I’m frightened of bears, terrified of crocodiles, and sharks truly give me the willies. But none of these scare me half as much as cows.
Of course, that’s largely because I am incredibly unlikely ever to encounter a loose crocodile (or bear) in England, whereas potential bovine killers roam our countryside in their many thousands.
Only a few of us know to fear these hulking monsters. The vast majority of people spend their whole lives obliviously unafraid of cows. Indeed, they even laugh at those like me who will go miles out of their way to avoid a grazing herd.
I would have remained part of the blissfully unaware majority were it not for a close encounter with a herd of 20 or so cows one afternoon.
I was using a public footpath across a privately owned field in which cows were grazing, which is not at all rare. As it happened, the cows were right in front of the stile which is the only spot from which to exit the field easily. I hoped they would move before I got there but they didn’t.
Rather, as I approached, I realised that the cows were staring directly at me – every one of them — in a manner I found so sinister that it caused me to stop in my tracks. Then they began to walk towards me in unison, as if they had telepathically decided on a course of action.
I assumed that turning and walking away would placate them. Instead, I heard the cows begin to gather speed, their hooves rumbling on the hard ground. I can vividly recall the fear and the rush of adrenalin I felt at that moment.
It was lucky that I decided not to run away. It turns out that cows are faster than people, however ungainly they may look. It takes them a while to reach full speed because they are so heavy, so you can outrun them over a short distance. But I was stuck in an open field with no refuge nearby.
Somehow, I chose to run at them yelling as loudly as I could and waving my arms. There was a second or two when it appeared not to be working. But it was “all or nothing” and I persevered. Finally they scattered just before I reached them.
If cows catch you, they may butt you to the ground and trample you. If agitated enough, they may kick you while on the floor or even sit on you. This will break your ribs and crush your lungs. Once you know this, you can never see these 700kg beasts in the same light. They are not just the placid grass-munchers most people assume.
Apparently, my case was unusual. Cows normally only attack if you are with a dog; they see dogs as enemies and take group action to defend themselves. So dog-walkers have a simple rule: let the dog off the leash and the cows will chase it and not the human (the dog will escape too). Also, cows are far more likely to confront you if they have calves. (Never get between cows and their calves.) But “my” cows didn’t have calves to protect.
I don’t know why they took such a dislike to me. My initial thought was that they must have worked out what we humans do to them. (“Fair enough,” I thought.) My other silly thought was that it would have been an embarrassing way to die. “He was savaged by a cow,” sounds absurd (though it really isn’t).
Cow attacks don’t get the level of media coverage that fatal dog attacks do, but cows kill about four times more people than dogs do. (A majority of those killed by cows are farmworkers. In terms of “civilians” the number of fatalities is almost equal.) Cows also kill more often than bulls. They kill more people worldwide than sharks, but somehow I don’t think Stephen Spielberg will make a film called Udders.
This year an elderly man was trampled to death in Sussex. I think it made the news because he was a former Oxford professor and the inventor of “needle-free injections”. In 2009, David Blunkett (a former home secretary) was injured by cows while protecting his dog. Mr Blunkett is blind so his guide-dog was far more than a beloved pet. That case also made the news, of course, but most incidents only make the local news, especially non-fatal ones even though these can leave people with life-changing injuries.
I am not saying cows are evil. They are animals with instincts and behave in ways that are sometimes predictable, sometimes unpredictable and potentially dangerous to humans either way. I only try to tell people they need to be more aware of that and to have a healthy sense of fear. They are not as dangerous as ladders, of course, but still...