrust’ Rosamund and would even indulge in violent reminders of her anguish. ‘Sometimes, with a bale of hay on my back, I would suddenly find myself winded and would look round to see Fat Hat II intent on reminding me that I had done her an injury. It took three years before she forgave me.’

Unlike many human intimacies, such dedication tends to have a specific motive. Rosamund continues: ‘Bovine friendships are seldom casual. Devotion is the order of the day, although it is directed towards practical mutual help and is rarely over-protective or emotional.’

Decades of observation have helped Rosamund work out what makes her cows happiest and she has noted the effect this has on them physically.

She once read that restricting a cow’s ability to move freely led to a 30 per cent reduction in brain size within a couple of generations. Interestingly, on the family farm where the cows roamed uninhibited, they had noticed their own herd’s foreheads becoming wider and that ‘the cows looked and indeed behaved more intelligently’.

Their way of farming was not simply driven by morality and compassion – they have played a crucial economic function. As Rosamund says: ‘Happy animals grow faster.’ The quality of the meat is also higher, with a lower fat-to-protein ratio.

The methods mean Rosamund is very in tune with her animals’ moods. So much so that she can interpret their moos.

‘Cows moo for various reasons: fear, disbelief, anger, hunger or distress. Each cow, moreover, has her own method of asking a question, either with a look or a strange, quiet moo.’ On one occasion, a less seasoned farm worker had become concerned about a cow mooing ‘in a very loud and agitated way’.

‘To have left the kitchen at that moment would have resulted in burned biscuits so I forced him to delve into his hitherto untapped powers of description to describe the cow in sufficient detail for me to know who it was and to describe the mooing more precisely. 

‘I judged that she was not distressed but merely cross at having temporarily lost sight of her calf and he was then able to reunite the pair.’

But one night, the agonised cry of Araminta, who had recently given birth to a son, The Don (named in memory of the late Australian cricketer Sir Donald Bradman), could only mean one thing – her calf was in trouble.

Feeling in the pitch dark that Araminta’s udders were still full of milk, Rosamund knew The Don ‘must either be ill or dead’. Rosamund knew, too, that ‘her penetrating moo was not just to tell me she was uncomfortable but that I must do something to help her son, since she could not’.

After a bit of encouragement (‘when our cows do give us credit for intelligence they tend to make the mistake of presuming that we know everything’), Araminta headed towards the fields.

‘After 50 yards I stopped,’ Rosamund writes. ‘She stopped. I gently turned her round and pushed her back the way we had come. This made her realise at once that I had not got a clue where we were going and she turned herself round and marched off in the original direction at twice the speed. I followed.’

With Araminta leading the way, The Don was found three fields away, looking severely bloated – which can cause death. He was treated, later needing a small operation, and made a full recovery thanks to his mother’s concern.

WHAT A COW! GRANDMA GETS IN THE HUFF

The mother-daughter relationship is a tricky one, even for cows. And as everyone knows, while it is common and convenient for grandmothers to babysit the new generation, it is not always welcome.

This was particularly evident in the case of Stephanie and her daughter Olivia, who was pregnant with her first calf. Relations were initially good, and Stephanie was on hand to offer advice and comfort to her daughter when the calf was due to be born.

As Rosamund tells it: ‘Olivia calved without difficulty and was immediately besotted by her beautiful cream-coloured bull calf, whom we named Orlando. She licked him dry, suckled him and quite simply doted on him. 

Stephanie came along a couple of hours later to be introduced and for the next few days grazed nearby hoping to be a useful and integral part of the threesome.

‘Sadly, Olivia did not want Stephanie’s services. She did not wish to stir from Orlando’s side. She even refused her mother’s offer of grooming. She ignored her shamefully.

‘On the fourth day, Stephanie’s patience broke. Hurt and amazed, she turned tail, jumped the nearest fence and went off into another field. To the best of my knowledge, they never spoke to each other again.’

Conversely, Dolly II wanted nothing more than her mother, Dolly, after her own calf was stillborn. ‘Having hidden herself away in a far-off field, she then disappeared. 

After much searching, we found her lying at the feet of her clever old mother being licked all over. We had not seen the two Dollys talking to each other for ages, and just how young Dolly knew where on the farm her mother would be we had no idea.’

The same powerful maternal instinct was evident in the young, pregnant Little Dorothy. Generally, a cow does not give birth before 24 months old, but Little Dorothy was just 15 months and still suckling from her mother.

Clues to her condition were found in her seemingly insatiable appetite for hay.

‘We would find her in all sorts of unusual places eating hay. She was small and neat and one night she spent in great comfort and solitude underneath a trailer that had hay both on top of and underneath it.

‘Although we were pleased that she had obviously enjoyed herself enormously, it was very difficult to understand how Little Dorothy had found her way there, and we all accused each other of negligence in having left a gate open.’

Despite double-checking that the farm gates were secure and ensuring she had plenty of access to food, to their surprise Little Dorothy was found under the same trailer the next morning.

It took two weeks to work out that Little Dorothy had figured out how to open the gate all by herself.

‘By using her nose and patiently wriggling the rope to the top of the post she managed to remove the loop and push the gate open.

‘This was much too good a game to give up and, as we later discovered, she could push her way back in again to see her mother and then go back once more to the trailer.’

Touchingly, when the cow gave birth to a daughter, her mother, Old Dorothy, was present.

‘Old Dorothy was giving her tangible, visible advice and was the most superb grandmother imaginable.’ Eventually, ‘the Dorothys’, as they became known, were given their own special area that only they could access.

It is typical of how all of the animals are treated, with the freedom to ‘communicate with or dissociate themselves from us as they choose’. This freedom, Rosamund asserts, is as essential for the cows as it is for us.

Critics will point out that Rosamund’s reflections on the cows’ characters are her own interpretations, a fact acknowledged by Rosamund herself.

She uses personal pronouns throughout when describing the cows because, simply, ‘that is how I think of them’.

But by observing the sprightlier members of the herd as they indulge in a game of hide-and-seek while others forage for blackberries, knowing that the elders babysit their grandchildren with something approaching pleasure – it is hard to argue.

And it certainly makes a wonderful and heartwarming story.

The Secret Life Of Cows, by Rosamund Young, is published by Faber & Faber on October 5, priced £9.99. Mail on Sunday offer price £7.99 until October 1. 

Order at mailbookshop.co.uk or phone 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15. 

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk