Beware of British Cows

cowMad Cow Disease is no laughing matter. Because my family and I resided in the United Kingdom during the early nineties, we have never been eligible to donate blood back home in the States.

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy is a truly terrible, and always fatal, affliction. In a grotesque abuse of these docile herbivores, it turns out that the disease was introduced to cattle via mixing contaminated bone and tissue from sheep into their feed. (Whoever came up with that idea should be in prison.)

I seldom think about the possibility of this disease lying dormant in my body’s cells, and each year the likelihood of that being true diminishes. Frankly, since I’ve never heard of any of the Americans stationed there during that period contracting the disease, I consider it nearly certain that it is not present.

Still, just when I’ve finally accepted the notion that British cows are not a threat to me, I come face to face with the fact that they actually are.

Recently, an official report in the United Kingdom revealed that during the past fifteen years, cattle are responsible for the deaths of seventy-four people. Seventy-four!

That means they kill more Brits than sharks! And I doubt that most of those victims were taunting the cattle like the foolish young woman pictured above.

If you’ve never spent much time around cows, you may not realize how large and heavy they are. They can trample or crush people accidentally, and since they are not aggressive by nature, I assume that most of the deaths they are responsible for are just that, accidents.

Best, I suppose, to avoid farms, unless you crave a life of adrenalin-fueled risk on the edge of disaster.

C.S. Lewis reveals how deceptively innocent cattle can appear. In a letter written to a close friend in 1916, he described the calm pastoral setting for his life.

In fact, taking all things round, the world is smiling for me quite pleasantly just at present. The country round here is looking absolutely lovely: not with the stern beauty we like of course: but still, the sunny fields full of buttercups and nice clean cows, the great century old shady trees, and the quaint steeples and tiled roofs of the villages peeping up in their little valleys–all these are nice too, in their humble way.

Lewis should have been more cautious. It seems to me the cleanliness of the cows was a clear evidence they may have been up to no good.

In 1925 Lewis wrote to his father that the deer at Magdalen College were taking the place of the cattle he had left at home.

My external surroundings are beautiful beyond expectation and beyond hope. . . . My big sitting room looks north and from it I see nothing, not even a gable or spire, to remind me that I am in a town. I look down on a stretch of level grass which passes into a grove of immemorial forest trees, at present coloured with autumn red. Over this stray the deer.

They are erratic in their habits. Some mornings when I look out there will be half a dozen chewing the cud just underneath me, and on others there will be none in sight–or one little stag (not much bigger than a calf and looking too slender for the weight of its own antlers) standing still and sending through the fog that queer little bark or hoot which is these beasts’ ‘moo.’ It is a sound that will soon be as familiar to me as the cough of the cows in the field at home, for I hear it day and night.

Lewis obviously possessed a fondness for the cattle that framed his youthful memories. Likewise the deer that meandered through college grounds without fear for their safety.

Having an uncle who was a farmer, I enjoyed some small exposure to gentle, albeit not quite “clean,” cows when a boy. Today I enjoy many a day when deer leisurely cross in front of my study window to munch on some of the thick grass that we planted more for their benefit than our own.

Obviously, I do not hold bovine diseases against the poor cattle. And, at least for the present, I choose to believe that cattle (unlike cats) do not harbor any plans for world domination.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that I’m foolish enough to trust them where I haven’t already planned a potential escape route . . . especially when I’m in the U.K.


Check out this post for another entertaining C.S. Lewis observation about cows!

I’m informed by my lovely wife that “clean cows” are dairy cows that need to be kept clean for hygiene reasons. Makes sense to me, but I still think that it’s an odd adjective to associate with cattle.

16 thoughts on “Beware of British Cows

    1. Cow… steer… the disease is no respecter of genders. Actually, you probably know there are some breeds where the females also have horns (which are usually removed in a “humane” process once gruesomely described to me by a fellow chaplain who had been raised on a ranch)…

      But that’s another story…

      1. I’ve known some heifers in my lifetime. Horns or not, the bulls knew to stay away. Sometimes the pasture wasn’t big enough, a few calves were born, then the ol’ steer was neutered. Sad.

      2. Sounds like you have the making of an American classic about bovine life on the farm. Add a couple elements of Animal Farm and you could hit it out of the park.

        I find the story arch about how being fruitful and multiplying can come back and bite you to be fascinating. (Seems there may be a parallel there for human fertility too…)

  1. We raise Dexters (that’s one chewing her cud in my avatar), and they are the perfect size! My cows’ backs come up to my waist, and our bull is not much bigger. We got into Dexters late in life, in our 50’s, with no experience of cattle whatsoever, and they have been perfect for us. Technically, they’re called Irish Dexters, but actually they’re more numerous in Great Britain and some of the best lines we have in the States originated in Great Britain.

    I milk the cows, and we raise the bull calves for beef. We use the term “clean” to refer to humanely raised, antibiotic-free, hormone-free beef or milk or chicken. My cows are usually quite clean when they come in to be milked, but I still follow a standard procedure to make sure the milk is perfectly clean and safe to drink.

    I love the sight of several cattle laying down together chewing their cud. They are peaceful animals, and I love being around them. Since they’re prey animals, they don’t usually go looking for trouble. :) Ours are quite friendly and most come up to us for scratches and treats. If you’re interested to know more about them, they are the most common subjects on my blog. (

    As far as mad cow disease, we lived in France during that terrible time in Great Britain, and we, too, are excluded from donating blood because there were some victims in France. In case you’re worried about eating beef, here’s a video that shows how to tell if the cow you’re about to eat is safe or if you should go for the fish.

    Bon appétit!

    1. Fascinating. I never heard of those tiny cows you’re talking about. Small enough not to intimidate and big enough for kids to ride on their backs. (Just kidding.)

      We eat beef, and actually purchase it by the “side” from a trusted friend who raises a handful each year just as you do (i.e. free of artificial intrusions or hormones).

      Love your avatar!

      1. Thanks, Rob! Actually, my favorite cow is in the process of being dried off, and I’m going to have her spayed. She was born to be a milk cow and has a perfect temperament and is a great milker, but she’s prone to mastitis. I almost lost her this past year, so the vet and I have a plan: Spay her and train her as an ox to pull a cart and as a riding cow for the grandkids (I’m too big). She will also be an auntie to calves being weaned and a companion to our bull when our other cow isn’t ready to be bred. So your kidding is right on! We have a full-size chest freezer, and an entire steer nearly fills it, but not quite. The meat of one steer feeds us for a year with enough for guests and to share occasionally. The perfect size for small families. And now you know lots more than you ever wanted to about Dexters! ;)

      2. A riding cow! Who would have guessed?

        Actually, as a dedicated lifelong learner I’m really enjoying this lesson. The one thing that I doubt I could ever get over though, is the raising of anything (well, any mammal) to be eaten. I would have to be desperate (of the post-apocalypse variety).

        I am afraid that being so far removed from the farming ethic that I would bond with a steer, lamb, rabbit or whatever and regard it more as a pet. Especially if it displayed any reciprocal “affection.”

  2. “believe that cattle (unlike cats) do not harbor any plans for world domination”. Great line. (Although as in any group there is always a few who are hoof and mouth determined to take command of their local area…been chased by a few in pastures and they are easily comparable to freight trains)
    I didn’t realize cows could “contaminate” a person for life. (Still get a laugh over Denny Crane and his “Mad Cow Disease” excuse for any occasion on that show Boston Legal)

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