Speaking of cows, because we all are.

Just for today, if we really try, we can see her as the bovine she is. Not an economic unit, not a milk producer, not a breeder, not a river pest. Her own cow.

Undefined by us, does she really exist? Like the tree in the forest. If we hear it crash to the ground, it fell. If we didn't, meh. Who cares? It's an abstract. Humans aren't good at the abstract.

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But, try. Try with me. Close your eyes and think of her at first light on a frosty morning. Steam rising high off her back; her every breath making clouds. She is sitting, chewing her cud, ruminating, staring off into the middle distance, unhurried. What's going on between her ears?

And, of course, this is the point where I have to do what all humans do. Severely limited by our humanness, we see everything through a foggy lens and call it reason and rationality. The science I can live with, though. And here's some science about cows.

Studies have consistently shown that, given a chance in a stress-free environment, they have distinct personalities. They recognise faces, are inquisitive, and can learn their individual name and answer to it. Being herd animals they have social hierarchies, develop friendships, and even have besties. Some cows are moody, while some are affectionate – or both.

They also feel fear and anxiety and, as a general rule, the less eye white seen, the calmer they feel. They dislike sudden movement, and aggressive handlers.

Cows also experience noticeable grief, agitation, and even depression for a time, when separated from their calves.

If cows and calves are given time together, they communicate using calls that are individualised. A team at Nottingham University spent 10 months studying the ways cows talked to their young. Researchers found it was possible to identify particular cows and calves from the exclusive sounds they made. They identified two distinct maternal calls – low sounds when the cow was near her calf, and louder, higher pitched calls when they were out of sight.

Calves, in return, called out to their mothers when they wanted her milk. The crucial finding was that all three calls were individualised – reserved for a particular cow and calf so that each recognised the other.

Studies like this, and the thousands of others which support with hard evidence that cows are highly individualised animals with a range of emotions akin to domesticated dogs and cats, are not taken overly seriously by the world's agricultural industry. Rather they are either challenged or, more often, ignored.


Whereas those who worked with cattle for centuries knew these things in their bones. As do those today who work with cows in a stress-free, non-factory farming model, and who've taken the time to get to know them sans the modern profit-driven agricultural system of viewing and treating them as commodities.

If a stance against a study on cattle behaviour is ever taken, the general line - by those who stand to make money from cows - is that most studies are anthropomorphic overreach. In other words, they are questioning the scientific objectivity to create confusion and doubt. It is a false pretence, and just like climate change deniers – with links to Big Oil - do now.

But there are always two sides to every evidence-based, facts-based, data-laden, robust, peer-reviewed, scientific study, right? Well, there is if you pay another scientist enough to give you another view.

With massive agricultural, technological and cultural changes ahead, meat eating and milk drinking are on the brink of such vast transformation it is scarcely imaginable for those lacking in imagination, or the ill-prepared.

I'll leave it for you to decide how I feel about cows. I'll also leave it for you to decide how individual farmers – with their own individual personalities – feel about their cows.

I'll just delicately place this quote from Mahatma Gandhi here. "The cow is a poem of compassion".

Oh, who am I kidding? I bloody love cows!