The Secret Life of Cows

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Read 09/01/2019-12/01/2019

Rating 5 stars

Oh, my heart! Rosamund Young expresses everything that I have ever thought about the intensive farming practice in the UK. She has more knowledge than I possess, because Rosamund is a farmer and has chosen a very particular way of raising livestock. The Secret Life of Cows is a chronicle of the adventures of her bovine livestock and their interactions with the other animals who live on the farm, including the humans.

For context, I’m a vegetarian. The reasons I stopped eating meat are varied. I don’t like the taste of meat. I think we eat too much meat in the UK. I hate factory farming methods. I once saw a cow that had escaped from an abbatoir staggering in the road with a stun bolt in its head. A biology teacher made our class watch a Channel 4 documentary about reclaimed meat products that put me off (meat) sausages, burgers and pies for life.

But for all that I’m a vegetarian, I don’t think that animals shouldn’t be part of the food chain at all. Being a vegetarian makes it harder for me to ensure I get the mix of vitamins, minerals and proteins that meat delivers in a more concentrated dose. It’s possible, but it takes effort. Humans have evolved to eat meat. We’re part of a chain of animals that eat each other. Just because I choose not to eat meat doesn’t mean I think everyone shouldn’t eat meat. I’m not sentimental about animals to the extent that I can’t bear the thought of them being killed for food. I’m sentimental about the way we treat animals. I’d prefer it if people ate less meat than they do, so that we can do away with the intensive farming that supports our gluttonous demand.

In the introduction, Young says this:

Cows are as varied as people. They can be highly intelligent or slow to understand; friendly, considerate, aggressive, docile, inventive, dull, proud or shy. All these characteristics are present in a large enough herd and for many years we have been steadfast in our determination to treat our animals as individuals.

She goes on to talk about how animal personalities get lost when farming them scales up to intensive levels, and we lose our connection to them as individuals, so that they become almost inanimate objects, commodities bred for the dinner table, without any consideration for their quality of life.

Young also talks about how cattle know which plants to eat if they’re unwell, and how many of the ailments prevalent in cattle arise because of intensive farming methods. Combined with the preventative administering of drugs, Young believes such factors affect the quality and flavour of the meat. She talks about the intensive practices involved in rearing chickens, pigs and sheep, too, and compares all of it to what our expectations would be if we treated our own young in the same way.

No one would expect a child to develop normally when kept in cramped, unfriendly conditions, deprived of parents and siblings and with restricted exercise and the same diet every day, yet many farmers and the government departments that inform them seem to expect farm animals to develop normally in such circumstances.

Hardhearted individuals might scoff and say that animals and human children aren’t the same and shouldn’t be compared in this way. But why not?

The way Young describes the livestock in her care, not anthropomorphising them but giving them dignity and personality, I would hope that any meat eaters who might read this book would pause to think about both how livestock is reared and the extent of their meat consumption, and consequently make better choices about how their meat is reared.

Young also includes scientific research into the effects of factory farming on the quality of meat. She quotes a book by Dr Peter Mansfield, Chemical Children, which sounds interesting. Particularly what Young quotes about the way cows are fed and the chemicals present in their feed affecting the quality of the fat they lay down and the possible links between animal fat and a range of human illnesses that have increased or developed since the advent of intensive farming.

Having set the scene for why she views her livestock as personalities, Young then recounts the behaviours she has observed among them over the years she has known them. The book has a family tree printed inside both the front and back fold-out covers, and Young talks about how family traits become obvious over time.

It’s a charming book, full of heartwarming vignettes. I particularly enjoyed the passages about how the cows communicate with the humans on the farm. The head movements, nudging and staring made me think of our cat, who loves to sit and stare at us until we notice her and, if we fail to notice her quickly enough, will move on to lightly punching one of us with a paw. When we do look at her, she performs a short raising of the chin, as if to say, “Come on, then.” I loved the description of Friendly Wendy who stood and stared at a holidaymaker who was renting a cottage on the farm until he noticed her and led her to the farmhouse. Having learnt that staring got her what she wanted, Friendly Wendy then proceeded to stand at the farmhouse kitchen window staring until someone in the house noticed her.

It’s not all about cows, either. My favourite animals, sheep, pigs and chickens, also feature. There’s a story about how a piglet rescued from a factory farm became best friends with an orphaned lamb, and how both were so convinced they were human that they didn’t know what to do when they became mothers. I learnt a lot about chickens as well. They like to play, they sing constantly, they form strong friendship bonds, and they grieve when a hen they love dies. I want to keep chickens even more now.

Whether you’re interested in cows or not, this is a thoughtful, entertaining book that, as Alan Bennett says in his foreword, might encourage you to revise your view of the world.

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