Rosamund Young farms 390 acres organically in the North Cotswolds with her brother Richard, producing beef, lamb and mutton from 100% grass-fed animals which are butchered and sold in the farm shop, along with breadmaking wheat. Rosamund’s first book The Secret Life of Cows reveals her observations based on over forty years of experience with cattle and was initially published in 2003, selling over 10,000 copies.

Having received praise from the author Alan Bennett in his diary column in the London Review of Books in 2006, in which he stated that The Secret Life of Cows ‘alters the way one looks at the world’, the book has found new fame, and is being re-published today in a new edition by Faber and Faber, publishers of iconic books for the organic movement such as Lady Eve Balfour’s The Living Soil, Frank Newman Turner’s Fertility Farming and George Henderson’s The Farming Ladder.

The charming and insightful manifesto recognises that cows, as well as other animals, have far more awareness and know-how than they are given credit for. At a time in which intensive, factory farming predominates and most cows are now recognised by an electronic number not a name, Rosamund’s insights are of even greater significance.

Patrick Holden, founding director of the SFT, shares his thoughts on the book, as well as the inspiration he took from it in relation to his own dairy herd.

Having read The Secret Life of Cows, and as a dairy farmer yourself, could you relate to the experiences Rosamund has had with her cows, and have you witnessed any of the personality traits that Rosamund describes within your own herd? 

I relate to it absolutely. Each strand of what Rosamund has observed resonates with me and echoes with the small experiences of a similar nature I’ve had as a herdsman. What strikes me also, is that one of Rosamund’s many unique qualities, is her observation; she sees what is, and she has very good attention to detail. For most people involved with rearing farm animals these days, particularly because they are often looking after too many animals, they simply do not have the time to notice the significance of what happens in front of their eyes.

And if I’m honest there are times when I have fallen into that category. It’s only when you are reminded by someone like Rosamund that these manifestations of animal behaviour, which reveal their intelligence in ways with which we’re not completely familiar, do you realise that actually it’s happening in your own herd, on your own farm too.

What Rosamund’s insights reveal is that cows have visual memories, which they may associate with an unpleasant experience. That association will remain with them for their lives, be it a colour, a sound or a smell. On my farm when an animal dies, the knackerman arrives in a truck which appears at first, just like any other. However, I have become aware that our cows recognise the noise of the truck and become anxious even before it arrives in the yard. Cows are acutely sensitive to vibrations, sounds, sights and even smells, yet most of this goes unnoticed by us farmers, who are busy being mildly aggressive towards them, or wrapped up in our own thoughts. Rosamund’s unique book and observations reveal this secret world which is actually all around us if we care to look.

Is there anything that Rosamund has covered in her book which has inspired you to view your own cows in a new way?

Yes, Rosamund’s book alerted me to the multi-generation and lifelong relationships which are enjoyed by members of our herd, even though I didn’t previously notice it. For example, the same cows who very often grew up together, develop very affectionate bonds and maintain lifelong grooming partnerships, licking each other whilst waiting to come in to be milked. Otherwise, for the distracted herdsmen, these tender patterns of behaviour could go completely unnoticed.

Having read Rosamund’s book, I’m looking at my cows and the way they relate to each other with fresh eyes. It has also affected my behaviour towards the cows, because I realise now that if I behave badly towards young cows this will leave a lifelong impression on them, and that is both shocking and illuminating in equal measure.

Another observation I took away from the book is that, like Rosamund’s, our cows are all named; we named them back in 1973 from A – Z, and we continued to name their descendants for a number of years. However, when I became distracted by my work at the Soil Association and subsequently the Sustainable Food Trust, we slipped out of the habit of naming them. Nowadays, I have a herdsman who is sensitive to the emotional needs of our livestock and a keen observer of cow behaviour, and our cows have been given names once more. It has been said that cows respond to their name, and I believe that to be true. I am thus thrilled that I can once again call my cows by name, and that I am re-acquainting myself with them. It is wonderful that Rosamund is reminding us of this at a critical time in the history of livestock husbandry – at a time when most livestock have been reduced to units in factory operations. 

Some worry that Rosamund’s observations might have the unintended consequence of further accelerating the transition towards vegetarianism and veganism, do you agree?

Yes and no. It’s likely to put people off food from factory farms, but I think that’s a necessary step in re-aligning societal attitudes towards our relationship with livestock products. Speaking personally, I feel that when an animal life is given, it’s a sacrifice and a gift from nature and we need to be mindful of the reciprocal debt that we owe those animals. But if we didn’t slaughter animals we’d produce no food from well over half of all farmland and that would create a monumental food shortage. By simply being alive on this planet we are affecting nature; few people realise how many animals are killed in order to produce plants for human consumption. Arable farmers have to kill rabbits and moles, while hedgehogs and other small mammals, as well as farmland birds, butterflies, bees and aquatic life are killed off due to monocultures and the agrochemicals used to grow grain, oilseeds and vegetables in the UK. Similarly great apes, tigers, elephants and many other endangered species are being driven to extinction because we have replaced animal fats from UK grasslands with palm oil and soyabean oil from former rainforests. We are thus, always displacing other life forms, and with that comes a higher responsibility to be sentient and respectful of the animals we farm, and that is what Rosamund is reminding us. The Youngs personally take their animals to be slaughtered at a small family-run abattoir, and that’s exactly what we need, a society which demands that all livestock producers make every effort to minimise suffering and stress by their animals. It’s only through Rosamund illuminating the incredible things she’s noticed about cows and other farm animals that we will ever fully understand why slaughtering farm animals must be done with compassion, humanity and understanding.

So, is an ever-escalating expansion of factory farming inevitable or is there a better way?

Future farming systems should be defined, at least in the case of milking cattle, by the herd’s ability to walk to grass twice a day, as well as by the ability of a herdsman or woman to have personal relationships with their cows. There is no reason why this can’t happen. When I started farming back in the early 70s it was the case. It’s only during my farming lifetime that we have transitioned to factory dairy farming, at vast cost to the environment, human health and to the health and welfare of the farm animals. This has measurable costs and if these were fully reflected in the price of animal products at a retail level we’d be a lot less oblivious, as a society, to the damage that’s being done. 

George Monbiot in an article published this week, ‘Goodbye – and good riddance – to livestock farming’ heavily criticises ruminant production, calling animal farming “incompatible with a sustained future for humans”. What is your reaction to this?

George Monbiot cares about the environment and he’s done a lot of good over the years in raising awareness about important issues that need to be addressed. But, like many environmentalists he fails to realise that continuous crop production is no more sustainable than getting all our energy from fossil fuels, because it leads to irreversible soil degradation and it uses finite resources in a grossly unsustainable way. George has not only got no practical farming experience, he also fails to understand, at an intellectual level, the way in which different aspects of the food system relate to one another. I hope this doesn’t give him a heart attack, but in addition to keeping cattle and sheep on British grassland, most of which is not suitable for crop production, it is absolutely essential that we move to fully integrated crop and livestock systems, and that means reintroducing grass and grazing animals into arable rotations in our major crop-growing regions.

Rosamund’s blogs

Rosamund has contributed three blogs to the SFT in which she makes observations of life on her farm. Read them here:

What I see: Observations of a farm life one

What I see: Observations of a farm life two

What I see: Observations of a farm life three