GUY ADAMS: Is fad for 'lockdown puppies' driving more cows to kill?

Is the fad for ‘lockdown puppies’ driving more cows to kill? Thousands of new family dogs, millions of us heading for the great outdoors… and ever-larger beef cattle. After three deaths in just a month, GUY ADAMS examine why cows attack

  • September saw three fatal attacks where rural footpath users were killed by cow
  • More walking during pandemic might be heightening risk of confrontation
  • Others say ‘lockdown puppies’ means there are larger numbers of dog walkers
  • Cows can be unpredictable and act aggressively if they feel threatened 

Francis John Fane Marmion Dymoke is the 34th Lord of the Manor of Scrivelsby in Lincolnshire, where his family has resided since 1066, when an ancestor was given thousands of acres by William the Conqueror as a thank-you for services rendered at the Battle of Hastings.

Today, he holds the feudal office of ‘Queen’s Champion’, a role that, theoretically, requires him to fight a duel to the death with anyone who challenges Her Majesty’s right to the throne and, in practice, gives him an important flag-bearing role at any Royal coronation.

Yet this noble pedigree was sadly lost on the herd of roughly 30 cows that Francis and his wife Gail encountered in June, when they walked their labrador, Truffles, and spaniel, Stan, along picturesque footpaths near Louth.

The animals began walking and then running towards the couple, seemingly angered by their pets.

‘I know from experience that if a cow charges at you, you drop the lead and let your dog run off,’ Francis later recalled. ‘The cow is meant to chase the dog and leave you alone. That’s exactly what happened with my wife’s dog [Truffles]. However, my spaniel [Stan] was petrified and just stood next to me.’

Within seconds, Francis was confronted by one angry member of the herd. What happened next remains something of a blur, so Gail takes up the story.

‘The cow suddenly reared up and charged at Francis, like a bull,’ she tells me. ‘I saw her head-butting him in the thigh. Then she knocked him to the ground and started stamping on his back. It was quite terrifying. You don’t realise how enormous and powerful these animals are until they are on top of you. I honestly thought I was witnessing my husband being killed.’

Cows began walking and then running towards Francis John Fane Marmion Dymoke and his wife Gail in June, seemingly angered by their dogs. Pictured: The cattle stampede scene from the 2011 film Tamara Drewe

Eventually, Stan ran off, pursued by the cow. Francis, 65, dragged himself to the field’s edge and clambered over an electrified barbed wire fence to safety.

His life was saved by a can of Strongbow cider, carried in a knapsack along with his packed lunch, and had been crushed flat during the incident.

‘The can took the full weight of the impact,’ he later told reporters. ‘It exploded, but, if it hadn’t taken the impact, I don’t want to think what might have happened. An inch either way and I could have been seriously injured or worse.’

Mr Dymoke escaped with serious bruising to his back and legs, as well as deep cuts to one hand, from the fence. But as he says, he was, in some ways, very lucky. For recent times have seen a spate of tragic incidents in which rural footpath users have been seriously injured and, in some cases, killed, by an aggressive resident cow.

September saw three fatal attacks. The most recent was last Tuesday in a field near Wakefield, West Yorkshire. A man in his 50s died, and a woman was mauled in events being investigated by police.

Ten days earlier, David Clark, a married father in his fifties who was deputy head of Richmond School in Yorkshire, had been trampled while walking his dogs on the outskirts of town. His death is to be the subject of an inquest along with an investigation by the Health And Safety Executive (HSE), which is looking into claims that another walker was injured in the same field earlier this year.

The third victim, 72-year-old Malcolm Flynn, was charged while walking the Pennine Way near Thirlwall Castle, Northumberland, on Friday, September 11. He was last seen wearing glasses and a sun hat, and holding a telescopic stick.

For two such tragedies to occur in short order might be a coincidence. But three starts to look suspiciously like a trend. While no one is quite sure what, if anything, lies behind the deaths, plenty of theories are doing the rounds.

Some wonder if increased footpath use during the Coronavirus crisis might be heightening the risk of confrontation between walkers and cows, which, like all large animals, can be unpredictable and prone to acting aggressively if they feel threatened.

Others reckon the demand for so-called ‘lockdown puppies’ means a larger number of dog walkers — disproportionately at risk of being attacked — are exploring the British countryside.

In some farming circles, trends for new, ever larger breeds of beef cattle are also blamed for increasing the number of potentially dangerous animals in the fields.

‘The truth is that we just don’t know,’ says Stuart Roberts, the deputy Chairman of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU). ‘There may not be a reason for this. We had actually gone quite a long period without any deaths, and it’s obviously unfortunate that there has been this spate, but it could just be coincidence.’

What we can be sure of — thanks to HSE’s figures — is that in the 20 years to March, 98 people were killed by cattle in the UK, an average of around five each year. Many more were injured.

Indeed, since 2015, the HSE has investigated 142 non-fatal incidents, including 43 since 2018.

Some 18 of the 43 involved dogs, most of them with members of the public on footpaths.

Canines are believed to make cows with newly born calves particularly aggressive, at a time in their life cycle when changing hormone levels can alter the behaviour of normally docile members of a herd. In ten of those cases, the HSE says the dog was not initially on a lead, as the Countryside Code says they ought to have been.

Meanwhile, four out of five of the victims were farmers or farm workers, including both victims who died in 2019. One was a 73-year-old knocked over and killed in a pen while treating a newborn calf, the other a 37-year-old attempting to direct his bull into a pen.

Some wonder if increased footpath use during the Coronavirus crisis might be heightening the risk of confrontation between walkers and cows, which, like all large animals, can be unpredictable and prone to acting aggressively if they feel threatened (file photo)

Over the 20-year period, just 22 members of the public died.

‘When you think that we have 140,000 miles of rights of way in the UK, and around 3 billion visits a year to the countryside, a large number of which are by walkers, that places these numbers of incidents into some sort of context,’ says Roberts. ‘They are very rare. But that is not to say that we don’t take them seriously. In the past six months, we have posted more than 10,000 signs around the country reminding walkers to be careful.’

The NFU’s signs urge walkers not to get between a cow and its calves, and to move slowly away from a herd if they are feeling threatened, rather than running (which can provoke a stampede).

Most importantly, they advise dog owners to keep their pet on a lead, but to be prepared to let go if it starts to be pursued. ‘Cattle will chase dogs instead of you,’ adds Roberts. ‘And, generally, dogs tend to be able to outrun cattle.’

Some now believe farmers should be obliged to warn walkers if a field contains nursing cattle.

One such person is Mark Livesy, whose 82-year-old mother suffered a broken arm, while her dog was killed, as they walked through Cartmel Fell. ‘I’m definitely lucky to be alive and certainly my mother is,’ he recently said. ‘They appeared to be fine and calm but then it literally became a frenzy.’

Farmers must already follow certain guidelines to prevent members of the public coming to harm.

The HSE bans them from keeping certain breeds in fields crossed by rights of way, and also bans beef bulls from being kept alone in fields or enclosures that contain footpaths, as they tend to be calmer if accompanied by cows or heifers.

Farmers are also expected to avoid putting cows they know to be aggressive in fields where they may encounter walkers.

Occasionally, failing to stick to the rules can land them in court. In 2015, a Staffordshire farmer was fined £133,000 and given a four-month suspended prison sentence after a Holstein bull rammed one of his employees to death.

The Farm Safety Foundation, a charity campaigning to reduce the numbers of avoidable deaths on UK farms, points out that — despite their size — cows are unpredictable and can be spooked by ‘sounds, light and even butterflies’.

One possible solution, which has long been floated by farming groups, would be to allow landowners to temporarily divert footpaths around certain fields.

It’s supported by many conservation groups — including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) — who believe it would help protect the breeding habitat of ground-nesting birds, which can be ruined by a single spaniel.

However, the proposal has been vigorously opposed by the Ramblers’ Association, which believes disreputable farmers might abuse such a law to reduce land access, and says: ‘There’s no guarantee that alternative routes won’t be less convenient or enjoyable.’

Until a compromise can be found, the best bet is to tread carefully in the fields. ‘Unless you know a herd is safe, don’t enter the field,’ is how Gail Dymoke puts it. ‘After what happened, I certainly won’t.’

And if all else fails, be sure to pack a protective can of cider.

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