Blog #54 – In Praise of Bovine Belligerence

It was another fat and bearded man who said it first, but discretion really is the better part of valour. Falstaff’s words rang in my ears last week as once again your correspondent diced with death.

A half-dozen mix of bullocks and freshly-ex-heffers had begun striding towards us. I’m not an experienced reader of bovine faces, but these seemed to project a very un-cow-like intensity. Never mind that we were on a footpath. Never mind that neither we nor the dog meant them harm. As their pace towards us quickened, as if by sympathetic magic my pulse quickened too – adrenalin, and the cows themselves, tipping towards a rush.

But what to do? Looking around there were limited options. The stile for which we were heading – the one I could just glimpse over the now-rolling shoulder of the biggest of the bullocks – was the final stile of our walk. Just beyond – visible but unreachable beyond cows and wall – was the safety of our car.

It had turned into a much more testing walk than anticipated. Late afternoon was already snug in its armchair when we set out – our aim, just a short walk to spoon up what sunshine still clung to the margins of the day  – a day otherwise filled with zoomcalls and emails. Bliss was it in that dusk to be alive. The path though, had other ideas.

A rarity in the Dales, maintenance of this particular footpath had clearly not risen high on anyone’s list of priorities. The well-marked stitch of dashes that crossed the map was fictitious. Signposts grew few and far between. One section we tried to walk through was so swamped by marsh it forced first one switch of route, then another – and now, late in the day, unpredictable and clearly unimpressed half-ton trampling machines were fixing their headlights on us, like runaway cars with target bias.

My first thought was to push on regardless. Cattle. You just face them down, right?

Most of my fleeting belligerence I now realise sprang from tiredness – and the rest from sheer irritation. It was not the cows who were at fault, but their owners. Not content with letting their duty of care lapse through lapsed signage, the farmer(s) had also loosed these fine creatures in a field through which walkers needed to walk. We, who were entitled to safe passage across ‘their’ land.

In my experience cows are normally no bother, and a mixed group – even if it contains bullocks – doesn’t often prove troublesome. Even the presence of a very small and inoffensive dog trotting at our feet- though it might cause any creature to snap to alert –  would normally provoke nothing more than a wary glance. But, toss in the couple of calves we now noticed bringing up the little herd’s rear – something precious to protect – and cows will react as any animal will: see off the intruder, debate the route of a footpath later.

Luckily for us, my second thought was statistical. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a Health and Safety Executive report was busily bleeping. Between 2015-16 and 2019-2020 the HSE investigated 142 incidents of cattle-related injury. Only 22 of them resulted in someone dying and the majority of those were people who worked with cattle. Members of the public accounted for only four of those deaths (my emphasis again) – as if that was reassuring. In addition, the HSE investigated 65 non-fatal incidents involving cattle and members of the public over the same period. The BBC News article from which I’d originally plucked those stats, reported the worrying example of a man who was out walking with his aged mother when they were attacked by cows – their net injuries being a broken arm for a lady in her 80s, severe bruising and many scratches to her son after he was sat on by a cow, and a dog that was trampled to death.

I quickly calculated that if our cows and their briskening pace were to spill into a gallop, we’d have no choice but to run for the nearest wall, loosing the dog to escape as best he could – and hope for the best.

Like Falstaff we chose discretion – and yet, in a very unFalstaffish manner, since our choice involved extra exercise. We backed off. Showing the cows we were no threat at all, we retraced our steps to a gate we’d passed a good ten minutes before. Then began the long slog up the road parallel to the fields. Finally we reached the sanctuary of the car – which was – happily enough –  unmoved by the whole event. The cows meanwhile had stood themselves down, and were quietly chewing their cud, content a point had been made. The safe, sensible and undoubtedly irksome option had been the wisest.

By strange coincidence, a few hours earlier, and a couple of hundred miles south, another assorted bunch of normally docile mammals – human, this time – were likewise assembling in a field.

Followers of this Blog will know the peace of our village has recently been threatened by a barbarous intrusion. If the ‘preferred route’ of a proposed guided busway gets the go-ahead, a fourteen metre-wide band of tarmac and concrete will soon rip open the rising belly of the greenbelt land that preserves the village from absorption by the city. The good news is the former mayor (a big backer of the busway plan) is now out of office, and the County Council also has a new administration. After some hasty post-election horse trading, it is led by those who should prove natural opponents of such abject environmental wreckage. An alternative route, along the path of a disused railway should now become the adopted route, if the busway project goes ahead at all. This precious bit of greenbelt will be preserved.

But nothing with planning is certain. And so, a large herd of protestors – approaching three hundred, in fact – turned out to make their objections clear. Many were young, but it’s the place they live – literally, the earth beneath their feet – that this time needs protecting. There are badgers here (see Blog#44 ), and countryside that has been farmed for hundreds if not thousands of years. The proposed route also runs adjacent to Magog Down, a place of rest and relaxation for people from all across the city. It must remain unspoiled.

We’ll find out very soon if the council – and the quango set up to deliver these projects – has the appetite for a sensible piece of back-tracking – whatever their much pored-over plan tells them. Irksome for sure, but better than an act of wreckless valour. Who knows how normally docile locals might react, if riled?


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Till next time.


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