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30 Nov 2008

Cows and their habits

Butter, cream, cheeses: Normandy is very much dairy country, to the extent that there is a unique breed of cattle – la race normande. They are essentially white splashed with either black or brown, but always with rings round their eyes like spectacles. In general, they look as if a whole pot of paint has been dropped from a height beside a white cow and splashed onto it in a random pattern. The photograph shows a group of young Normandy cattle. They provide very rich, creamy milk, and a reasonable yield; their meat is also good, and they are very successful on the rich grasses of Normandy.
Cows are of course not particularly bright, but they can be curious, and they can be stubborn. They are also very large and heavy. My brother once tried to push a cow out of his way at a fete in southern France, and the cow not only did not move, but casually pushed back. He fell over and was stood on, accidentally, and two of his ribs were broken.
Although in general cattle are not aggressive, they will defend themselves if they think they need to, and particularly if they have young calves with them they should be treated with some respect. Every so often in England there are news reports of someone, usually a middle aged woman, being hurt, or even trampled to death, by cows. Most often it is because they walk through a group with a yappy little dog that runs around barking at the ankles of the cows, which not unreasonably upsets them, and causes them to run about. In the course of this, the person can get knocked over and badly hurt. I read of one such last year, where the woman concerned was planning to sue the farmer because there was no sign warning her that cows could potentially be a danger. Logically, she should never leave the house without a sign on her back warning people that she is an unpredictable idiot.

Some people seem to be able to get on extremely well with cattle. A neighbouring farmer has a grandson of about 11 or 12, who lives in Paris, and is in most respects a very urban child. But he visits the farm for a few weeks in the summer, and collects and returns a dozen or more cows for milking twice a day. He is small for his age, and not even tall enough to look a cow directly in the eye unless it bends its head, but he has no fear of them, and they do whatever he wants.
As a direct opposite, an old friend from England came to see us, and as we went for a walk through our fields said she was terrified of cows, because they all hated her for some reason. We found that rather absurd, and went through the gate into a field which had one cow in it, at the opposite corner. I knew the cow, which was fairly timid, because it had been there for a few weeks, and I had often walked past it. Our friend was very unhappy, but we persuaded her to come with us. The cow looked up and saw us, and her. It immediately roared, and started to gallop across the field at us. The hedge was typical Normandy bocage, too high to get over, even if it didn't have electric wires on either side, and we were already some distance from the gate. The only thing I could do was to run full tilt towards the cow, waving the stick I was carrying to help gather blackberries, and rather pointlessly yell 'Stop!' Within a few seconds we were about 10 metres apart, and the cow did indeed stop. It stared aggressively at me with its head lowered for a few more seconds, by which time the rest of our party were out of the field. It then turned round and ambled off. I have no explanation for that, and the cow never charged at me again.

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