We live in a Gloucestershire village bordering a huge stretch of common land, owned by the National Trust. Apparently it has always been common land, and remained as such because the locals were a fierce lot who refused to be subdued when the Enclosures Acts, which began in 1750, forced England’s open spaces into private ownership. The villagers around the common (then known as The Wasteland) probably gave any officials a good trouncing, and so they were eventually left alone. It also had a reputation for highwaymen, but that’s another story.
So the commoners’ rights to graze their livestock have never been usurped. Among the deeds for our house, which backs onto the common, is permission from the County Council for us to keep ‘two beasts’ there. We are still considering this. Not absolutely every animal is a cow. Last year, four ponies appeared though, much to everyone’s delight. So will we choose something exotic? Llamas? Horses? Camels? Goats? Once, while out for a walk, I was thrilled to see two grey goats tethered there; when I got closer, however, they turned out to be rocks. I had gone out without my glasses that day. But whatever we choose, they aren’t allowed up there in winter, so stabling them could be something of a problem. May 13th is the magic day, the first of the grazing season.
At this time, the common is covered with an amazing carpet of cowslips, buttercups and purple orchids. Luckily, it takes quite a while for the 500 or so cows, released in herds small or large by a variety of farmers, to munch their way through these. The National Trust takes good care of the land, and it’s now known for its different species of flowers. I have found a bee orchid, Star of Bethlehem, yellow rattle, milkwort and plenty more.
The cows are not confined to the common but roam as far as they can, through a number of lanes and villages, stopping to trim the ivy from the walls and, if they can force the gate, to strip our neighbour’s pear tree. Good defences are essential, and although we find the roaming herds utterly charming, we will change our minds if they manage to get into our garden one day.
There are black cows, brown and white cows, mottled cows, striped cows (I have named my favourite Tiger), white cows, fawn cows, red cows and every combination imaginable. My theory is that some farmers buy ‘bin end’ cows at market, the odd-looking ones, and use their free grazing rights to fatten them up over the summer. Fate unknown. Actually, we do know the fate of the Belted Galloways, the ones that look like furry black and white humbugs. The National Trust owns two herds, one of which is ‘thinned out’ at the end of each season. We collect a box full of delicious organic steaks, joints and stewing beef from the NT each November. Some cows meet a sadder end, hit by cars or lorries. Despite warning signs and speed limits, motorists don’t always manage to brake in time and around 6 or 7 each year die in this way. Not very good for the vehicle, either.
Some cows give birth on the common, apparently without needing barns or vets, and then you’ll see a wobbly chestnut or milk-white calf staggering after its mum through the tall grasses. Speaking of milk, none of the cows are in milk, in the sense of needing to be milked. Once turned out, they’re in residence for the season, which usually ends in late October. Car drivers who don’t know the area shout at the lumbering beasts when they lurch, in slow motion, across the road. Shouting does nothing. Most things do nothing, in fact. When a cow wants to move, it does so, slowly and irrevocably. The only thing you can try is winding down the window and banging the side of the car.
Golfers have to contend with ambling cows dropping messy splats on the greens. Yes, there’s a golf course on the common – a shame, I always think, but then it’s not my idea of fun, and I console myself by remembering that it’s very historic, dating from the late 19th century, long before the National Trust took over. But walkers and cows co-exist peacefully, as long as you don’t try as one woman did, to reunite a calf with its mother when they became separated by a road. She was buffeted and bruised for her pains.
By the end of the season I guess that most of us are relieved that we can leave our gates open if we want to, and don’t have to worry about meeting a black cow on a dark road. But we miss them too, when they go. At the beginning of May, the now famous village Cow Hunt gets us in the mood again. We’re not looking for real cows then though, only dressed up wooden cows with silly names like Romeo and Mooliet, Moonet the artist, and Pirates of the Cowibbean. Then there’s tea and fabulous cakes on the common – something that would be impossible to enjoy to two weeks later, when the real cows are out.