When that gimlet-eyed observer of middle-class mores, Posy Simmonds, published her graphic novel Tamara Drewe in 2007, one plot detail baffled me: I thought it was rather far-fetched that the adulterous novelist Nick Hardiman was trampled to death by cows while walking his dog. I grew up in rural Kent with a boisterous Airedale terrier and, while I had the greatest respect for cows’ heft, I’d only been properly beware of the bull. But when I turned to Google to see if this kind of casualty ever occurred, I was put firmly in my place.
One or two walkers die most years in this brutal fashion, as well as two-to-four agricultural workers. Still others suffer injuries. When two UK academics tried to assess the numbers in 2017 from newspaper reports, they traced 54 attacks on walkers over two decades. Only this week, a fatality hit the headlines as coroner Kevin McLoughlin reported on the death of 57-year-old Michael Holmes, who was attacked with his wife during lockdown, while the couple were walking their daughters’ whippets near Wakefield (his wife was severely injured).
McLoughlin’s response to this tragedy was to call for a ban on people walking dogs on public footpaths through fields of cows during calving season (most attacks seem linked to cows’ urge to protect their young from canines). His desire to protect human life is understandable, but it’s impossible to see how this could work in practice.
Britain’s public footpaths are arguably the greatest part of our national heritage: the green veins that connect us viscerally to the land while we exercise our historic right to walk pathways that have been traversed by human foot for centuries – even millennia. They are the reason people move to the countryside, or stay living there for generations. And for millions of us, there’s nothing that enhances the experience more than striding out with a loyal hound. In fact, it’s fair to say that one of the reasons the late Queen was so cherished by her subjects was that she emblemised the truth that almost everything in life is enhanced by the companionship of a dog.
Yes, there’s a very small but real risk attached to walking a dog through a field of cows at their most maternal and potentially aggressive. But an instinctive form of risk assessment is part and parcel of being an outdoors person. On some level, you calculate it every time you scale a peak in the Lake District, stride along Dover’s majestic clifftops or go out in a thunderstorm. My own top fear is that I’ll be struck by a rogue ball when walking along a golf course.
Most dog walkers know their biggest risk is a stranger’s dog attacking their mutt. You tacitly accept all this hazard in return for the incredible, life-enhancing delight of exploring the copses, vales, moors and grazing grounds of the United Kingdom. In truth, for many of us it’s partly that sense of jeopardy that quickens the pulse and leads to exhilaration. And on a purely prosaic level, the health benefits of walking a dog far, far outweigh any potential perils on your average footpath.
Despite this, I am glad McLoughlin’s concerns have turned into a national news story. The more walkers who are aware of calving cows’ potential to turn nasty when faced with a dog, the better equipped they are to make sensible choices. It took me 37 years to realise cow attacks aren’t just the stuff of graphic novels.