Today the sun is shining and my cows are bored. They are roaming around trying to find congenial shade, and a few minutes ago, they arrived at the cattle grid nearest to our house and, as usual, several of them, believing that cattle grids are more of an initiative test than a barrier, tiptoed across. The incessant rains of last winter had washed debris down the farm roadway, and the deposits filled the grid, making tiptoeing even easier. Instead of encouraging them back into the field, I decided they would appreciate a change of scene. I opened the gate next to the grid, and the cattle flooded out: gold ones, white ones, red, black, brown, and grey, all gleaming in the bright light and trotting happily towards a new adventure.
The tall, 60-year-old Poplar trees lining the farm driveway stretch cathedral-like towards the sun, yet afford a cooling respite with their newly acquired clothing of shimmering leaves. They have enough grass at their feet, with a clear, fast-flowing stream running through them to keep the herd deliciously occupied for the next few hours.
Gabrielle is staying with us, one of the many cow-loving people I have met since first writing about my cows 15 years ago, and as Red Nell passes in front of us, I recount one of her stories:
Three years ago, as the time approached when Nell would calve, I went to see her every day. One morning I misread the signs and felt sure she was fine and would not calve that day. I went back later, to check just in case, and she was nowhere to be found. I searched every inch of the field and then knew for certain she had gone into the wood. The weather was unusually cold for autumn. It was 2:00 p.m.
Two of us searched the cold, darkening wood as rain started to fall. We stumbled over fallen boughs, slipped on steep slopes, and had our hats, and nearly our heads, knocked off by low undergrowth, growing more worried with every step. This was very atypical behavior for Nell and could only mean one thing: calving would not be as straightforward as it had always been for her in the past.
We became cold and wet, tired and hungry, but the urgency of finding her was our driving force.
We became cold and wet, tired and hungry, but the urgency of finding her was our driving force. We separated, each taking a planned route and hoping to rendezvous later; mobile phone signals were not a possibility.
We were forced to rush home for torches (and, I admit, tea, dry clothes, and unmentionable comfort food, grabbed and eaten on the march).
At 11:00 p.m., feeling truly despondent that we would eventually find a catastrophic situation, my companion asked if I had searched under the lowest branches of the pine trees we were standing next to. With unforgivable conceit, I asserted that I “knew” that a cow would never choose such a place in any circumstances. Fortunately, he went to look nonetheless, and found Red Nell, curled up like a cat, quietly and stoically resigned to her fate.
I examined her, spoke to her, and was unbelievably relieved to find things were not as dire as I had feared. Amazingly, after all these hours, she had not attempted to start calving, but for a reason I could not yet fathom, she appeared to have given up.
She did not want to move, but we had to insist that she walk home with us, and only then, with electric lights and all the calving equipment at hand, could we rearrange the position of the calf’s limbs and head to enable it to be born. However, the furious assault Nell launched on him — licking him with unnatural speed and force — made us gasp and rush to his defense. Only at that point did it occur to us both that she must be having twins. A few minutes later, a heifer was born, and Nell drank six gallons of tepid water and calmed back down to her usual self.
All the cows have stories, though we do not always see them happen.
I am at the top of the field called The Oxstalls on a perfect, still, mild evening. I know the new moon is above me even before I see her. It is nearly 9.30 p.m., and I am walking close to the wall, gathering the branches we had to trim before being able to erect the new fence; I am making small piles into larger piles so they can be collected more efficiently with a tractor and trailer. My hand-reared lamb is walking at my side and stopping every few seconds to sample the taste of the moss on the branches, though I cannot exactly say she is eating it. The whole flock is settling down for the night. The day’s last lamb chase has just ended, and each one is calling, listening, responding, then homing in on its mother.
Daisy Dandelion is going to be a sheep, too, but not just yet: she is having far too much fun.
By the time she is 10 weeks old, grass will have become so central to her existence that she will devote herself to it, and long before that she will wish to stay in the field and have her milk delivered. For the time being, with me providing milk at punctual intervals, taking her (by Land Rover) to the ovine equivalent of play school to spend the "milk intervals" with the flock, then choosing to come home for a nap and a browse in the garden, life is one long party.
Blissfully, she will not miss me when she seamlessly becomes a sheep. I will miss her, but that’s OK; my job as a farmer is to give her the wherewithal to succeed as a sheep. I am learning more from her than she is from me: all the lambs I have ever reared have been very individual characters.
In Bird Cottage
by Eva Meijer, recently translated into English from Dutch, I read, “People think that I’ve given the birds human characteristics. They don’t understand that such characteristics really aren’t just human.”
÷ ÷ ÷
Kite’s Nest Farm is on the edge of The Cotswold escarpment. It is run by Rosamund Young
, her brother Richard, and her partner, Gareth. Nature is left to itself as much as possible and the animals receive exceptional kindness and consideration. Kite’s Nest Farm produces beef and lamb from 100% grass-fed animals which are butchered and sold in the farm shop. The Secret Life of Cows
is her most recent book.