How Dangerous Are Cows?

What risks do cows pose?

So I am writing this blog post for a friend’s mother, Susan, who like me, has issues with walking through fields of cows.   We just don’t trust them.   Where does this mistrust come from?   I don’t have an answer for Susan.   However, for me, it first started with the BBC TV programme 999.  This programme ran during the 1990s and showed reconstructions of real life rescues by the British police, ambulance, fire service, mountain rescue and life boats and included those rescued.   In this particular episode, a dog walker was trampled by a herd of cows and suffered some serious injuries.   It is the only rescue of the multitude I watched which has stayed with me for decades now.

My nervousness was more recently validated when a friend out running during a trip to Spain found herself being forcibly “herded” by a bunch of cows into brambles.   She had never had a problem with cows before but, by all accounts, this group of bovines were incredibly menacing and full of intent to remove her from their field ASAP.   She had no alternative than to scratch her legs to pieces escaping through a considerable amount of brambles.   She showed me her shredded legs about a week after the incident when she returned home.

Now I need to own up to the fact that I have never personally experienced any problems with cows myself.   I have walked through fields of cows and tended to ensure that some other fool walked between me and the herd in question.   Fast walking also helped.   Not having a dog with me also kept my presence below the residents’ radar.

Some UK stats about cow attacks

So what are the stats related to the bovine beasts asserting the upper hand with their human counterparts?   And is this fear justified?   Just how much of a risk do cows pose?   Are there ways to mitigate this risk so we can power walk past them in the future and not have a close encounter?

Between 1 April 2019 and 31 March 2020 only two individuals were fatally injured as a result of encounters with cows in the UK.   One was a 37 year old farmer killed by his own bull which he was attempting to manoeuvre into a pen.   The other was a 73 year old farmer who suffered a head injury after being knocked over by one of his cows as he attended a new born calf.  Neither of these fatalities involved the general public.  

However, the previous year it was a different story.   Nine separate incidents lead to the untimely deaths of nine individuals, of whom three were members of the public.   Discounting the unfortunate deaths of the farmers and workers, the three members of the public had commonalities in each instance.  Each was walking a dog or dogs near cows.  

Cattle in field
Cattle in field

Probability of being attacked by cows

It is impossible to calculate the probability of being attacked by cows as we do not know the number of total encounters (safe or otherwise) between the general public and herds of cows in any one year.

Since I first started researching this topic, I have discovered that a group of avid walkers with a lot of experience of cows in the UK has set up an entire website on the subject, called Killer Cows.   Their aim is to make footpaths safer for walkers, across England and Wales, by reducing the risk posed by cattle.  They are campaigning to separate walkers from cattle on the UK’s National Trails and also for the creation of a central database recording all incident of cattle aggression.  They would also like it to be made compulsory for farmers keeping livestock to have public liability insurance.   In the meantime, they are collecting stories of cattle encounters which resulted in spoiled walks, near-misses, injuries or serious injuries.

They have also taken some of the data I found previously from two researchers from the University of Liverpool (Carri Westgarth and Marie McIntyre) published in 2016 and calculated some statistics on the subject.  Thank you!  

The statistics are based on 54 known separate attacks by cattle on walkers during a 20 year period.  I suspect the number of unreported attacks is significantly higher.

  • 48% involved herds of cattle
  • 22% involved a single cow
  • 20% were committed by cows with calves
  • 7% by heifers
  • Only one was a bull attack

What is the impact of dogs in these incidents?

  • Where the incident resulted in the death of a walker, 94% of these had dogs
  • Out of total number of attacks, two-thirds involved dogs

As Killer Cows has pointed out, one third of cow attacks do not involve dogs.

Other factors

But this is not the whole story.   I have discovered that during the 1970s, farmers in the UK have introduced non-British breeds of cattle to the United Kingdom from Continental Europe.   Indigenous British cows all have a docile and gentle nature making them easy for farmers to handle and for the public to walk on bridleways through their fields.

However, cattle breeds from the Continent are typically more aggressive than their British counterparts.   Limousin cattle are renowned for being more highly strung and difficult to handle to the point where breeders are deliberately breeding a higher level of docility in Limousin to make them safer for human interaction.

Charolais cattle are even known to fight amongst themselves!   Their mothering instinct is so strong that farm workers have a tricky time working with them during the calving season.

Charolais cattle
Charolais cattle

Simmental cows’ have a more docile reputation than the Limousin or Charolais breeds.  However, this goes out of the window too during calving season and the cows become highly protective of not just their own calves but the other calves in the herd.

Know Your Risk :

Walking with dogs off a leadHIGH
Walking with dogs on a leadHIGH
Walking through a field with calves of continental speciesHIGH
Walking through a field with continental speciesMEDIUM
Walking through a field with calves of British speciesMEDIUM
Walking through a field with British speciesLOW

What can you do to mitigate the risk when near cows?

Learn to recognise breeds of cows so you know what cattle you are encountering.   Dairy cattle are handled daily by farmers during milking and are far more used to humans that cattle being raised for their meat.   Beef cattle are left out in their fields and do not necessarily have daily contact with farmers.

If approached by a herd and you have a dog on a lead and you are feeling threatened, let your dog off the lead and each find your own way out of the field.    I found an interesting video on youtube about walking through a field with your dog which might interest you.   Click here.

Remember that cows with their young are going to be particularly protective and this is the time when you are most at risk.   If you can find an alternative route, this would be the better option than risk your safety.

If you are very threatened, do not turn your back on the herd, back away facing them.   Cows can get up to speeds of 25 miles per hour (40kph) so you are unlikely to out run them in a field.   You can reduce your size, by turning sideways and walking away diagonally.

Look for behavioural signs.   Are the cows just interested in saying hello and greeting you, or do they feel threatened by your presence?   If the head is lowered, then you can assume they are charging at you.  Other warning signs are if the bull or cow is tossing his or her head, showing a broadside view where the back is arched.  Also look for signs of the eyeballs protruding and if the hair along its back is erect.   The classic pawing of the ground with the front hoofs and snorting are what most people are familiar with.  However, also look to see if they are rubbing or horning the ground.   For more information on reading the body language of cows and bulls see here.

If you are charged, run at a right angle to their charge.   They will not be able to change direction quickly due to their size and will lose speed.

If you find yourself completely surrounded by cows, you can try raising both hands in the air and start walking towards them.   They should move out of your way.  One attack on the killer cows website was averted using this method.

Heck Cattle

Whatever you do, make sure you avoid Heck cattle.   They look like this:

Heck cattle
Heck cattle

Bred by Nazis in the 1920s and 1930s to create super cows, one British farmer decided to import this breed onto his farm from Belgium.  Shortly after their arrival, he discovered the herd was so aggressive and intent on killing ANYONE, they were too much trouble to handle.  Ultimately, he had to send most of them off to be slaughtered.  There are a number of Heck cattle in the Netherlands, Germany and scattered elsewhere in Europe.

Weird Fact

Here’s an interesting fact which is completely unlikely to be useful during your next encounter with cows.  Cows cannot walk down steps because their legs do not bend the right way to allow them to.  They can walk up stairs.   So if you do come across a random staircase as you make your escape from an intimidating herd, quickly head down them.   Maybe steps in fields are a solution…   although I can’t see it making the shortlist!


Personal Risk Geek

The Personal Risk Geek is passionate about assessing personal risk. If you have ever wondered how much of a risk something is, find out here.

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