A group of tourists had a lucky escape after crashing their car into a cow in Te Kuiti last week. The cow and the car were not so lucky. Steve Braunias reports on the peculiarly winter plague of motorists crashing into escaped farm animals.

ight now, statistically, in June and July, because they're the darkest months of the year, is the likeliest time that just about the most gothic kind of road accident in New Zealand will happen - car versus cow, or horse, the animals suddenly looming out of the darkness in front of a motorist driving along a rural plain. There is no warning and no time to react. Typically, the impact will scoop the beast up on to the bonnet and smash it through the windscreen or it will land on and destroy the roof. The usual appalling physics of all crashes at speed apply, but with velocity and mass taking on the extra horror and weirdness of death or serious injury caused by an immense animal.

Six people have been killed in crashes with farm animals in the past five years. Police figures calculate a total of 1368 accidents involving livestock and other beasts. "We see some horrible things, mate, I'll tell you," says chief fire officer Alan Hickford, of Waverley in Taranaki. The most recent car-cow smash he attended was in April, when a campervan hit cattle which were thrown out of the back of a cattle truck.

It happened after dark. Five beasts fell from the truck. Two beasts were killed, one when it fell, the other after it hit the campervan. "It was still alive on the side of the road," said Hickford. "It had to be shot. One of the local farmers came and did it. Yeah."

As for the occupants, they were fortunate to escape injury.


"The driver walked away with a only a couple of little wee scratches on his leg, but pretty bloody shaken up, considering that on his right side of his leg, there was nothing left of the van. The crash took the front right-hand part of the suspension and everything right out.

"Yeah. Very, very lucky."

Yes, said the fire chief, he'd attended fatalities of this kind. "One time there was a cow that went through the windscreen of a car. The passenger was killed. [The cow] got out of a paddock in the middle of the night. If there's a cattle beast wandering around at night, they are bloody near impossible to see until you are just about on top of them. Very, very difficult."

Was there anything a motorist could do to minimise the chaos if fate ever put them in the path of a beast on a dark stretch of highway? "Not really," he said.

Coroner's report into the death of Richard Wetere, 67, a passenger who was killed when a car hit a cow on State Highway 26 near Morrinsville, just before midnight on June 29, 2012: "The driver did not perceive the animal standing directly in the path of the vehicle until the last second before impact."

Coroner's report into the death of Joy Robinson, 58, killed when her car hit a horse at 6.23pm on June 23, 2014, near Matamata: "The horse had escaped from its stable boxThe trainer suggests that somehow the horse managed to open the latchHe states that he has never seen this in all the years he has worked with horses."

Geoff Bradbury said "Mate, I'm bloody lucky to be alive."

He slammed into a herd of cows in the Wairarapa on May 14. They'd escaped after high winds had brought down a fence.

"I was coming back from a huntin' trip," he said. How had that gone? "Oh, pretty good. I'd been up in Raetihi with a mate. It was more to catch up with him. He's got a bit of whanau land and we go up there one day a year."

Had they got anything? "Aw, just a couple of fallows. Yeah."

And so what happened at the crash? He said, "I was just comin' around the corner on the flat, it was half past eight at night, pretty dark, and there were cows about 10 metres away and next thing you know BOOM. All over, Red Rover."

Was there any warning? "Nah. They're hard to see, cows. They're sort of like a matt black. The whole road was just blanketed with them. I was probably doing about a hundred because it was open road and I thought everything was alright."

Did he get a hell of a fright? "Weirdly, no. I should have been terrified out of me pants but it all happened so quick. I don't think I even freaked out."

What was he driving? "XR6, brother. Best cars in the world."

What was the damage? "Write-off. The airbags went off, so they saved my life a bit."

Two cows were killed on impact, and another three were shot.

A car that hit a cow on the road near Blenheim this month. Such accidents are hard to avoid in the dark. Photo / Jacqui Wilson
A car that hit a cow on the road near Blenheim this month. Such accidents are hard to avoid in the dark. Photo / Jacqui Wilson

veryone knows the roadsign, can picture that inkblot shape of a cow, the words big and bold on the yellow diamond: WANDERING STOCK. It's sort of quaint, definitely charming; it acts as a reassuring symbol that tells us so much of New Zealand remains as a rural arcadia.

But there are resolutely charmless examples of farmers trying to wriggle their way out of having to foot the insurance when their stock have wandered into traffic.

Disputes tribunal decision, September 2012: a farmer is ordered to pay $7,523.01 after a truck smashed into escaped cattle on a highway at 3am. The farmer argued he wasn't to blame because maybe someone had pulled over that night to use their phone, or "make a comfort stop", and, you know, decided for reasons unknown to open the gate.

Disputes tribunal decision, May 2013: a farmer is ordered to pay $3,690.04 after a car hit a cow in fog at 11.30pm. The farmer argued the driver was going too fast, but evidence showed the car was likely travelling at only 60-70km/h. Judge: "The driver's caution may in fact have spared him serious injury."

"We put a lot of focus on farms ensuring their fences are secure, particularly if they live in main highways," said Inspector Brett Calkin, Central District road policing manager based in Palmerston North.

He talked about attending various animal-related fatalities in his policing career, and also noted the deaths of the animal. "In every case I've experienced the beast was put down," he said.

"You go to those things, and the animal is injured, and you get the vet to put it to sleep, but occasionally the animal is in distress, and the vet is too far away, and you have to reach for the rifle. It's always distressing to see an animal in pain. There's usually a fair amount of blood around."

"Buckets of blood," said Peter Simpson, a retired professor of English, who still vividly remembers the time he was in a car which hit a cow near Kaikoura.

It was in the early 1960s. He was returning to Canterbury University from playing rugby in Nelson.

"Yes, I think we did win," he said. "We had a pretty good team. Anyway, we were coming down a long straight, in broad daylight, and cows were wandering along the side of the road, and our driver didn't slow down particularly, and one of the cows veered out into the middle of the road and we smashed right into it, and the thing is, we somehow cut its throat.

"It bled to death right on the road. It was a horrible scene.

"I remember the guy who was driving. His father was a chemist in Motueka. He was a ginger-haired guy. A herd was being shifted from one paddock to the other, and the driver didn't slow down. If you grow up in the country, you know to slow to five miles an hour, and he didn't. I remember thinking, 'What a bloody idiot.'

"But mostly I remember this sickening thud as we smashed into the cow. I never forgot it. It was such a - you could see it coming, I remember seeing it all happen, the cow veer out, and realising we were travelling much too fast, and then this huge beast bleeding to death on the road."

Simpson has lectured on the fiction of Taranaki writer Ronald Hugh Morrieson, author of gothic novels such as The Scarecrow. Yes, he said, the incident with the car cutting the cow's throat was kind of like something out of Morrieson's imagination.

"Take his book Pallet on the Floor. That's a very dark novel. He was dying when he wrote it, and it doesn't have anything of the comic verve of his previous work.

It's actually a very depressed, rather bleak sort of a story. He was working in the meatworks in Patea, which Ron did on very brief occasions, and there's a horrifying scene where he describes men clustered around a hole in the wall where you could look through and see animals having their throat cut."

In May last year, police shot a cow that was disrupting traffic on State Highway 1 near Wellington.

It had escaped from a nearby meatworks.

If there's a cattle beast wandering around at night, they are bloody near impossible to see until you are just about on top of them. Very, very difficult.



he story of Russell Wilson is the one about a mussel opener of Picton who was on his way to the factory in the darkest hour right before the dawn when he hit a cow and it landed on his roof, destroying the car, and causing a trauma which continues to linger.

The crash happened in February. He was driving a Honda Civic. "He came home," said his wife Jacqui Wilson, "and said, 'I hit a cow, and the car's written off.' I was like, 'How can that be? It doesn't make sense.' Because he was all in one piece, not a scratch.

"He said he'd come around a bend and there was a dirty great cow. They said it would have weighed about 500 kilos. And there was nothing he could do. You just have to hope for the best.

"It brushed along the passenger side front - and he didn't even remember this, he was totally in shock, but the thing landed on the roof and caved it in.

"There's still parts he doesn't remember, like how he got from the car to standing on the side of the road. But he remembers the noise it made - a whooshing sound."

The property he drove past wasn't a dairy farm as such; the owner only kept two cows. One escaped. It was shot on the side of the road.

She said, "There's nothing my husband could have done differently short of leaving home five minutes earlier or later. It's just random. Russell has replayed this over and over. He was driving within the speed limit, he was doing everything right."

The fact he was replaying it - was it a kind of trauma?

"Oh definitely. It's had a huge affect on him. If he's driving, and he sees a field of cows, it just gives him the shivers."

Was the shock partly brought on by the death of the animal?

She said, "He loves animals and the trauma of what the cow went through added to the trauma of what happened to him. He's not one of these hardy blokes who looks at a cow and just sees steaks, sort of thing."

The day after the crash, she went to the salvage yard to get a couple of personal items from the Honda.

"I was shocked," she said. "It took my breath away how bad it looked. I just thought, 'God almighty, how did he get out of there alive?' Because it was a total mess. It doesn't bear thinking about. You can't go there."

But that's exactly where she was going - haunted by the fact of a dirty great cow on the road, in darkness, as her husband drove to work to open mussels. It could have played out a lot worse. Buckets of blood, crushed metal, man killed by creature.

They used to call drowning "the New Zealand death"; our 19th century graveyards are full of the drowned.

Death by animal is the land version, fate and physics conspiring to bring about a sudden, fatal appointment with a dumb beast in the middle of nowhere.

Deaths and injuries

in crashes involving farm animals

2011 0 deaths, 16 serious injuries, 47 minor injuries

2012 1 death, 8 serious injuries, 51 minor injuries

2013 2 deaths, 7 serious injuries, 51 minor injuries

2014 1 death, 11 serious injuries, 47 minor injuries

2015 2 deaths, 8 serious injuries, 39 minor injuries

Total 6 deaths, 50 minor injuries, 235 serious injuries