Cow week: Welsh cattle hate dog walkers

Editorial note — Cow Week is a tongue-in-cheek look at risk analysis and why we fear the things we fear. It is inspired by the Discovery Channel's Shark Week, the popularity of which is largely driven by the public's fascination with and fear of sharks. Turns out, cows kill more people every year than sharks do. Each day, I will post about a cow-related death, and add to it some information about the bigger picture.

In 2009 and again in 2011, Welsh cattle joined forces to surround and kill women who were out walking their dogs on the outskirts of Cardiff. Apparently, cows really do not like it when you bring a dog around them. So, FYI on that. This story is from a survivor of the 2009 attack:

"I was slightly ahead when I saw the cows, they looked up and seemed curious and started to move towards us both," she said.

"They were coming in a semi-circular formation so I was heading towards the end so I could get away from them."

The next time she looked around Ms Hinchey appeared to be surrounded by the cows, she said.

One of things that made me post this particular story was the disconnect between the idealized image of a field full of docile cattle, happily grazing on grass ... and the truly creepy and threatening image presented in the quote above. I mean, it's like something from a Stephen King novel. Of course, I also don't have a lot of experience with cows in my personal, daily life. So my idealized image isn't based so much on what I think cows are actually like, but what I want them to be like. That's what really makes this image creepy for me. The cows are behaving ways that I don't imagine cows should behave.

People who spend their careers thinking critically about risk say disconnects like this can play a role in determining what we fear. Craig Cormick is the manager of public awareness and community engagement for the Australian Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research. Part of his job is understanding what technologies the public finds really risky and why. Last year, he spoke at the University of Michigan's Risk Science Center. The discussion touched on the way people in Western countries often assign more risk to food issues—and obsess about the possible risks of food more—than they do with other areas of their lives.

... we’ve never lived at a time and society when people are so far divorced from agricultural production, most people never get to see a farm, they have no idea how livestock is produced, no idea how food is produced and have a perception that it should all be natural, and it should be great and that would – ideally that would be marvelous but reality is that’s not how our food is produced. large agricultural production is the only way to feed the numbers of people we have and so there’s a romantic idealized view of what is good natural food as opposed to food that’s not and so when people perceive that you are tinkering with the food yes they have outrage and they have rage about this and when you have rage and fear together it’s a very-very dominant cocktail of emotions it’s very hard to turn around, very hard to turn around.

Read more about the two cow-related deaths near Cardiff.
Read a transcript of Craig Cormick's discussion
Watch the webcast of the discussion

Cow Kills Irish Pensioner
Bull Kills Man, Follows Him Until Certain He Is Dead
Angry cows vs. angry mothers

Image: Hello u cutie Flickr Cows with - ATTITUDE, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from tir_na_nog's photostream


  1. It’s a well-known phenomenon that you can tell when cattle are going to become violent by the phases of the moo’n’.

  2. From the linked story: “Cattle can behave in a different way if they feel the dog is a threat to them…it would be most unusual for a cow not to check you out in a fairly forceful fashion.”

    Regrettably, they checked a 63-year-old Welshwoman out in a definitely forceful fashion. Stay tuned for Cow Week: Cows Meet Dog, Dog Survives…

    1. Totally.

      Again, I’m still not quite getting this series of articles.

      People that are likely to be walking dogs near livestock should be aware that you don’t walk dogs near livestock.

      In the Lake District (UK) farmers can shoot your pet dog dead if it’s off the lead, purely because of the potential chaos it could cause through fear and reaction from the animals.

      Animals get spooked and kill stuff.  Just like sharks.  We get that.  I think this series of articles is intended for a different audience, tbh.

      1. The point is a catchy hook followed by facts about how people perceive risk and what affects our ability to judge risk properly. Hint: It’s not really about the cows. It’s about the information that comes after the cow story. 

        1. In this kind of risk analysis, does it make sense to take into account  the subjective properties of the risks involved?  Death by shark — with its suddenness, extreme contrast with the pleasure of swimming, and people’s deep fear of being dismembered alive by a real monster — seems more salient of a risk for reasons of general terror/pain avoidance than death by cow. Subjective experience (whether real or imagined) might be expected to skew the actual numbers… the question then is a) does such a skew exist?, b) is it itself quantifiable, c) should it be discounted in risk analyses?

        2. I appreciate you addressing my grumbles Maggie.

          I just feel that, rather oddly, these articles are hinting at cows being more dangerous than we think – but are they? Or do we just have so many people around cows that sometimes bad shit happens? Unlike sharks, which people don’t tend to be around, but when they are bad things often happen – hence the fear. I don’t think sharks should be demonised, on the contrary, but I don’t think our fear of them is irrational, or even disproportional.

          It’s not really about the inherent danger that the animals present, but our experience with them. We could also pull out some horrific incidences of death by tea-cosy, but it doesn’t mean that our current mental image of fluffy tea-cosies being safe and soft should be shattered. Cows are awesome, and can be super friendly, attentive pets, like big inconvenient dogs.

          There’s even the old stat that falling coconuts kill more people than crocodiles. But that doesn’t mean that we should be more fearful of coconuts than crocodiles.

          Am I missing the point?

  3. My  grandparents had a dairy farm, and some of my earliest memories involve being totally freaked out by cows. They’re huge and weird! I’m glad to see my primal fears justified.

    1. I think that the point of these articles is that all animals can be defensive or reactionary, not just sharks.

      I don’t think the point is to make you scared of cows, which are actually quite friendly, docile creatures most of the time.

      So here’s another reason why this series of articles is… odd.  It’s triggering the entirely wrong response.

      Ah well, we get some fun cow stories and get to vilify ANOTHER animal, I suppose.

        1. They’re on to me…

          [edit: I have to ask, did you just google ‘Hornby Cows’ and cross your fingers or are you a model train enthusiast that just knows their stuff? :p]

  4. Cattle are particularly prone to this when they are mothers with calves and the walker has a dog. Young heifers (female cows) can become overly inquisitve too. Recommended actions are:

    Avoid entering fields with cows Let go of your dog if cows charge Don’t try to outrun cows Run downhill if it’s possible Make yourself as loud and big as possible Punch the cows on their noses

  5. Cows may kill more people than sharks, but I have to wonder about the percentage of people killed by cows vs. the percentage of warm-water ocean swimmers killed by sharks?

    Threat comparisons are meaningless if the sample is skewed so that the vast majority could not be exposed to the threat.

    From a quick google:
    Doctors kill more people than guns (but what about percentage of actual patient deaths vs. percentage of deaths of people that have had guns pointed at them?)
    Prescription drugs kill more people than illegal drugs (what’s the percentage of prescription user deaths vs. illegal user deaths?)
    You are 4x more likely to be killed by lightning than a terrorist (what if you count only people who stand outside during thunderstorms?)

    Etc., etc., etc.

    1. “… tongue-in-cheek look at risk analysis … ”

      Maybe the comparison appears meaningless because it’s meant to show how skewed our perception of risk is, especially when it comes to sharks.

      1. But actually, as Doug and Nathan point out, our perception really isn’t that skewed. On a case-by-case basis, you’re in more danger if you’re face to face with a shark than a cow. People just don’t come into contact with sharks that often and therefore there aren’t a lot of deaths – that doesn’t mean there isn’t a high risk if you swim into a Bull Shark.

        1. How do you know that? It’s as meaningless as assigning a “risk value” to cows, since we have no idea how many people encounter sharks. Maybe 99.99% of humans who have come close to sharks swim off unmolested since the sharks prefer eating fish, and the people never notice they were close to such a “dangerous” predator.

          Even a Bull Shark – trained divers film them without cages. And there’s only a couple of dangerous species of sharks out of hundreds.

          1. Really? Come on – It’s pretty easy to make some rough comparisons simply based on the sheer number of cows in the world (about 100 million in the U.S. alone), the fact that there are many people whose job it is to deal with cows every day, and the fact that humans spend the vast majority of their time on land and not in the water.

            In other words, there are a heck of a lot more people interacting with a cow at this very moment than there are people who have any chance of being near a shark – in fact there are probably more people farming than swimming in any body of water today.

        2. On a case-by-case basis, you’re in more danger if you’re face to face with a shark than a cow.

          You. Don’t. Know. That.

          Because for all you know, 95% of the time that there’s a shark within 20 feet of you, you have no idea. Because it’s underwater. And you can’t see it unless it decides to attack you.

          1. Antinous: I respectfully note that this hasn’t been my experience. Although I have yet to do any specific shark-diving, I’ve seen plenty of fish, including blacktip and whitetip reef sharks, and a whale shark the size of a minivan.

            Only the plankton-feeding whale shark was unconcerned. The fish-eaters flee: you’re not a prey-item, so there’s no point in being near you. Only at a UNESCO site in the Philippines (where diver-numbers are limited) were the sharks curious enough for me to see and photograph them.

            They’re skittish, like someone else’s cats. I’ve been within 5 meters of a meter-long shark. They are beautiful fish, but highly aware of your presence and tend to swim off.

            I. Do. Have. Photographs.

          2. What’s the proportion of swimmers (who have no idea what’s under them) to divers (who do?)

          3. Sigh. It seems like you didn’t read my response above, or didn’t understand it. Yes, I. Do. Know. That. It’s astoundingly obvious, based on the huge proportion of time humans spend on land around cows as opposed to in the water in any situation where they could possibly be near a shark. 

            Maggie said in an early post that 108 people get killed by cows in the U.S. year as opposed to 4 by sharks, which makes cows 27 times more dangerous. That’s obviously nonsense, because humans probably spend multiples somewhere in the hundreds more time around cows than sharks.

          4. …humans probably spend multiples somewhere in the hundreds more time around cows than sharks.

            Why? Most farming in the US is a factory operation. There aren’t crowds of milkmaids in fairy tale costumes interacting with the bovines.

          5. Thanks Antinous, responding to your comment about proportion of swimmers vs divers in sharkbite-cases. There’s an informative Wikipedia entry at:
            For example: “Every year around 100 shark attacks are reported worldwide”…this correlates with statistics I’ve read elsewhere. 100/year, likely more in any given “Shark Week.”

            As most human-bites are accidents, you’re most at risk when sitting idly on a surfboard north of San Francisco (great whites feed on sealions there, and the profile is similar when seen from beneath) or when splashing around, even in shallow water.

            But with millions of swimmers, snorkelers, surfers and divers in the nation’s oceans annually, 100 incidents isn’t a statistic, it’s an outlier. Drowning is certainly a greater danger: compare to an estimated 388,000 deaths by drowning in 2004, excluding those due to natural disasters.

  6. The only good cow is a steak.

    -abs doesn’t really believe that, but he also doesn’t totally not believe it as well, if that’s inconsistent let’s note that he contains multitudes

      1. Surprisingly, to me at least, it’s turned out that as an adult I eat a mainly vegetarian diet despite my love of meat.

        -abs blames his vegetarian wife, and his love of cooking (because it’s hard to cook meat for your wife knowing she won’t eat it, and cooking two separate meals for one dinner for two people is just Right Out)

  7. I was brought up in a small town in a dairy farming area. From a young age I walked through fields of cows. I was always taught NEVER to run away from cows.
    Cows are curious, and will come towards you to see what you are. If you run away, they will run towards you. As you speed up, so will they. If you stand your ground, and shout, and wave your arms, they’ll back off, or go away. A young beast may need a punch on its sensitive nose to deter it. Milk cows are more amenable. Don’t go in the field if the bull’s there.
    On the other hand I was never allowed into a field with a tractor working, as most of the driver’s attention will be on the stuff behind the tractor, and he won’t expect anyone to be there.

  8. How did this happen? Were these people actually IN the field with the cows?
    Town people think that rural land is all park land and public property for their own use. They come out here and drive down private marked ( No Trespassing and other very obvious signs) roads and wonder why we get upset. This is our house!  I want to walk into these people’s yards and treat them as they treat us..”I didn’t think there would be a problem” as I wander through their yard, maybe stop to take a photo.

    Like those subaru ads where they run rampant across cattle guards and obviously private property chasing hot air balloons and rainbows.. rural land is not your playground people!

    Those people had to have crossed a fenceline somewhere, either climbing a fence or going through a gate.
    Farmland is not public parkland.  And if you bring a dog? Yes, we will shoot it. We have the law on our side.

    1. In England and Wales there is a limited right to roam and in Scotland almost complete freedom to roam so what you say is not necessarily true. Walkers have access to many rights of way across ‘private’ land whether any particular landowner is in favour of it or not. Walkers and ramblers are expected to behave responsibly, but that would be the case in any city too. Many people in the UK would be of the opinion that the land belongs to the people and the job of a landowner is as guardian of the land (for which he gets paid handsomely) with a responsibility to the community not to prohibit or block access.

    2. You bring a uniquely American, selfish and hostile perspective to the discussion.  The rest of the world doesn’t recognize your view of land ownership and use.

    3. The picture on the “two cow-related deaths” link shows a yellow arrow. That’s a waymark indicating a public footpath, so the woman was not trespassing.

    1. I’d be okay with it if they did.

      -abs thinks that only seems fair, considering the number of them he’s eaten

        1. Yeah, pretty much.

          -abs will readily admit that “karma” and “seems fair” look synonymous to him

    2. Why not if you’re mashed up with their feed? How many cows eat all natural unadulterated grass nowadays? It is all our fault for having given them a taste for meat (and BSE).

  9. So, was I mistaken in assuming there was little risk riding my mountain bike through a small herd of cattle in a field?

    They were on the path, and the area was public land. I was riding slow, pedaling, trying not to have my freewheel ratchet and sound like a rattlesnake. The cattle didn’t seem that disturbed, certainly they noticed me and slowly tried to avoid me, but I was within arms reach of them.

    What are the warning signs of a cow about to attack?

    1. Cows have a “tell” in that they will twitch one ear before attacking. And that side is where they’ll pull the nun-chucks from.

  10. gadgetphile,

    If the cows are in a herd in a field, they probably won’t be interested in you unless you go up and spook them. Single animals separated from the herd are more dangerous, since they feel lonely and vulnerable without close relationships. I know we can all relate.

    From what I understand from my farmgirl-friend, cows lower their heads and accelerate until they run you over. That’s how you can tell they are after you.

    And I might be more worried about an irate farmer with a shotgun if you’re trespassin’. :-P

    1. Like I said, it was public land- at least I thought it was and it wasn’t marked “No Trespassing” when I went over the cattle grate. I certainly had started from a public trailhead and had encountered no obstacles on my way there.

      Cattle/livestock grazing is common on public lands: Well, I don’t know, is 157 million acres that big? I guess that’s how you stop the literal tragedy of the commons- regulate it.

      1.  The road may have been public but the land on either side was most likely private.
        Just for your future info. Doesn’t need to be posted, stay on the road.

  11. Coming from very rural Somerset in the UK I have had to help deal with cows when they get into an orchard in the autumn and eat the wind fall apples several times. The apples ferment in the cows stomachs so the cows basically make their own cider and get drunk on it.

    Seeing cows staggering around and occasionally falling over is great fun but trying to round them up and get them out of the orchard is not easy. It basically involves lots of shouting and hitting the cows with sticks. Oddly the cows don’t seem to get more aggressive when they are drunk, just totally uncontrollable and uncoordinated.

    I had to rescue a couple of elderly ladies once when I was walking from one village to the next. The women had been herded into a corner of a field by some heifers. The cows were just curious and when the women backed away the cows just followed them and a game of cat and mouse ensued with the women losing out. Again lots of shouting and hitting did the trick.

  12. “large agricultural production is the only way to feed the numbers of people we have-”

    Absolutely untrue. 

     “-and so there’s a romantic idealized view of what is good natural food as opposed to food that’s not and so when people perceive that you are tinkering with the food yes they have outrage and they have rage about this and when you have rage and fear together it’s a very-very dominant cocktail of emotions it’s very hard to turn around, very hard to turn around.”

    This sounds like big agribusiness bullshit to me. Along with a healthy dose of implying that those who are fighting against the total control of food production by agribusiness are somehow silly, emotional creatures with no brains. When, in fact, our very survival on this planet depends on figuring out how to keep Monsanto from starving us all to death. 

  13. You can’t do a risk analysis and come up with the probability an animal encounter by looking only at the number of people who are killed each year by that animal.   Humans are in regular contact with billions of livestock every day, as a function of the factory farming.    If there are that many encounters but only a few deaths per year, are cows REALLY that dangerous?

    One must also take into account that a person walking among cows isn’t the same as a loose dog running through a herd of cows with a person trailing behind.   Dogs are seen as potential predators of cattle or horses, and the cow or horse can react in fear and/or aggression as a result.   It’s sheer ignorance to think it’s safe to let the family dog romp among a herd of strange livestock.    I suppose we have TV to thank for that:  people are taught by TV that sharks and snakes are terrifying.   In reality disease carrying mosquitoes kill more people worldwide than sharks, snakes, and cows combined.   

    Why don’t people use more common sense?  Here is a group of half-ton strange animals that you don’t know anything about.  Why not just steer clear of the herd?   Just because something is of a domesticated species doesn’t mean it can’t hurt you.   

    I wish the article would address the human’s role in changing how dangerous a herd or a single cow is.    Castrating the bulls, for example, is an easy way to lower the risk factor.   Not all bulls are mean, but steers on average tend to be more docile.  Don’t let bulls run loose where strangers are likely to visit.  Do not breed from aggressive animals, even if it’s a good producer of milk or meat.   And one big thing: *handling*.   Big scale livestock producers touch the animals only to move them, ship them, and kill them.   Handling is aggressive and full of electric cattle prods and fear as a motivator.   As someone who has seen cattle being loaded at the livestock auction, it’s never kind or respectful to the animal.    This perhaps is too tightly woven into the quantity-not-quality factory farming mindset.    As long as cattle are taught to hate people, there will be cattle that hurt people.   Contrast that to the examples of cows who are raised kindly and taught manners, for example those who are taught to accept riding, such as this one: 

    The other topic is the supposed need for humans to be in contact with cattle so often.  It’s absolutely untrue that we need cattle to feed the world’s population.  Sure, cattle raising makes some people rich and produces dishes based with beef — but that does not make it necessary.    Other than special grass-fed cattle, all commercially raised beef is fed grains.  It takes 6-10x as many pounds of grain to produce one pound of usable meat from the cow.   Imagine how many people that would feed?  How can we live in a world where human beings starve to death, when there is ample food but it’s being given to cows and pigs instead.   In the US, 70% of all grain/cereals produced aren’t given to people but livestock.   The majority of taxpayer subsidies in the US go to meat/dairy/egg production, while our government’s Dept of Health wants us eating less meat?!   In the US, 28% of greenhouse gasses come not from cars or factories but from livestock.     If everyone in the US skipped meat & dairy just one day a week, it would be like taking 7.6 million cars off the road in terms of pollution.    I don’t care how pretty the Big Ag’s marketing brochures, there is no such thing as sustainable domestic livestock production.

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