Herd Mentality: Review of The Secret Life of Cows at Durham Book Festival

Having spent many years nurturing her herd in the Cotswolds, Rosamund Young has learned to appreciate the unique personalities of cows. Her book The Secret Life of Cows, which she recently presented at Durham Book Festival, argues that these intelligent animals speak to society about the need to rethink our habits of consumption. Barbara Dick reviews.

Cover of The Secret Life of Cows, by Rosamund YoungRosamund Young’s The Secret Life of Cows, first published in 2003, and recently republished by Faber & Faber in 2017, has won the hearts and minds of many reviewers. Its warm reception by critics is partly due to its positioning within a growing canon of popular ‘back to nature’ narratives from the world of agriculture. These satisfy the curiosity of a largely urban readership alienated from the source of their food, which is nurtured by the same kind of nostalgia that first made The Archers and Emmerdale popular in the 1950s and 1970s respectively, and Countryfile today.

A large part of the book’s charm lies in the simple yet eloquent writing; the author’s focus throughout is on the cows themselves, generations of herds raised over a lifetime of animal husbandry at Kite’s Nest Farm in the Cotswolds.  Laced in with this highly observational narrative are telling asides that reveal the author’s convictions about the importance of organic methods and re-wilding to animal welfare; the book is an illustration of the success of this approach.

Young describes her eventual rejection of dairy farming in favour of keeping calves with their mothers and rearing for humane slaughter. Her clear concern for the creatures’ welfare is pragmatically based on their usefulness as high-quality, organic food, as well as genuine interest in their behaviour, and on personal, empathetic concern for the quality of their life experience. Livestock are part of the landscape and the legitimate food chain, and consequently she would have little truck with the type of pro-vegetarian arguments presented in J.M. Coetzee’s The Life of Animals (1980); without meat consumption, she says, there would be no reason for the animals’ existence. The didactic element of the narrative is therefore more of a plea for a radical reconfiguration of our expectations: we should eat red meat or poultry on fewer occasions per week, or per month, and in return receive the assurance that our meat is grass-fed and healthy, better for our own bodies. She also points out that as two-thirds of UK farmland is unsuitable for crops, grazing cattle on this carbon-sequestering grassland may be the most sustainable use of our resources.

Photograph of cows with the quote: "Her decades of proximity to generations fo cows have given her numerous examples of behaviour that unmistakably parallels humans"

Young is conscious of accusations of anthropomorphism in her descriptions of the cows’ behaviour. She argues that she is not projecting human emotions onto the animals, but rather that her decades of proximity to generations of her herd have given her numerous examples of behaviour that unmistakably parallels that of humans. One of the attractions of the narrative is the anecdotal evidence of personality differences, of herd members who are ‘outliers’, not conforming to expected behaviours; it is these demonstrations of individual personality, as opposed to ‘herd mentality’, that so intrigue the author, and drive her belief in the importance of humane farming methods.

The Secret Life of Cows does not hector; rather, it is gently contrapuntal, though stoutly resistant, to the current dominant narrative in commercial cattle production, to the aggressively profit-driven view of animals as unfeeling automata, reduced to units in confined pens, over-medicated, under-nourished, their complex social needs unmet. The didactic elements are interwoven seamlessly with what is essentially a memoir of old friends who happened to be cows, and the result is a book that forms an important link in the literary chain of popular modern writing on the environment.

With regard to animal welfare, Young is heir to Temple Grandin; with regard to the broader, holistic environment concerns about the effects of over-medication and pesticides, Rachel Carson; and in her affectionate and anecdotal approach to the animals, James HerriotThe Secret Life of Cows also shares a natural affinity with other recent popular memoirs on European livestock and wildlife, such as James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life, Amanda Owen’s The Yorkshire Shepherdess, and Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees and The Inner Life of Animals.  In an era of peak human population growth and unprecedented demand for meat, Young’s account of the inner lives of her cows, and of farming them under an organic regime, presents a powerful and persuasive argument for a slow-food, high-welfare agenda of radically reduced meat consumption that is better not only for the cows, but also for us.

Rosamund Young’s The Secret Life of Cows is published by Faber & Faber, RRP £9.99. Durham Book Festival ran from 4th to 14th October 2018.

Durham Book Festival

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