‘I’ll see who is in the mood for talking,” says Rosamund Young, strolling across a steep field on the Cotswold escarpment. “Hello, are you busy? You’re very nice, yes you are. Don’t walk off.” Young pauses, empathising with Celandine’s shyness. “She doesn’t like being photographed any more than I do.”
“She won’t know she’s being photographed,” harrumphs Graeme Robertson, the photographer. Or will she?
For Celandine is a pale, horned and handsome crossbreed cow. And Young has written The Secret Life of Cows, a book based on tending generations of cows on her family farm that challenges casual assumptions. If given liberty, cows form intense friendships. They communicate with people, invent games, babysit, forecast the weather and open closed gates. They can even self-medicate, choosing to eat certain plants when poorly. Most profoundly, Young has realised that this herd species is notably individual. Each one of her 113 cows has a name. Sometimes Young rather disconcertingly refers to them as “persons”. And she writes: “The animals themselves are by far the most qualified individuals to make decisions about their own welfare.”Up here on Kites Nest Farm, the only sound is the gentle tearing of grass and the contented puffing of bovine breath. So I don’t quite realise that I’m the one being interviewed. By the cows.
When we sit down later, in the kitchen of her gorgeous old farmhouse, Young reveals that the cows are her character judges. On the hillside, Dot eventually poses for some pictures for Robertson.
“The cows know he’s a nice person. If he wasn’t they would walk off,” says Young of the photographer. “You can be charmed by a person, but a cow can’t.” Three times her cows have reacted badly to visitors, – warning her, she believes, of their bad character – although one unfortunate woman had simply worn strong perfume. (One of Young’s smaller revelations is that cows hate artificial scent.)
Young, 64, has lived on a farm since she was 12 days old, when her father obtained a tenancy on a council farm with no electricity or telephone. But she’s not exactly a cow-whisperer. “If I’ve got someone with me I’ll tell them what the cow is thinking, just like Johnny Morris [the presenter of 70s TV show Animal Magic]. It’s a bit of an affectation,” she says with typical self-effacement.
In reality, she has no truck with cheap tricks. “Some farmers will always scratch the top of a cow’s tail and the cow goes into ecstasies. I don’t like doing that. It’s using your power to make them like you. If a cow doesn’t like me, that’s fine.” Mostly, she communicates non-verbally, placing a hand on them. “You don’t need to talk. It’s the presence, or feeling calm.” And cows talk back to her: they may push, moo or simply seek her out, standing outside her kitchen window if they have a problem.
When Young was 13, she brought some young cows back to their main herd after a summer in a distant grazing field and remembers noticing how one stood intently “talking” to her mother. “I thought, crikey, they’ve missed each other,” she says. “We didn’t know they even knew each other because that calf had been taken from its mother at birth. In those days we were not as sensitive to their needs. Gradually it dawned on me. That was what farming life was, you just farmed and noticed things.”
Young has noticed more than most, perhaps because she is deeply rooted in one place. She has never had a passport and is stressed about her first-ever trip to a book festival. “Going anywhere is monumentally worrying.”
The Secret Life of Cows was originally published by a small farming press in 2003. It was rediscovered when a Faber sales rep spotted a favourable reference in Alan Bennett’s diaries. Young has never met Bennett, although he sent her an appreciative postcard. “He bought the book because he thought it was a stupid title and read it thinking he’d hate it, and he didn’t,” says Young. “I love being called an author. It’s an enormous compliment, but I think I’m a ghostwriter for the cows.”
Young has been so bound to her farm partly because she has devoted most of her life to caring for her chronically sick mother. “She got very severe reactions to any food that wasn’t organic,” says Young. “When we grew our own wheat, milled our own flour, had our own milk, cheese and butter, I could keep her fairly pain-free and happy. That made me more aware of the power of food to make people well.” Since her mother’s death six years ago, she has farmed in partnership with her brother, Richard, and now also her partner, Gareth Williams.
The Youngs have been organic since 1974, and farm free-roaming beef cattle. The animals stay in family groups – or sometimes not, for she reveals some mothers fall out with grandmothers over how to raise a calf. Their pastures are full of “weeds” because they have realised that cows seek out different plants for a balanced diet. If injured, a cow will often eat willow.
Cows fed solely on grass may not sound radical but intensively farmed cows are stuffed with maize or soya-beans. “Cows need grass, they don’t need cereals. They are ruminants,” says Young, firmly. Cereal-fed cows produce less healthy meat, too: factory-farmed beef has a much lower proportion of healthy Omega-3 fats than grass-fed beef, for instance.
Just as Young believes cows know best, so she is deeply reluctant to dispense advice to farmers – or to the urban majority. Reconnecting city to countryside can only be done through food, she believes. And “farmers hate to be criticised. I would just say, in general terms, the better you get to know an animal, the more use you can be to it.” For instance, because she can safely get close to her cows, she can check one for mastitis without spending an hour putting it in a crush and calling a vet.
That’s pragmatic, but Young’s intimate understanding of her cows is also very moving. On one occasion, two cows gave birth to dazzlingly white calves within 24 hours of each other. “The first calf walked over to greet the new arrival and stared at him as if looking in a mirror. They became devoted and inseparable friends from that minute,” she writes. “The White Boys lived in a world of their own; in the midst of a large herd but oblivious to it. They slept each night with their heads resting on each other. They were magnificent: tall, gentle, independent, kindly, though not over-friendly, noble.”
The Secret Life of Cows may be full of life but it is coy about death. “I cheated in a way,” says Young. “I didn’t know how to go into … ” Most of her calves’ good lives end, aged two. Young does not say goodbye, but makes a point of taking them to the abattoir. How does she feel when a cow goes? “I went through a phase of finding it incredibly difficult. I’m OK about it now,” she says. What happened to the White Boys? “Oh, they got eaten. They went together, in a horse box. I drove them to the abattoir and they got killed within seconds of each other.
Young respects her cows but must wrestle with other feelings. “I love them to bits. I put myself out to get up in the middle of the night, anything to make them happy. But I can’t afford to be sentimental. I can miss them but that’s my problem. They don’t need to know that. I just need to get them in a businesslike way to the abattoir.”
Young believes good meat is part of a balanced diet and Britain’s climate and geography make meat production the only truly sustainable land use on its grasslands. Her slopes are too steep to grow crops and vegan diets dependent on imported soya beans from ex-rainforests don’t appear to be sustainable. At times, however, she sounds rather like animal rights philosopher Peter Singer. Cows, Young writes, “should be given the wherewithal to succeed as animals, not as some inadequate servants of man”.
Shouldn’t she be vegetarian? “Being a vegetarian doesn’t do anything for animal welfare. If you become an abattoir owner and make sure animals are killed well then you’re doing something for animal welfare, but just giving up meat you’re not.”
It may be possible to give cows a good life but Young is critical of the way they die. Hundreds of abattoirs have closed. She used to take her animals seven miles to the nearest one; now it’s 37 miles. She would much prefer on-farm slaughter but this is barred by the EU. Young devised the concept of mobile slaughterhouses – a hi-tech trailer that could visit farms — but the two that were constructed proved unviable because of expensive regulations, including the need for an on-site vet who billed at £100 an hour. “The young animals that go to be killed, the two-year-old boys, I would guess most of them don’t know what’s going to happen. Most. The older cows know more. Some of them think, ‘This isn’t right, why am I not at home? That smells funny.’ There are levels of intelligence and therefore levels of stress and suffering. It’s not perfect, it’s never going to be perfect.”
Young breaks off and says she really must prepare to leave Kites Nest farm for her book festival debut. She mocks her own nerves with a laugh. “It’s almost as though I’m going to be slaughtered tomorrow and I’m never coming back.”