Scanning through some websites earlier today, I was delighted to see that a woman has been awarded an interim payment of £250k for massive injuries she sustained in 2003, when she was trampled almost to death by a herd of cows in a field near her home in Penrith. I hope this will cause the farming community, and walkers’ representative bodies, to take a long, hard look at the very real dangers to walkers–either with or without dogs–presented by cows–either with or without calves–in fields containing public footpaths.
Miss McKaskie, who had been walking with her dog on a public footpath, was tossed around by a herd of Simmental-cross cows, each of which apparently weighs approximately half a tonne. She needed emergency brain surgery, and was also left with a broken arm and ribs.
A judge at Preston County Court found that the farmer had been negligent in failing to erect any sort of warning to walkers to alert them that the field contained cows with calves. It was also found that he’d failed to mark the line of the footpath, making it difficult for walkers to know precisely where to go. The report states that the farmer is planning an appeal.
It’s important to note that this decision doesn’t establish that farmers mustn’t graze cows in fields through which public footpaths pass. Clearly farmers have a living to make, and their livestock must have somewhere to graze. What it does recognise, though, is that cows with calves do represent a danger to walkers, and that farmers therefore have a duty to take reasonable care for the safety of members of the public passing legitimately across land on which they’ve chosen to graze their stock. According to the report the judge concluded that the farmer could reasonably have been expected to post a warning, and in failing to do so he acted negligently, as a result of which Miss McKaskie suffered devastating injuries.
I’d be very interested to see a copy of the whole judgement, because it’s not clear from the reports referenced above precisely how Miss McKaskie’s case was put. The North West Evening Mail report states that the judge concluded that a warning should have been given, but I’d love to know whether it was suggested that the farmer should actually have gone even further than that: for instance, by fencing off a narrow path around the edge of the field, or even in choosing to put the cattle in a different field if, in fact, he had such a field available. Had I been arguing the case (in my former life as a lawyer) then those are arguments I’d certainly have considered raising.
If the case does get to the Court of Appeal then it’ll be very interesting to see what the judges there make of it. For what it’s worth, it does seem crystal clear to me as a matter of the simplest common sense that cows represent a significant hazard, and that farmers owe a duty of care to those traversing public footpaths across their land.
What a farmer needs to do in order to discharge that duty of care should depend upon all the circumstances of the particular case, including such factors as the availabiity of alternative fields for grazing, the ease with which it would be possible to fence off part of the field through which the footpath passes, and the cost involved in doing so, and the degree of risk presented by the livestock in question. At the very least, it seems to me that clear warnings should be posted at entry points when cows are present in fields, and taken down when the cows have been moved. This sort of thing…
…doesn’t cut the mustard. There were no cows in that field, and nor were there last time I saw it. If signs aren’t current then people will naturally learn not to rely upon them.
As walkers, I feel that we should all be breathing just a little easier if this judgement stands, because finally it’s going to be necessary for some thought to be given to how best to strike the necessary compromise between the rights and needs of farmers and those of walkers on public footpaths. Sad, isn’t it–albeit predictable–that it’s likely to be significant financial damage to an insurance company that finally kicks this debate into gear, rather than the regular deaths and injuries caused by cows to walkers on public footpaths?
Anyway… this whole issue of public footpaths running through fields containing cows is something I’ve been concerned about for years, now. My mother, who was brought up on farms in Ireland, taught me as a toddler not to be afraid of cows, but as I grew older and started walking alone I realised that had been bad advice. (I now wonder whether she was trying to get me killed…) Indeed, a few years ago one of my cousins took me through a field in Ireland containing a group of bullocks, and when we got back to the house his father (i.e. my uncle–a dairy farmer) was very annoyed with him, pointing out that they’re bloody dangerous.
Lots of the reports that get into the papers concerning walkers chased by cows refer to the presence of dogs, but it’s not necessary for dogs to be present for cows to constitute a menace. I’ve been threatened and/or chased by bullocks on a number of occasions, and these days I’m very reluctant indeed to pass them in the same field. I’ve taken many detours involving a lot of barbed wire and precipitous ascents/descents of rickety fences and dry-stone walls over the years. It’s all very well for people to say bullocks are simply curious, but their motivation is largely irrelevant when they weigh as much as a small car.
Cow-confident people also say that it’s easy to move them on by waving a stick and/or shouting and/or assuming a confident and commanding demeanour and/or mouthing warm endearments like “Cush cush, Daisy m’dear!”, but I’ve found that none of those tactics works with determined knots of malignant bullocks. Maybe they detect my fear, but that’s not something I can do anything about. Those pesky little fear pheromones are impossible to control.
On the Dales Way last week I was very anxious about encountering cows, because for the first time I was going to be walking with a dog. I read up on all the dog v. cow advice I could find before I collected my puppy in January, so I knew that The Word is to let the dog off the lead if cows become aggressive and start to approach.
The first cows we encountered were hanging around in fields just outside Grassington. I was very nervous, and I decided to pick Piglet up and tuck her under my arm, in the hope that the cows mightn’t spot her, or might possibly imagine that she was just some sort of semi-animated furry handbag. I also unfastened her lead in case I needed to put her down in a hurry–the dog walkers’ equivalent of undoing the backpack waistbelt when crossing a fast-moving stream, perhaps. Anyway, the cows watched as we passed through the field but didn’t grow agitated, or attempt to follow us. Save for the fact that my heart-rate rose to a dangerously high tempo, no damage was done.
That’s how it was all the way through Yorkshire, in fact. When we did have to walk through fields of cows they showed little or no interest in us. There was a potentially nasty moment when a ram out walking with his ewe decided to try to butt Piglet, but I was quite glad of that as a warning to Piglet not to assume that all sheep are cuddly and taste of gravy bones.
The problems began for us when we left Sedbergh and set off towards the M6. In a field near Beck Foot (the GR was approximately SD 611 962) we encountered bullocks. Once again I was anxious, but I reminded myself that we’d survived all previous encounters and set off cautiously into the field, Piglet tucked under my right arm and unclipped from her lead, just in case.
The bullocks were about 100 metres in front of us initially, and spread around a bit, so that it wasn’t possible to take either a higher or lower line through the field to avoid them. When we got to about 20 feet away a group of 5 or 6 suddenly began to walk quickly towards us. I tried to look commanding and stare them down, but that didn’t work. I shouted, and although they stopped for a couple of seconds they then came on.
By that time they were only about 10 feet away. The ground was sloping and uneven, and the bullocks formed a very threatening semi-circle to my left. I was frankly very frightened indeed, and Piglet was completely silent under my right arm. I didn’t want to move too suddenly in case I precipitated a charge, but at the same time it was clear that the bullocks weren’t going to lose interest and drift away.
I spent a minute that felt more like an hour yelling at the cows, while with my left hand I frantically struggled to get one of my walking poles out of the elastic fastenings attaching it to my Exos rucksack. Having finally managed to get the pole lose, I somehow managed to extend it, and began to wave it towards the bullocks. They didn’t back off at all, though. In fact they continued to creep closer all the time, in small lurching movements, as long as I wasn’t actively screaming at them or waving the stick. Each time I tried to move forwards they came closer, and so eventually I began to back away along the path. At that point they stopped following me, and I was finally able to escape with Piglet into the next field.
When I put Piglet down she was cowering and scared–hardly surprising, what with all the yelling, let alone the bullocks–and I had to give her a biscuit to perk her up a bit. I’d have preferred a Valium myself, but unfortunately I didn’t have any with me. When we’d both recovered our breath we retraced our steps to Beck Foot and followed the road to the point at which we were able to cross the M6.
(I took the picture once I’d escaped, by the way, and from a distance.)
I’d thought that maybe we’d just been unlucky, but that wasn’t the end of it. A little later in the day we were crossing fields near Holme Park Farm when we encountered the bullocks pictured at the top of this posting. They weren’t immediately visible, in fact. I’d decided (thank God!) to stop for a wee cigarette break at the stile, and it was as I was sitting there gazing out at the field in front of me that I was almost frightened out of my skin by the sound of galloping hooves behind me. When I got up and turned round a bullock had rushed across to the stile, and it was soon joined by two of its pals.
The reason we’d stopped for a break, incidentally, was that Piglet and I had been attacked only about ten minutes earlier by a collie and two huge Alsation dogs, who came rushing out of the yard at Holme Park Farm onto the public road and began to bark frantically. One jumped up at me while the other went for Piglet, who cried out in fright since she was trapped on her lead. Fortunately the farmer heard the commotion and came out to get them. As he was leading them away he told me that this had happened because a cyclist using the public footpath that runs through the farmyard had once kicked one of the Alsations. I wonder why on earth that can possibly have happened!…
Anyway, it was quite obviously not safe to try to continue into the field, and so once again Piglet and I had to go back and take a detour round the road. For reasons that are probably obvious I didn’t want to go back through the farmyard with the bunch of savage dogs, and so we skirted up the side of the field to a point where I was able to climb over a fence. The bullocks followed us all the way, snorting and stamping up and down in the muddy grass as Piglet and I negotiated yet another batch of barbed wire to escape out onto the road. By that stage what was left of my wits almost entirely deserted me, and I managed to get us both comprehensively lost. That’s another story, though…
We did have to pass through another two fields of cows the following day. When I saw them I thought seriously about taking the road to Kendal and getting an early train home, but I decided to give it just one last try. Once again I was very scared, but on that occasion the cows left us both alone. If I ever do the Dales Way again, though, I’ll definitely be finishing in Sedbergh. I can hardly think of a less impressive introduction to Lakeland than the one that Piglet and I had last Thursday. If I’d not walked there almost all my life I’m pretty sure I’d not have wanted to go back.
I thought quite a lot about this whole cow v. walker issue as I was walking, and it seems to me that the only really safe solution is for farmers to be provided with grants to fence off a narrow track around the edge of grazing fields so that walkers–and, if necessary, dogs–can pass safely through. We did actually pass through several fields with that arrangement earlier in the walk, and it worked well. Finance is always an issue, of course, but even if it’s not feasible to protect all public rights of way in that manner then surely it should be possible at least to cover the National Trails.
In the meantime, I wish the very best of luck to Shirley McKaskie in recovering her damages, and from her injuries. She must have been very seriously injured indeed to have been awarded an interim payment of £250k, and as I read through the reports this morning, and also those relating to the recent trampling to death of vet Liz Crowsley, and Graham Dugdale‘s letter in the Lancaster Guardian about his own recent very narrow escape, I really was thinking that any one of those reports could very easily have been talking about me. Or then again, it could have been you.
Edited to say: sadly, I read today of the death this week of Harold Lee, trampled to death by his own herd of cows which had been startled by a fire engine. See here for the BBC report.