Cattle attacks still a danger on modern, mechanised farms

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Anyone who has been attacked by a cow or bull knows how serious the consequences can be. Any physical encounter between the average-size human and an animal that weighs three quarters of a tonne and can move faster than we like to think can only end one way. In recent years most reported attacks have been on walkers by cows with calves. Attacks are more likely if the walker was with a dog.

But experienced stockmen and women are also at risk, particularly at this time of year when spring calving is under way. And as veteran beef cattle specialist Dr Basil Lowman emphasised last week, most attacks are made by cattle that the stockman trusted to be docile. That’s human nature, I suppose. Working with cattle we can all spot the ‘bad ‘un’, but put too much trust in the quiet ones until, as Dr Lowman said, “every new mother is alive with hormones, making her extra protective.”

There is also the problem that one person now looks after many more cattle than in the past. That is possible because of mechanisation to handle feeding or simply the ubiquitous quad bike to cover more ground faster. Cattle are less used to regular close human contact.

There are also far fewer people on farms. What might have been a two, even three-man, job in the past now has to be done by one. When a cow attacks there is no-one else there to help or intervene.

There is no easy answer. But the advice given to aspiring politicians and business high-fliers applies equally to cows – never trust anyone.

Reports of attacks locally by cattle, including at least one that caused serious injuries, are the latest reminder that livestock production is never simply about doing the sums. It’s not ‘X tonnes of plastic costing £Y will produce Z thousands of cartons, so if we sell them at A pence we’ll make £B profit’. With beef, it’s a long-term investment in breeding stock, at least a year-long production cycle, occasional deaths, health problems, bad weather, fluctuating prices and more.

Again with beef production as the example, ex-farm prices at present are about 20p per kilo less than a year ago, making an animal worth £100 or so less. That’s a big hole in expected income.

Meat wholesalers claim that last year’s prices were exceptional and that prices are still higher than in 2012 or 2013, but, as might be expected, farmers are taking little consolation from that. Who would?

There was some cheer for sheep farmers over Easter as NFU Scotland’s ‘secret shoppers’ found Morrisons, Lidl and Aldi were all selling 100 per cent Scottish-produced lamb. Other major supermarkets weren’t, buying supplies as cheaply as possible no matter which country they come from. In the cut-throat battle between supermarkets to retain market share and make profits, that is not surprising. It’s good news that some are sticking to 100 per cent British – ironic that two of the three are the so-called cheap-end discounters.