A good life makes for happy cows at Hare Krishna farm

Milked by hand, allowed to breed naturally and free from the threat of slaughter, the cows at Gokul farm near London could be possibly the happiest in Britain.

The 44 animals are owned by a community of Hare Krishnas, who live on the site at Aldenham bequeathed by Beatles guitarist George Harrison.

As believers of a branch of Hinduism, the Hare Krishnas view cows as sacred and treat them with respect, milking them by hand for the animals' comfort and allowing them to calve less intensively than in industrial farms.

Crucially, the community members are also vegetarian, guaranteeing that the cows are at no risk of slaughter.

"They are very sensitive animals. It's like if you have a dog - how you feel, the dog senses that," said Shyamasundara Das, the head of the farm at Aldenham.

"Here, because we have an atmosphere of cow care, the animals themselves are a lot more peaceful and tranquil, and maybe it's also because there is no sense that they are going to be killed by us."

Despite occasional massages, careful milking twice a day, and the spacious living quarters - the community has recently installed new cowsheds in French oak - the farm is not the bovine equivalent of a five-star hotel.

The cattle pay their way by pulling carts to take groups of school children or young families around the farm, as well as powering a traditional mill to grind the cereal that feeds the cows.

The farm is built next to the Bhaktivedanta Manor, which Harrison donated to the Hare Krishna movement in the early 1970s and is now their British base.

The presence of the sacred cows adds a spiritual element and brings the community closer to the Hindu ideal of a simple life in harmony with nature.

"Krishna is always seen surrounded by cows. He was a cow herd boy 5,000 years ago in India," said Kripamoya Das, a Hare Krishna priest.

There is also a more practical link between the believers and the cows.

The flowers used to decorate statues in the temple next to the manor, where barefoot believers pray morning, noon and night, are fed to the cows once they begin to droop, as a thank you for all their hard work.

Although their humane approach means that calves are allowed to continue suckling their mothers' milk for far longer than in industrial farms, the cows at Gokul still produce a large amount of milk.

At the moment this is drunk only by the community at Aldenham, but Shyamasundara Das is keen to begin selling it the world outside.

However, the cost of such a feel-good product is a barrier. The milk currently costs about three pounds (3.5 euros, 4.7 dollars) a litre and, pending the approval of regulators, would be sold at a hefty 3.5 pounds a litre, making it perhaps the most expensive cow's milk in Europe.

And is it any better than normal milk?

Mark Gardener, a vet who regularly visits Gokul farm, won't say either way - although he is confident that the cows here are likely to be happier.

"Normally in a dairy farm each cow has to justify his position" by having calves every few months or producing sufficient milk, and if they don't they will be sent to slaughter, he said.

"Whereas here the cows aren't under that pressure."

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