Beyond the debate about meat in our diet and the environmental impact of cows, there is an emotional and cultural angle on our human relationship with livestock that is rarely discussed. Farm animals are embedded in the public’s imaginings of rural Britain and their expectations of the British landscape, whilst for traditional farmers, their animals hold an intense personal significance.
For most farmers, their occupation is far more than a job, it is a way of life that forges deep links between people, their ancestors and the land. The keeping of livestock has been done for thousands of years and illustrates how humans both depend on and impact nature. While commercial pressures are pushing many farmers to choose between intensification and leaving the industry, those still hanging on to traditional animal husbandry are constantly aware of the role they play. Nowhere is that recognition more intense than in the journey from the birth to death of their cows or sheep. My experience in the lambing shed, for instance, is that birth and death often go hand in hand; whilst raising livestock is a way to make a living, when you are up at two o’clock in the morning trying to save the life of a lamb or a ewe, making money is not at the forefront of your mind. This and other peak points in the yearly farming cycle are both a practical and emotional experience for the farmer.
Most farmers value the traditions of their families. They feel a responsibility to continue the work of previous generations, and to pass it on to the next generation. The livestock themselves are often significant in their own right – animals have personalities and some may have descended from livestock cared for by a relative going back many generations. Farmers can often recount stories about cattle with memorable markings, or sheep that are particularly tame or a clever pig with a talent for escaping. Good quality animals take years to perfect through breeding and over time they learn routines and territory which they pass on to their offspring. For the farmers, these animals are irreplaceable. When foot and mouth disease wiped out whole flocks and herds, their deaths represented the loss of years of hard work and an important tangible link with previous generations of the farmer’s family. Some scientists and policy-makers believe we should significantly reduce our livestock farms, but they must consider the emotional impact on farming families. Many livestock farmers have never known anything else, and the thought of giving up their way of life is highly distressing.
Many of the traditional skills, practices, and livelihoods that are so loved by rural people and visitors alike depend on the farming of livestock. Think of dry-stone walling, hedge-laying and hay-making; or sheep shearing, sheep dog trials and all the skills associated with the wool industry, including spinning, weaving, dyeing, knitting, and felting. Think of how significant Cheddar cheese is to the village of Cheddar and the surrounding area and you begin to understand the cultural significance of dairying and cheese-making. And don’t forget traditional butcher’s shops and livestock fairs, sales and markets. Priddy sheep fair, for example, has been around since the 1300s. These things form an important link with our history.
It’s not only those involved with farming who feel strongly about livestock. The public also expresses a deep love for animals and see them as part of their national heritage. Animals provide a great way of engaging the public with farming, and many people relish the chance to get involved. When I worked as a lambing assistant, we had visitors and school groups coming to the farm on a daily basis to see the animals and learn more about farming. Passers-by also regularly stop by my family’s farm to talk to us about the livestock. The popularity of Country File, farm parks and agricultural shows (the Bath and West show, for example, gets around 155,000 visitors) also highlight this love for animals, whilst the rise in farm shops and locally produced meat shows an appreciation of traditional livestock farming. Many of the nation’s favourite dishes consist of meat, including Sunday roasts, Cornish pasties and full English breakfasts to name just a few.
Livestock are important to our sense of place. This can be seen in the many place-names derived from livestock, even in towns – think of Cattle Market road in Bristol. Pubs often have livestock-related names too, such as The Black Bull, The Lamb or The Drovers Arms. Farm animals are embedded in art and literature – in the foreground of Constable’s views of Salisbury cathedral, a feature of Thomas Hardy’s literary descriptions of the landscape and many favourite children’s books feature farm animals and stories. In this way, livestock has shaped how the public imagine the countryside.
These examples give a small indication of how important place and landscape is for people. Many of the most cherished British landscapes have been shaped by hundreds, if not thousands, of years of livestock. Even the landscapes that we consider to be natural are actually the product of ancient farming systems – moors, fells and fens have all been grazed over the centuries and much of our best-loved wildlife depends on this interaction between farming and the natural world. The advocates of ‘re-wilding’ parts of our countryside need to take into account that many of our existing ecosystems have adapted to a grazed landscape. Even many coastal salt-marshes, commons and forests depend on mixed grazing to maintain their valuable wildlife habitats and aesthetic beauty. Iconic rural features such as the stone walls of the Yorkshire Dales or the hedge-banks of the West Country exist to contain herds in their fields and there is nothing more iconic than a wild-flower meadow in the English countryside.
Many places are known for a particular breed of animal, think of Highland Cattle or Romney, Welsh Mountain or Cotswold sheep. People expect to see these when they visit an area, but because they are so integral to the landscape we often take their presence for granted and would sorely miss them if they disappeared. Landscapes and the livestock that shape them underpin the way we associate ourselves with a place and the way we think and feel about our land. It is vital for our emotional well-being and irreplaceable in the hearts of many.
It is important not to lose sight of the context in which livestock exist, their historical significance and the impact they have on people’s lives and sense of cultural identity. Their role in our landscape and society extends beyond their purpose as a source of food. This can be overlooked in discussions about the future of farming but these issues should not be dismissed. By preserving knowledge and skills and maintaining the role of livestock in our farming traditions, we can help to prevent the alienation of people from food production.