Several years back I visited Thailand at the same time some friends were staying in a villa nearby. They had their 18-month old daughter with them, as well as the grandparents from both sides making it a jolly family affair. I got on well with the kid and she used to clamber all over me, perhaps mistaking me for a climbing frame, but at the beginning of their trip she objected to being picked up by her grandmother. It didn’t take me long to figure out why: although I know little about small children, I know a fair bit about cows.
If you want to stroke a cow in a field it is quite easy to do so, but you have to go about it the right way. Cattle are easily startled so if you approach them they’ll run off. If you walk up to them slowly, they’ll run off again. If you keep this up you’ll be chasing them around the field all day. What you have to do is walk into the middle of them and stay very still. Cows are incredibly curious creatures and once their initial timidness wears off they’ll build up the courage to approach you, very slowly and in a herd. If you stay still, avoiding sudden movements, they will form a circle around you and close in incrementally. One will step forward gingerly and then leap back, but another – seeing nothing bad happened – will move into its place, bringing the rest along. This will repeat until they’re in touching distance. Then you hold out your hand. They’ll look at it with enormous black eyes, their ears twitching comically, and eventually one will stretch its neck forward to sniff it. It will recoil as if you stink, but it’ll come back for more within half a minute. Soon it will lick your hand with a giant tongue that feels like sandpaper. A cow’s tongue is very thick and rough, which is necessary because they eat by wrapping it around long blades of grass and pulling it into their mouths. This is why cows need proper pasture whereas sheep, which eat by nibbling with their teeth, can get by on much shorter grass, e.g. fields which cows have already grazed.
Anyway, you’ll notice once it starts licking you that its tongue is very rough. You’ll also have seen by now that a cow’s tongue can reach a good two-inches into either nostril which contains a veritable reservoir of snot. Pretty soon the cow will be licking your sleeve, coat, and everything else covering you in a white slobber and by that stage you can stroke its head and do pretty much whatever you want. The rest will join in and, unless you move, they might push you over. Not out of meanness, they just don’t realise you’re not there to be leaned on. It can be quite disconcerting sometimes, surrounded by cows, and especially so when you’re walking through a field and they start chasing you. If this happens, simply stop and walk towards them and they’ll leave you alone for a bit. This works with heifers, bullocks, and cows. If there’s a bull in the field, don’t go in there at all, and don’t even think about trying to stroke it by standing very still. How can you tell it’s a bull? Don’t worry, he’ll let you know. Every farm occasionally gets an ultra-friendly cow that walks straight up and starts slobbering all over you within thirty seconds. I remember trying to spread straw in a cowshed one winter and had a bullock licking my jacket the whole time with its giant, rasping tongue. By the end I was soaked, but it’s actually quite fun.
I thought of this, well over 15 years after I’d last set foot on a farm, when I was in Thailand. My friends’ toddler would play with me because I sat there and let her come to me. By contrast, her grandmother would approach her and try to pick her up, which she didn’t like. Looking at it, there’s a lot you can learn about toddlers by dealing with cows. The snot levels are approximately similar, for example.
The reason I wrote this post is because this morning I came across this video of a beaver leading cows around a pasture in Canada.
The important thing to realise is that this doesn’t have much to do with the beaver being a beaver, but rather an intriguing object that is moving around and doesn’t startle the animals. You could get the same effect with a football on a piece of string, or a remote-controlled car. Like I said, cows are extraordinarily curious creatures. A lot like toddlers, in fact.