Walking near cows: keep calm and carry on

You’d expect better of the editor of a walking magazine. I expect better of myself. But the truth is, I’m afraid of cattle.

They’re bigger than me, dumber than me (I think), and a lot quicker when they decide to run.

If I see a herd or a lone bull in a field I need to get through, I’ll make a nervous calculation as to whether I can make it to the other side quicker than they can make up the ground between us. And if the margins are too fine – less than, say, 50 metres – or (worse) they’re actually on my path of travel, I’ll slink off to find another way around, cursing my cowardliness.

Walking near cows, Wyredale Way, Lancashire. Credit to Ian DickinFrom talking to others, whether seasoned walkers or not, it seems I’m far from alone in my fears. And the current trial of a farmer for negligence, which has publicised the horrific details of a walker being killed by a bull in Nottinghamshire in 2010, has only exacerbated my anxieties.

Even if the statistics prove I’m highly unlikely to ever encounter such a situation (on average, only one member of the public dies from cattle attacks each year), the frequency with which I encounter livestock on my country walks seems, to my irrational mind, to be tempting fate.

But an even rarer encounter with a young, friendly beef farmer the other day has done my nerves the world of good. He chatted to me enthusiastically about how he welcomed walkers on his Home Counties farm and how he wouldn’t even keep hold of an aggressive bull in his livestock, let alone graze one in a field with a footpath crossing it. He didn’t have much sympathy for the farmer on trial, and said farming needed to embrace modern health and safety practices, not bemoan them.

As for my fear of cattle, he was adamant that I shouldn’t be afraid. Cows on the approach, he said, are almost always just curious or hungry, and will stop when they get close to you. And bulls will rarely ever charge. But if they do, I should just run. They’re not going to stop just because you’re in the way, he joked.

Those experienced and reassuring words from a man who has spent his life around cattle have given me renewed confidence to get out and take charge of my fears, as well as any livestock I encounter. I’ve looked at the sensible advice we give about walking around livestock with new eyes, and am resolved to put my place in the field and my chances of harm in perspective.

I always felt a little stupid knowing how low the risk of attack from cattle actually is, but now I’m even more determined not to be the dumber animal next time we meet, and just quietly walk on by.

Dominic Bates is the editor of Walk Magazine. Look out for smugglers’ paths, the National Forest Way and a camping gear special in the summer issue of Walk, out 1 June.

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