WCFPS was present at a recent meeting, chaired by Cornwall Council, at which there was a presentation about the behaviour of farm animals and cattle in particular. What follows is an expansion of the notes taken during the presentation and are as accurate as can be recollected.
Domesticated cattle are descended from the prehistoric aurochs. They are herbivores and, like zebras and deer, they are prey animals. Consequently their instincts and behaviour are tuned towards survival and not becoming a meal for a carnivore. They prefer to stay in the open, away from areas where a predator could hide. They like to stay in a herd so if they are attacked the odds are that only one animal on the periphery will die whist the others can escape. To that end, the dominant animal in the herd spends most of its time in the middle of the herd. Unlike sheep who continually call to their lambs to follow and avoid predators, a cow will hide her calf and then return to it if she becomes anxious. Consequently cows will become anxious if they are separated from the herd and especially so if separated from their calf. Most animals, cattle and humans included, have their own private space. Thus if you get too close to a cow it will move away as long as it is not cornered/trapped. To avoid upsetting a herd of cattle, a walker should avoid fragmenting a herd especially if there are calves and it is preferable to walk around the perimeter of a field so that the cattle are not pushed towards the hedges.
So fear is most easily engendered in cattle by isolating them. However they can become apprehensive if confronted by strange objects [walkers in varied clothing], a new location [recently turned out young animals] and signs of fear in other members of the herd. They can exhibit their fear by ceasing to graze and raising their heads, ears ‘locked’ in the direction of the perceived threat, increased tail swishing, increased vocalisation, restlessness and/or increased defecation.
Because they are herbivores cows spend most their day head down eating. Therefore their senses have been attuned for survival whilst grazing. Their eyes are set on the side of their heads so they only have a small angle of binocular vision, straight ahead, so that they can see what they are eating. The rest of their almost 360 degree vision is monocular [except towards their tail] so that they can detect predators [and walkers] by noticing movement against a background. They have a heightened sense of smell that can identify individual members of the herd [and their farmer]. Hence why cattle can be anxious when a vet visits as they detect disinfectant and associate it with the cattle crush and being subjected to testing. Also walkers will smell different and arouse suspicion. A cow’s hearing is attuned to the higher pitched sound of a calf in distress. Therefore the sounds of young children or the yapping/barking of a small dog can be unsettling for a cow.
All these reactions by cattle are instinctive behaviour handed down over the millennia. But they also have learnt behaviour. Cattle, especially young animals, may be used to being fed from a bucket or a bag by the farmer. So when a walker appears they may think they are about to be fed and come running across especially if you are carrying something in your hand. They are also used to being milked daily so will progress to and loiter near gates as milking time approaches and possibly be reluctant to move back. They will also learn that an electric fence hurts and will avoid wires even when they are not turned on. Tape or twine may have the same effect.
It is hoped that this information will help members to have more confidence when walking in the countryside by understanding the reasons why farm livestock react in the way they do.