Cows have a bad public image these days – in books and elsewhere – mostly due to their methane emissions. But so much that is written about farming today lacks any real understanding of animal sentience on the one hand – or of why we can’t just plough up all grassland for crops, on the other.
My own contribution to this perennial debate came about by accident. I was persuaded by a journalist to start writing up my observations of the individual and sentient actions of (principally) cows, and as I wrote I felt the urgency of trying to explain the pivotal role of ruminants in traditional, mixed-farming systems and their vital contribution to human health. My book The Secret Life of Cows is the result.
When you live and work with farm animals every day and give them names, you come to see them as individuals. When you know how they are related to each other, you start to see differences between individuals and between families. As I watched them, it seemed to me that they are far more intelligent than is generally accepted. But small grassland farms and cows with names instead of electronic numbers are under threat of extinction, as farms get ever bigger and campaigners turn the public against grazing animals. Thankfully, other authors are also fighting to save them and what they symbolise, just as they were in the past.
All of the books I have chosen below have enriched my understanding of the wider tradition of pastoral literature.
1.The Forgiveness of Nature: The Story of Grass by Graham Harvey
Known to many as the agricultural adviser to BBC Radio 4’s The Archers, Harvey explores the world of grass from every possible perspective, revealing the astonishing universe that lies beneath our feet, and upon which we depend in more ways than we can possibly imagine. The book explains the vital importance of grass as a carbon store, and carbon’s role as the basis of the healthy soil needed for sustainable food production.
2. Much Ado About Mutton by Bob Kennard
This is the first comprehensive book about mutton. Why is that important? Mutton is the meat from older sheep, mostly ewes, who will have had several “crops” of lambs. They are slaughtered when their teeth begin to fall out and they can no longer forage properly – providing meat that’s often more tender and more tasty than lamb. In a way it’s more ethical, too, because you get more meat from each animal and they’ve had a significantly longer and more fulfilling life.
3. The Farming Ladder by George Henderson
In the postwar period, farmers of all backgrounds, including my father, were inspired by this book. Henderson and his brother took on a small run-down Cotswold farm during the height of agricultural recession and went on to make it a huge success, through hard work, ingenuity and traditional grass and crop rotation, which restored the farm’s fertility and animal health. Although dated, it still holds lessons for any aspiring farmer.
4. As You Like It by William Shakespeare
In this gorgeous pastoral comedy, city meets countryside with the same yawning lack of understanding as today. When the perfumed court jester Touchstone encounters the simple shepherd Corin, whose greatest pride, like mine, is “to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck”, he chastises him for getting a living by the “copulation of cattle”. Similar criticism today might be found on billboards alongside the M25.
5. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
There’s no need for me to recount this novel’s tragic plot, which personifies the rape of the land and the negative side of mechanisation: reckless agricultural change that continues in environmental degradation and food crises. Hardy contrasts the “fatness and warm ferments” of the pastoral vale where Tess finds happiness, with the “blank agricultural brownness” of ploughed croplands where her life begins to unravel. In the vale with its “Great Dairies”, the cows Dumpling and Old Pretty prefer Tess’s soft hands to those of other dairymaids – a telling reminder, not only that dairy farmers in the past recognised their cows as individuals, but also that the cows in turn recognised people as individuals.
6. A Country Calendar of Rural Rhymes: Poems chosen by Robin Holmes
An exquisite, slim volume based on the author’s BBC radio series of the late 1970s. The discovery of the poems of John Clare was one of the most significant events in Holmes’s life, and in mine, and his poems feature frequently. Clare’s sharp observations of pastoral life taught me to observe more minutely what I only saw before.
7. The Nun’s Priest’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer
This enchanting story is best known its story of Chauntecleer, the conceited cock who loves the sound of his own voice. But what most appeals to me is the description of the smallholding of the “poor widow” to whom Chauntecleer belongs: “Three large sows had she, and no more / Three cows and also a sheep called Molle.” I can relate to that – and wonder how many others would actually adore living in that small cottage “stondinge in a dale”, but have no chance even to work with farm animals, as farms keep getting bigger, more intensive and less pastoral?
8. Farmer’s Glory by AG Street
A work that all farmers have either read or believe they have. It contains humour and wisdom, and is worth it just for the section on “Drowners” – the men who managed river meadows with skill to produce early spring grazing. The best succeeded 10 days ahead of the rest. But it also explains the importance of sheep for a productive farm, and includes a first-hand account of ploughing virgin prairie grassland in Canada.
9. The Development of the Organic Network by Philip Conford
The second of two volumes charting the emergence of organic farming from the 1920s to 1995. This system of food production depends on the fertility-building nature of grass, forage legumes like clover and the animals that graze them. Conford analyses the growing influence of food processing on standards and the rise of processed organic food, which purists still see as an oxymoron. The debate has real relevance for a society where diet-related disease threatens to undermine healthcare. At its simplest, it boils down to an argument about whether an “organic Mars bar” would symbolise ultimate success, or ultimate failure for a movement that set out to produce food that would make everyone more healthy.
10. Twenty Years A-Growing by Michael O’Sullivan (with an introductory note by EM Forster)
This is possibly the only book that allows you to “read an account of neolithic civilisation from the inside”, as Forster puts it. It was originally written with no thought of publication, and in O’Sullivan’s native Irish, so we doubtless lose something in translation. But of all these books, it is the one I should least like to be without. O’Sullivan starts writing as if a very young boy and grows up on each page, describing with accurate and sharp simplicity his ordinary days – full of danger and hardship but ordinary to him, then. This childhood is kept forever accessible by O’Sullivan’s vivid and innocent writing.
The Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young is published by Faber & Faber priced £9.99 in paperback. It is available from the Guardian Bookshop.