Have I got moos for you
Country Life UK|November 04, 2020
Far from being ‘stupid’ or ‘silly cows’, cattle are ungainsayably clever and emotionally intelligent, with bags of personality, too, contends John Lewis-Stempel
John Lewis-Stempel

SEVEN in the morning and the cattle are already waiting at the feeders, the winter moonlight running a white stripe down their backs. Cows know the time of day. I toss in the hay; it is a job that takes only a minute or two, but always I linger. The contentment of cows is contagious. We also have a good chat. Cows are good listeners.

There is a cartoon by Gary Larson, the American humourist, in which a cow, standing upright on its two back legs, shouts ‘Car!’ to the herd, the joke being that only when humans are around do cows walk on four legs. Otherwise, they potter and totter about on their back legs. And talk.

Larson knew cattle. Inside those inscrutable heads, cows possess secrets of which we poor Sapiens are unaware. Except that, after 20 years of cow-keeping, a few mysteries of the bovine brain have been unveiled to me. And I have moos for you. Far from being the byword for beastly dumbness—‘stupid cow’, ‘silly cow’—cattle are ungainsayably clever. They are also emotional and possess personality. A cow is rather more than a biological burger-maker, a moveable maker of milk for the world’s love of latte. Trust me.

My first true intimation that cows were not as thick as mince came early on when Miriam, one of our rare-breed Red Poll heifers, persisted in escaping and wandering—rather inconveniently, it must be acknowledged— up and down the rows of the British National Vine Collection in west Herefordshire. Eventually, I caught her red-hooved as she made her exit from her allocated quarters —she was squiggling on her side under the single-strand electric fence. (Cows can be surprisingly athletic; Miriam’s sister, the haughty Margo, named after Penelope Keith’s character in The Good Life and weighing in at more than 1,000lb, regularly achieved leaping the stock fence.)

Next, I realised the herd could distinguish our family cars from all the others that approached the farm and only bellocked for supper when we arrived on the yard. They contemptuously ignored friends, neighbours and the nice woman from the village collecting on behalf of Christian Aid.

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