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Farming Notes: The cow cannot put a hoof wrong

WHEN I mention to people that I have written a book in which the heroine is a cow, they consistently tell me there is nothing unusual in that. Lots of heroines are utter cows, whether the author appreciates it or not: Vanity Fair's Becky Sharp, Scarlett O'Hara of Gone with the Wind and that arch-cow Lady Macbeth. They think I am describing a protagonist who is a nasty piece of work, deceitful and manipulative and stubborn.

The recipe for disrespect is to take a hefty pinch of bovine flavouring and sprinkle freely. Daft cows, silly old moos; cowboy builders, lying bullshitters.Somewhere in the bovine world there is an insult to fit any situation: in America, baseball players who hold the bat hands reversed are called cow-handed. On the dance floor, beware the cow-footed. Cows can't do anything right.

That is not how I think about cows, after knowing several of them pretty well. It is true that their moo has less martial glamour than a horse's whinny. I admit that when they run they look silly - legs flying, udders swinging, tails high in the air, eyes wide to bursting point. The worst thing that can be said of a horse is that "it trots like a cow". But the cow is a giving, gentle creature, from whom the milk of kindness flows twice daily. Cows are companionable, calm and collected when allowed to live life on their own terms. And if they never appear to be troubled much by thought, envy them their peace of mind. Treated with respect they are faithful servants. For me they cannot put a cloven hoof wrong. If anyone on our farm gets called a cow, they glow at the compliment.

I sometimes wonder how many are left who hold the cow in some esteem. Few animals have fallen so far, so fast, in public appreciation. How quickly we have forgotten what a friend she has been. Did she not lift us to higher planes of civilisation long ago, by allowing us to harness her and her brethren to pull ploughs and carts? Does she not give us milk to drink? And, when dead, bequeath us meat and leather? So fundamental was the cow to early civilisations that Sanskrit scholars translate "soldier" from the literal "one who fights about cows". Morning was the "calling of the cattle" and evening was the "milking time".

If her reputation has collapsed in the last decade, it is hardly the cow's fault. In our well-fed, bloated affluence where efficiency of food production counts for everything and compassion for very little, when animals have been reduced to the status of machinery not only by farmers but also by the consumers who expect ever cheaper food, we have delivered the cow an insulting slap around her soft, whiskery mouth, and then turned away with a shrug from her disgrace and death. We thought we knew better than she did about how she should be fed, so we put before this herbivore a plateful of infected meat. It sent her mad. To add insult to injury, we tried to pretend it had never happened by heaping millions of cows into incinerators and letting the flames smother our conscience.

Mud sticks. Ask any cow. It will be a long time before anyone is going to feel the same about these lovely beasts, after the repeated television showing of the staggering and suffering of the crazed ones, and the suspicion (unproved, as yet, remember) that the dementia we gave them can pass to humans through their meat.

There has been much mud flying around over the past few months as the BSE inquiry started to point accusing fingers at ministers, civil servants and farmers. And then there are those who pointed to themselves as innocent victims of the other side. But, in all the argument, no one heard or will hear from the cow. She has no voice. Until we have made our peace with the cow and remembered to value her for what she is and what she has given to humanity, we will carry the burden of our guilt. Let cows be heroines again.

Paul Heiney is author of `Domino's Effect' (Coronet, pounds 5.99)