There are lots of ways to help cow friends across England and beyond. Whether you are a vegan, vegetarian, omnivore or farmer. There are millions of cows that live in outdoor fields, indoor barns or sometimes on factory farms. So firstly let’s meet cows and discover the truth about many myths (they can’t predict the weather, nor do they have four stomachs). Then we’ll look at the welfare issues with cows (and the truth about whether eating beef destroys rainforests and causes climate change). Then finally we’ll discover direct ways to help cows – from helping sanctuaries to eating less meat and dairy – with details on good plant-based alternatives to make or buy.
You can learn more about cows (and how they are farmed) at Compassion in World Farming. This excellent organisation was set up by a concerned dairy farmer, and has had huge success in getting the laws changed – from banning many kind of crates in the UK to stopping fur farms. If you eat meat or dairy, this site has information on how to be a more discerning consumer, and know how to tell the true welfare labels, from the fake ones.
Let’s Meet Some Cute Cows!
We may be used to seeing cows in nearly every field across England, but how much do you know about these fascinating gentle giants? Although sacred in the Hindu religion, cows often are not revered as much here. Yet these unique and quite huge animals are a mysterious blend of gentleness and ruthlessness (which is why you should never approach a cow with a calf) and legend. See how to find good dog walks, to learn more on the Countryside Code (to keep both dogs and cattle safe).
Cows like to spend most of their days chewing cud (they don’t eat daisies, as it makes their milk bitter). They are also very social animals that like to hang out with other cow friends. They share food, look after each other’s calves and even play hide-and-seek. Just like human children, calves can be ‘born blonde’ and then get darker with age. And just like other children in the playground, they tend to make friends with similar personalities in their herd, and avoid the ones they don’t get on with.
Like humans, cows sleep while lying down, and like to chill and rest. It’s a myth that cows lying down is predicting the weather. Experts say it’s simply because they are digesting their cud, having a rest! They only have one stomach, so it has to work harder than ours, to break down seemingly indigestible foods, for easier elimination.
And just so you know, bulls can’t see the colour red (their retinas only register the colours green, blue, violet and yellow). So don’t be concerned about a picnic blanket in the field, although it’s best to keep away from defensive bulls. Cruel bullfighting makes the bull charge, due to the awful chasing of it. Yet many cities in Spain and beyond are banning it, the biggest risk is money from tourists, mostly from North America and Europe.
Issues with Cow Welfare
Poor cows get quite a bad deal in life. As mentioned above, bulls suffer due to the tourist spectacle of bull-fighting and abroad in poorer countries (like India), it’s common to see starving cows wandering on the road. Back home, cows of course are mostly bred to produce beef and dairy (two separate industries). Beef cattle tend to live outside for most of their lives, but on nearing slaughter, you can often see them crammed in holding pens to get to their ‘beef weight’, where they can hardly move. And although it’s often done to give better nutrition when grass is not so fast to grow, many cattle spend almost the entire year in small barns, without access to outdoor pasture. Cattle that live on ranches abroad (like the US and South America) also have issues with rainforests being destroyed to create more land for meat (gases from factory-farming are one of the main causes of global warming).
Dairy cows often fare even worse. Male calves are often shot at birth (no income) or sent abroad to become veal (this practice is illegal in the UK, when they live in crates and are fed iron-poor diets to produce white meat). Cows are often separated from their calves early on, which causes both creatures intense stress (anyone living near cows and calves that are separated are often haunted by the calls that often go on for weeks).
Although most free-range farmers look after their animals well, critics would argue there is no such thing as ‘humane meat’, because at end of life, the cows are still transported (terrified) to abattoirs, where they are stunned (not with Halal meat) and then slaughtered. Often to simply provide ‘cheap beef’ for supermarkets to make vast profits, and a culture of food waste (huge amounts of uneaten meat and dairy are simply thrown away). And farming is still a business, so often if farmers have few resources, skills or funds, there can be welfare issues like lung problems with poor housing, lack of money to treat lameness and other problems, and depression/boredom for cattle stuck indoors for most of the year, as there is not enough nutrition in outdoor pastures.
Mastitis is a common condition for some cows, as is TB (which is more to do with cattle-to-cattle transition than badgers, with better solutions being vaccination, proper training and an innovative ‘mineral lick’ solution for badgers, that appears to stop badgers from getting TB, thereby stopping transition (this was invented by a Devon farmer, who contacted the government with his results, but has been ignored).
So here are a few good ways that we can all collectively help. Whatever anyone’s diet, no-one wants to see cows and calves suffer. So pick and choose from the following tips, to suit your own lifestyle. Also see how to help our small farmers, for more information on what the farming industry can do to help all barnyard friends.
- Eat less dairy. Try plant milks (oat milk is the most sustainable as it can be locally grown – there is even an organisation that helps farmers transition from animal farming to growing and selling local oats/milk, leaving present animals to live out their natural lives in peace). You can also find many local companies delivering plant milks in glass bottles to your door (Rerooted in Devon was set up by a former Man United footballer, and is gradually being launched nationwide). If you do drink dairy, then go for brands that leave calves to live out their lives with the mothers. Be careful as some herds have found to use bull calves as forced labour, others let calves stay with their mothers, but then they are slaughtered for beef.
- Eat less meat. If you feel ready, follow a plant-based lifestyle. If not, then at least eat less meat from free-range local sources, for better welfare. Even chefs like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver now promote this way of living. Meat-Free Mondays are not enough – we are talking around 90% plant-based and just 10% animal foods (if not vegan), as the only viable way to avoid factory-farming, with the amount of land we have, and the amount of meat presently eaten.
- If you are concerned about a cow, calf or any barnyard friend, report this to RSPCA (despite farm animals having less legal rights than pets, they still have them, so you can also contact your council). You may in first instance have more joy with a friendly concerned word with the farmer. Most get a bit defensive, but often they are happy to educate on common concerns, as most do indeed look after their animals.
- Homeopathy at Wellie Level offers courses for farmers, to treat common conditions like mastitis. One Irish farmer was a complete sceptic, until he used this ‘fake medicine’ to heal his herd. He stopped using it, the mastitis came back, he went back to using it and now is a believer. The site offers online courses and resources, and case studies from farmers who say it helps to reduce antibiotic use, improve animal welfare, and reduce vet bills. It also can help speed up organic certification (you can certifiy organic farms on a budget using the ‘honesty’ alternative with Wholesome Food Association (around £30 a year).
- Don’t support bullfighting. If you travel abroad, boycott any spectacle that harms animals. Many cities have now banned this practice, with most profits coming from tourists. Report any bullfight you see advertised by a tourist company to League Against Cruel Sports (join their campaigns to stop present bullfights and ‘running of the bulls’ where injured animals often end up in bullfights).
Support Your Local Cow Sanctuary
Farm sanctuaries are where rescued animals live out their lives in peace. Just google your area for a ‘farm sanctuary’ to find ones to support. Two good ones are Surge Sanctuary (profits from London’s Unity Diner help fund it) and Goodheart Animal Sanctuary (residents include surrogate mother Blondie – home to her ‘Jersey boys’ and Everest – who enjoys a back scratch so much, he has his own dedicated brush!)