Rosamund Young: The mysterious motherhood of sheep and cows

Rosamund Young, author of The Secret Life of Cows, talks about how poetry runs through the land – and how the motherhood skills of cows is as obvious as it is unprovable.

The poet, biographer and novelist Philip Callow was the first person to read the manuscript of The Secret Life of Cows and his last published volume of poetry, Pastoral, includes several poems with references to this farm and the book. Poetry has such a magical way of encapsulating and distilling an experience in a single line or maybe two.

He was battling depression, and while he liked having his wife permanently close by, knew she was happy spending the day among our animals, helping me with an orphaned lamb:

‘What could be better than solitude,
he thought, crossing the bare field
on his way home
with a new drain cover in his bag,
his wife safe in the hills
among friends and animals…

It’s a passage that tells me much about his state of mind, selflessness and fighting spirit.

Poetry surrounds me every day as I work on the farm: some waiting to be expressed, some long ago discovered and celebrated: Keats’s grasshopper, Edward Thomas’s gorse, Shakespeare’s thyme.

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I am confronted daily with poetic reminders and also moral tussles: observing the wild flower meadow equivalent of a deep sea drag net: a bumblebee caught in a spiders’ web. Was it an unintentional casualty or targeted prey? When if ever should a human intervene? I felt anguish as I released the bee.

Rosamund Young

A heifer calf was born to a first time mother, unaided and unseen and outside in the fresh air on a lovely, warm summer’s day. I use a form of shorthand in my calving register so I can look back and know whether any particular cow or heifer experienced problems during calving: ua=unaided, hg= help given, hn=help needed and vn=vet needed. The calf gets abbreviated initials too to denote how lively it is and how quickly it gets to its feet and suckles.

Every day of the preceding month the heifer, Amelia, had spent most of each day ‘talking’ to her mother. Maybe I should say communicating with or perhaps spending time with.

I know she was receiving not merely comforting nearness and companionship, she was receiving advice. I cannot prove it nor do I wish to try. I observe and try to learn from the cows.

If a cow and her pregnant daughter, in the presence of the next generation, little brother or sister, spend lots of time together in pre-parturient anticipation then I observe it to be something they need to do. And I observe it time and time again, year after year.

We have kept cattle since 1953 but our sheep flock is of more recent establishment. I am beginning to see mother/daughter relationships developing among them, now that I can see the characters behind the wool.

The Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young is published by Faber & Faber in October (£9.99)