What’s it like to be a cow? A review of The Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young

2nd November 2017

Intelligent or slow to understand, proud or shy? These are just a few of the diverse characteristics of cows charmingly revealed by farmer Rosamund Young.

The Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young

Farmer and author Rosamund Young looking after her cows at Kite’s Nest Farm in the Cotswolds.

Kite’s Nest Farm sits across 390 acres on the scarp slope of the Cotswolds. Run by Rosamund Young with her brother Richard and her partner Gareth, their farm was one of the first to hold organic status in the country. Nature is left alone as much as possible for the benefit of their 116-strong herd of 100% grass fed cattle.

First published over 15 years ago, The Secret Lives of Cows is a book that only gains pertinence in its reissuing. Whimsically enjoyable yet incredibly potent to today’s discussion of our unstable food system, Young strikes an elegant balance between amusing anecdotes and the occasional rant on farming’s future – and it’s all strung together by her years of observing cows. 

Ignore cows’ intelligence at your peril

Young is very clearly concerned with the welfare of not only her own animals, but also of the wider livestock farming community. Her belief in an inevitable danger as a result of ignoring or attempting to curtail the intelligence of animals stems from her understated insight gained over a lifetime spent on a farm. Young believes that if given the freedom to roam, graze and raise their young freely, animals have an ability to make far better decisions over their welfare than humans ever could. Often acknowledged in passing, here’s a passage where she muses on the benefits of sleep for cows:

The animals can make up for deficiencies in their diet by foraging and find what they need. It is up to us to provide conditions in which they can be comfortable and happy enough to sleep well.

Her opinion is clear; the farmer’s role is to create an environment where cows can most easily look after themselves, make their own decisions and pass their learned experience onto their young. In one particularly fascinating passage we are told how her cows, when suffering from certain ailments and grazing freely, have been seen to consume large quantities of willow, a plant associated with the origins of aspirin.

The Secret Lives of Cows

A free-ranging cow at Rosamund Young’s farm: “I hope more readers will learn to understand that the amount of loving care given to all food animals directly affects the health-giving properties of the end product.’

This cow doesn’t like getting her feet dirty

We are introduced to a seemingly endless array of characters throughout the book. In revealing her fondness for their quirks, Young builds evidence for her case that all cows should not be treated the same – their different personalities are demonstrative of their different needs and the reader is deftly reminded of that as they are entertained.

And entertained we are as we hear how prissy Meg, her mother’s favourite, didn’t like getting her feet dirty, particularly when she was sleeping. She teaches herself to climb up and down narrow stone steps to avoid spending nights in the mud and promptly teaches two friends to do the same. We also hear about Jim who was “jet black with a white tail and a very high IQ” and, annoyed that he apparently didn’t have access to the same superior grazing spot as his friend Fat Hat II, headed straight for the cattle grid that was in the way, turned 180 degrees and tiptoed straight over.

A respect for the uniquely bovine

Young’s fondness for each cow is clear and warmth permeates her writing. When I first started reading the book, I found myself describing to friends the way in which Young humanises animals. Beyond giving them names, she brings each to life in a way that many a more seasoned writer fails to do with their human characters. However, by the end I realised just how wrong I was to see Young’s writing as ‘humanising’. It’s precisely her teasing out their bovine qualities that makes the book such a success – that the reader empathises with them but sees their unique qualities is exactly the point.

Her respect for and acknowledgement of their intelligence infuses her writing, yet there is no (or very little) sentimentality. In the introduction she writes how in 1974 the farm moved from dairy to organic beef farming. Her casual references to the animals as commodities feel neither surprising nor at odds with her fond tone.

Animal welfare remains at the forefront of her concerns but often in reference to what the farm produces, be it dairy (initially commercially and then just for personal use) or meat. She also hesitantly touches on homeopathy as an eye-opening alternative to mainstream medicine and is at her most impassioned in her criticism of the practice of mass medication so prevalent in modern farming.

The Secret Life of Cows exudes knowledge and a wealth of experience learned through years of observation and curiosity borne out of a farmer’s necessity. It’s honesty comes to light in the stories of cows in distress, whether a young mother in a traumatic calving, calves dealing with loss and grief, or ingenious ways an old friend helps a fallen comrade. It’s easy to enjoy and important to read, and a timely look behind-the-scenes at one of the first organic farms in the country. Perhaps it’s too early to start talking about Christmas, but I’ll be buying this in bulk and putting in every stocking and under every Christmas tree I can.

The Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young is published by Faber & Faber, £9.99.

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