What is it like to be a cow? If Rosamond Young is to be believed, it’s pretty much like being human. Cows are “besotted” by and “dote on” their newborns, and nurture and counsel them as they grow up. They form “devoted and inseparable” friendships with their peers. They talk to each other, discuss the weather, pass on wisdom, introduce themselves to newcomers, go for walks, kiss, babysit, love to be stroked, play hide-and-seek, have running races, take offence, hold grudges, lose their temper, get stressed, and grieve over the death of a parent or child. They also tease, pressurise, question, retaliate against and “show baffled gratitude” towards their keepers. In short, they are the same as we are, though perhaps morally superior.
If someone in a pub told you all this, you’d probably move away sharpish. But Young ought to know what she’s talking about. Her parents began farming in the Cotswolds in 1953, when she was 12 days old, and she and her brother Richard have continued the family tradition, with a large herd of pedigree Ayrshires and some sheep. From the start, she was used to stroking cows, speaking to them by name, and enjoying their individuality. And she soon came to see that they were individuals to each other too, tied by birth or other forms of kinship. For example, the “White Boys”, two white bulls close in age, would walk around shoulder to shoulder and sleep with their heads resting on each other.
Her book was first published by a specialist farming press 14 years ago. After the success of James Rebanks’s The Shepherd’s Life in 2015 as well as recent nature writing that invites us to reappraise the inner lives of animals, its reissue for a general readership looks timely. But media interest in the Young family and Kite’s Nest Farm dates back to at least the 1980s. Theirs is a leading example of organic farming, based on the idea that livestock treated with kindness and consideration will have happier lives – and produce better meat.
Despite the seeming naivety of her narrative voice, Young is well aware of what she is up to. The anthropomorphism she takes to extremes is there to convert sceptics and provoke behaviourists. No more carping about whether animals feel the same emotions as humans do. And no more herd mentality: every cow must be seen as unique. She writes about them as though they were characters in a novel: “The angry expression that had taken hold of her face relaxed and she turned and walked out”; “She looked after him of course but was visibly relieved when he went off to play with his friends”; “Stephanie and her daughter Olivia enjoyed a normal close relationship”; “Durham was psychologically balanced but rather small”; “Charlotte and Guy got on like a house on fire”. At other times she’s zoomorphic, to comic effect: cows eat “like a horse” and calves “like caterpillars”, while hens are “busy as bees” and bulls “a different kettle of fish”.
Her evidence for the qualities she finds in cows (empathy, guile, altruism, happiness, eccentricity) is anecdotal rather than scientific. But some of the stories are certainly compelling. There is the cow that wakes her with its desperate mooing, then leads her to its sick (“blown”) calf; the cow that uses its nose to wriggle a rope over a gatepost in order to get to a trailer full of hay; the cow that consistently removes a woollen hat worn by one of the farmhands (but never anyone else’s); the cows that use their stares to reproach or cajole; the cows that eat willow to recover from illness; the hens that act as bodyguards to their injured sister and mourn her eventual death.
In this benign view of nature, the lion lies down with the lamb – or rather the lamb (Audrey) and the pig (Piggy) ignore differences of size and species to become best friends (Piggy being better company than Audrey’s “boring” fellow orphan lamb Sibyl). Two bulls almost come to blows and occasional deaths are noted. But there’s none of the hardship and agony you find in Rebanks’s memoir or Ted Hughes’s Moortown poems. The tone is relentlessly upbeat: “All birds are happy clever creatures” etc. There’s even a soppy poem addressed to one of the author’s favourite cows, Amelia.
The narrative would exert less charm but for some calculated omissions. As Alan Bennett notes in his introduction, nothing is said about what goes on between cows and bulls (which may, he suggests, be a respect for their privacy). Nor is there any mention of the slaughterhouse, beyond the fact that the Young family remain “in charge of every stage of production”. The book ends with lists of “20 things you ought to know about” cows, pigs, sheep and hens. One thing you know about cattle farmers is that they are not catering for vegetarians.
Will the book do anything to appease those who see cattle farming of any kind as “catastrophic”? Probably not, though it claims that two-thirds of farmland in the UK is grassland, mostly “unsuitable for crop production”, and points out that a switch to arable farming usually means the removal of hedgerows, which are vital for carbon storage and partly offset methane emissions. What the book does highlight, by contrast to its own shining example, is the immorality of intensive farming. It attacks the numerous cruelties that go on, unseen by supermarket shoppers – incarceration, tail-docking, sleep deprivation, force-feeding, early weaning, teeth-cutting, debeaking. And it shows that the degree of freedom allowed to animals on Kite’s Nest Farm is not only more humane but makes sound economic sense. As Boswell said: “The flesh of animals who have fed excursively [has] a higher flavour than that of those who are cooped up.”
The cooping up of cows also reduces the size of their brains, Young believes, whereas her cattle, given freedom of movement, are freethinkers. Of course, she knows that what goes on inside their heads isn’t the same as what goes on in ours: “Why should human criteria have any relevance to other species?” But by writing about them as human, she’s calling for greater humanity in the way they are treated. Whatever else, no one who has read her book will look at cows in the same light again.
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