Thursday, 18 July 2013

What makes a cow happy?

During our recent holiday in France I was struck once again by the numbers of cows we saw grazing in woodland in the Aude.  It’s a scene that, for me, represents the rural South of France.  These cows look so Gallic that I think they must “moo” with a French accent.  They seem to wander freely, often wear bells, and create an attractive picture of rural content and traditional farming.  Many years ago, when I was studying the Neolithic in Britain, I read that there may be evidence of branches of trees being cut down to feed cattle in these early farming societies.  Wild cattle are natural forest dwellers and will certainly feed on leaves if given the opportunity.  I also had a vague idea that cattle are supposed to be good for woodland, breaking up matted undergrowth and depositing dung that fertilises the soil.  Keeping cattle in woodland, therefore, seems to provide a win-win situation: good for the trees and good for the animals.  So why is it common in other European countries but seems rare in the UK?  A brief investigation revealed some interesting work by Forest Research.  Their survey concludes that there are, in fact, some areas of woodland being grazed by cattle throughout the country, with higher concentrations in the south of England, Cumbria and the north of Scotland.  Land ownership seems to be behind the pattern.  In the case of Scotland and Cumbria the practice represents an unbroken and continuing tradition in privately-owned land management, and is driven by the need for production.  Conversely, in the south of England it is used mainly on land owned by non-governmental organisations such as the National Trust, whose main aim is conservation.  In either case there does seem to be a dual benefit that draws on traditional land management practices.  I imagine that a couple of hundred years ago the trees might have been coppiced to produce a crop of poles for hurdles or for firewood.   A colleague in CRE who is carrying out research on permaculture agreed that keeping cattle in woodland could certainly be included under that heading as a sustainable practice that works with nature.  It’s not an intensive production method of course.  Too many cattle will ensure, in time, that there are no new trees, as the animals graze off new saplings.  But the trampling caused by lower numbers actually seems to create spaces for new plants to germinate and grow.  It’s a satisfyingly idea and creates a pretty rural scene.  Does it do anything more?  Above all, it prompts me to question my assumptions about farming and the countryside.  Arguments about intensive production methods, such as mega-dairies have even been aired on The Archers over the past year or so.  Most of us prefer to see cows grazing in fields rather than shut away in sheds all year round.  But is it even natural to give a cow a field in which to graze?  We might prefer it in landscape and aesthetic terms and we may conclude that the cows prefer it: anyone who has seen cows leave their winter accommodation in the spring would be hard pressed to deny that they enjoy being out in the fresh air.  But I think it’s also worth remembering that any farming method represents a means by which we reshape the natural world.  Given a choice, perhaps what those cows would really prefer would be to retreat into the forest and eat leaves as their ancestors did.  Though, of course, we have also shaped the modern cow into a very different creature from its ancestors.

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