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Walking with Cows

Walking with Cows

Recently (June 2009) the dog and I were walking up on Hameldon Ridge the other week, it was a glorious day with the promise of some good hot weather and a typical Dartmoor stroll, which it turned out to be. However, on the way back to the car I could see a large herd of cattle sat near to a small pool, obviously being a hot day they had just been for a drink and were now relaxing and enjoying the morning warmth. On closer inspection I could see that the adults were encircling a crèche of calves just like in the western films when the wagons are laid out in a circle. As always, nothing is ever simple and in this case I clearly could see that the footpath lead between the cattle and the pond behind which was a five foot stone wall. Now there would have been a time when I could have flown over such a wall but time, Marlboro and Guinness have left those days far behind. Therefore I decided that discretion was the better form of valour and took a wide detour around the ruminating cattle.

Literally, three days later it was announced on the national news that a woman had been killed on the Pennine Way whilst walking her two dogs near a herd of cattle. Recent statistics released by the Health and Safety Executive show that between April 1996 and March 2006 there have been 7 people killed by cattle and  39 injured which clearly shows that by no means was the above an isolated case.

Having been involved with cattle for many years there are four things that I have learnt; they can be very unpredictable, most cows are highly protective of their calves, they are naturally curious animals and surprisingly agile. The trick is to know when they are being curious or when they are becoming stressed and aggressive and that only comes from experience. Do you think that humans are the only creatures on this earth that are entitled to experience anxiety, discomfort or stress? I would suggest not. Imagine if you can that it’s a sweltering hot day, there is no shade and for hours various flies and insects have been swarming around your body, some taking the occasional bite at your flesh and apart from your tail you have no means of swatting them away. You have not long given birth to a defenceless baby who needs your protection when along comes a dog who could possibly cause harm to your infant. Firstly a combination of the heat and the flies is going to cause a great deal of annoyance which is not going to put you in good frame of mind. Secondly the innately perceived threat of the dog is going to command a defensive reaction which when combined with the other factors is going to make you very unpredictable. If the dog or humans get too close you are only going to react in one way – confront the threat. The other thing to bear in mind is that you are a herd animal with all the behavioural attitudes that come with it. Therefore if you react to danger so are all your other herd members because there is always greater safety in a collective response which in itself will instill greater confidence in any aggressive reaction you want to show. In other words, you really are not in a good mood anyway, the dog is threatening your baby and all your mates are ready to back you up – yeah, cop for this!

Alternatively, you are about a year old and have been let loose with a bunch of your mates, suddenly you see something that looks alien to you and your curiosity is aroused to such a level that you want to investigate further. You can smell something weird but sadly your eyesight is not that brilliant, therefore the only way to find out what that strange thing is means getting closer. You slowly move off towards it and all your mates decide to follow, it does not take long for you all to start bunching up so you move a bit quicker. They too start moving quicker and once again you all crowd up, you move even quicker, so do they and before you know it you are all hurtling towards that strange thing. The strange thing starts to move away and so you and your buddies give chase in order to catch it up, after all, you only want to find out what it is. You and your cohorts are now at full pelt and have caught up with the stranger but because you are a hefty lump you can’t stop on a sixpence. Next thing you know your momentum and that of your pals has knocked the stranger over – oh, shit, didn’t mean to do that!

Walking with Cows

Ok, as the HSE statistics show there is a danger when humans with or without dogs come into contact with cattle and you can’t get away from the fact that on the Commons of Dartmoor alone there are grazing rights for around 33,000 cattle in 2006. Therefore the chances of coming into contact with cattle is pretty high when walking on Dartmoor, but as always, ‘don’t panic Mr. Mainwaring’, as far as I know there has never been a serious incident involving cattle and humans on the moor. It simply comes down to common sense and being aware of the possible threat.

Following the latest tragic event on the Pennine Way the National Farmer’s Union have issued the following advice:

Our advice to walkers is, if you have a dog with you, keep it under close control, but do not hang on to it should a cow or bull start acting aggressively. If you feel threatened, just carry on as normal, do not run, move to the edge of the field, returning to the original path as soon as possible. And remember to close the gate.’

This is sound advice when walking in fields but what about the open moor where there are no walls, hedges or gates? Many years ago I was up above Manga Hill when I came across a black bull with a serious attitude problem. From his posturing it was obvious my presence was causing some anxiety as was the fact it was slowly coming towards me. Luckily, there was a large boggy area nearby into which I could escape, there was a stand off for a while but eventually the bull sauntered away. The big difference between cattle on the open moor and commons is that they are free to roam unlike their counterparts from the moorland edges. They are naturally herd animals and all will congregate around areas where the grazing is lush, known as ‘lairs’ from which they will never wander too far. Once you get to know where these lairs are you will find that the cattle often follow a daily routine and can be regularly seen at various times of day in certain spots, the same applies to weather conditions.

The Dartmoor National Park Authority give two ‘little gems’ of advice regarding cattle: ‘If a farm animal chases you and your dog, it is safer to let your dog off the lead – don’t risk getting hurt by trying to protect it’, and  Keep away from all moorland livestock which can be unpredictable in their behaviour.‘ There are maybe a few more to add to this list:

1) Should you be approached by cattle do not run – you run they run faster.

2) If being followed try to make for a rocky, boggy, steep area where the cattle will find it hard to access.

3) No matter how cute and cuddly the calves look do not ever approach them, mum won’t be far away.

4) Never get between a calf and its mother.

5) Don’t be lazy, if ever unsure or unhappy take a wide detour around any bunch of cattle, Dartmoor is never short of open space.

6) Further advice can be found on the NFU and HSE websites – links opposite.

But, as mentioned before, please don’t get the impression that a walk on Dartmoor is like a visit to a Spanish bullfight, you will not be expected to appear as the matador, just be aware that the cattle are wild animals. A few years ago you may well be driving along when suddenly an old Ford Escort complete with go-faster spoiler would come zooming past at break-neck speed, in the back windscreen was a sticker which proudly stated – ‘No Fear’. This was/is a ridiculous statement but with the addition of two more words it becomes an superb ideology – ‘No Fear – Just Respect’. And it is this concept that should be applied to moorland cattle.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor


  1. Giving cows a wide berth is sound advice – I try and keep a 300m distance.

    But there’s a few issues – one old and one possibly new.

    The old issue is hill fog. I’ve had a few occasions when fog has lowered and without realising it I’ve found myself in amongst a herd of cows – big yikes! Hard to avoid unless you only go up the moors on nice days!

    The other thing I’ve noticed this year is the numbers of cows seems to have increased.

    On the part of the moors I live near and walk on there are so many cows its getting very challenging to avoid them. You go one direction to avoid a herd only to bump in to another herd. They tend to stick nearer the roads – the deeper moors have less cows I find.

    Some days have been so busy I’ve had to turn back as there’s been no safe passage. This is the first year I’ve had this problem. Which is why I’m wondering if the numbers have been increased.

  2. Whilst walking on Dartmoor in the Haytor area in Oct 2017 we came across a cow, no sign of a calf, and the path was wide, even so I decided that we would take avoiding action and began to move off the path with our three dogs. One was on an extending lead as she was having restricted walks, the youngest one was free as was the eldest one. However, he was slow and did not see well, and although we were a reasonable distance from the cow, and he was standing side on to the her, she ran at him and bowled him over and mauled him with her hooves and he went tumbling over and over, screaming. I raced at the cow, screaming myself,and she eventually moved away, and he was able to get up and walk. We then went at once to the vet and she found no broken bones but after that he he had problems with his back legs and although he was old he was much worse than before, we are convinced the cow damaged his spine, and 10 months later we had to have him put to sleep. I was always wary and careful around any animals on the moor but am now extremely wary, not to say scared, and we do massive detours, though some days it is hard to miss the cattle as there seem to be so many more than when we first began walking on the moor, about 30 years ago. I also carry a nasty metal riding crop so as to have some sort of defence if we should be attacked again. We have also experienced walking into a small group of cows in the mist, and as we walk on the moor every day, twice a day more or less whatever the weather, that is likely to occur again sometime, no matter how careful I am.

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