An ode to oxen

As intimated in my recent Cornwall blog, I have felt compelled to post an entry that pays homage to those placid stewards of the pasture that pepper our green and pleasant land with a monochrome pixellation. Yep: cows, in all their gaseous glory.

I grew up in a village, with fields of Fresian cows surrounding the garden on three sides. As such, the smell of manure, which I oddly adore, always reminds me of home, and being in a field of cattle always evokes a vague sense of nostalgia. I have happy memories of long, summer evenings when my sister and I would give them all names, recognising each one by their particular markings. We would stupidly try and feed them grass, wondering why, knee deep in lush pasture, they never took the bait, preferring instead to try and lick our delicate wrists with their sandpaper tongues. I guess our futile offerings were like trying to give a glass of water to someone who’s drowning.

Occasionally they would escape into the garden and cause havoc, immediately immortalising themselves into family legend  (‘the great stampede of ’89’, etc, etc) . The lawns would resemble a battle-field for days afterwards, a reminder that, for all their apparent gentleness, these beasts weighed a tonne and could inflict the same level of destruction on you if they so desired.

I remember the indignant horror I felt when my sister and I witnessed our pyschotic neighbour (who went on to smash one of our windows and threaten to kill our dog some years later, then had a nervous breakdown in our kitchen – but that’s another story…) stabbing their wet noses with a pair of shears as they gathered at her garden fence. I also remember, with the weird lucidity that embeds certain snippets of long-ago conversation into your mind, probably for evermore, the following exchange with said neighbour, when my sister and I were hanging out in the field with the cows, trying to get close enough to stroke them.

Psycho-neighbour (has to be said with broad Lancashire accent): “Don’t you realise that’s a bull?”

Me: “It’s not actually. It’s a bullock.” Then, for further precocious clarification. “A baby bull.”

Funny what sticks in your mind…

Anyway, as I was communing with cows down in Cornwall, I realised that I reserve a particular fondness for these gentle giants, no doubt due to them stirring up so many happy memories of an idyllic rural childhood.

So, here are a few reasons why I love our bovine friends:

  • Their swishing tails being the only movement in the stillness of a heat-wave;
  • Their soulful, liquid eyes that look like they’ve seen it all before;
  • Their stolid calmness and passivity (most of the time…);
  • The way they gaze at you as they lift their tail,  convexly arch their back and proceed to either defecate or urinate, or both, as if challenging you to object;
  • The glorious grassy smell of their shit;
  • The ridiculous noises that they make;
  • The steam rising from their backs and from their mouths on a cold morning;
  • Their unfailing interest in dogs and cats;
  • The way they often quietly belch as if it’s the most natural thing in the world (which it is);
  • The fact that they are the only obstacle to traffic that motorists will tolerate without resorting to road-rage and horn honking.

I could go on…

But I shall leave this blog with a sting in its swishy tail. From my experience, cows are, generally, gentle and docile. Sure, a group of bullocks can become frisky at times, but it’s usually all moo and no trousers, and the merest hint of a challenge will send them skittering away. However, bulls are of course another matter. I was once chased by a bull when I was young and have seriously never run so fast in my life, literally throwing myself over the top of the gate at the last second, as our courses converged. But, in addition to the well documented bullish ire, in Cornwall I experienced the strange event of a herd of cows ‘turning’.

The cows in the field by the caravan that I walked through numerous times each day would usually barely deign to acknowledge my presence; perhaps a couple might slowly lift their head to stare at me, or one might laboriously stand up if I came too close. But generally, we co-existed in calm acceptance. However, on my last day, I returned from a walk just before dusk, and I could sense a different energy even before I entered the field. The cows were all gathered at the gate and milling around restlessly. I ploughed a path straight through them, not being perturbed by what I believed to be normal high spirits. They started following me en masse, picking up speed to a trot, and I became aware that almost the whole herd was gathering behind me.  Rather amused, I turned and took a step forward, which is usually enough to scatter a cow mob, but this time, although skidding to a halt, they immediately trotted forward again, with a few of them adding in a buck for effect – and I still had a long way to go until the other gate. Hmmm…

Meanwhile, a single cow was displaying distinctly aggressive behaviour towards me at the other end of the field, bowing and tossing her head and bucking at a distance. As I picked up my pace across the field slightly, not wanting to reveal my mounting discomfiture to the animals, I noted that the single cow did so too. Our paths were accelerating and converging and it was touch and go who would reach the gate first. It felt like the bull-chase all over again, but in painfully slow motion. I did end up running the final few steps, just as she galloped towards me and the herd thundered behind me. She ground to a halt just as I was clambering up the steps over the wall and we then eyeballed eachother for a while. I thought I was safe, standing on top of the wall, but clearly that wasn’t far enough out of her territory for her liking and she charged at my feet. Meanwhile the rest of the herd were watching from behind her. It was mighty strange, and not like any bovine-behaviour I’ve experienced before.

That evening, I asked John, the farmer, if he had come across the herd ‘turning’ like this before, and whether cow herds had a single powerful matriarch (mootriarch?) figure in the same way that wild horses do, but he wasn’t sure. His only explanation, in brilliantly laid-back Cornish style, was that they were probably just bored of being in that field and were playing up because “they wanted a change of scenery”. Who knew cows were such discerning aesthetes?

Anyway, despite the strangeness of that experience, it hasn’t altered my opinion of cows. I can just add another reason to like them to my list:

  • The fact that, behind their facade of docile simpleness lies an unpredictability that demands respect – you never know when they might ‘turn’…

The Cornish herd in their usually chilled state.

Bovine bouncer guarding the gate – my first hint that things had gone a bit awry in the field…

The mootriarch giving me a rather dirty look (photo taken from my ‘safe’ vantage point on top of the wall, just before she charged at me!).

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5 Responses to An ode to oxen

  1. muffmayfia says:

    I love this entry Becks. My ex David Holden was convinced they were biding their time before taking over the world. Also reminded of the Gary Larson cartoon where the cows are all standing around on two feet. Until a car comes when they all revert to four feet and start grazing….. Love you x

  2. Gary says:

    “The way they often quietly belch as if it’s the most natural thing in the world (which it is)”, see when I do that, I get into trouble.

  3. cHARLOTTE mAY says:

    Well, I feel this blog provides justification for my life-long, unrelenting fear of cattle! Even in my 30s, I am uncomfortable being around them, especially when on their patch. I think I must be communicating with them on some distant level – I ‘hear’ their warnings – misinterpreted by some as cute mooing.

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