How to Walk Safely around Livestock

By Nicky Jacquiery

"A recent experience with cows got me thinking about what we should do when we encounter livestock while on a walk."

During a recent walk in the Dolomites we came across grazing livestock who wander freely in the high mountain pastures during the summer months. The bells worn around the cows' necks meant that you frequently heard them before you saw them. I often mused to myself how annoying it must be for the cows to have a bell permanently attached to them, with no escape from the constant tinkling noise! Anyway, I digress. The point is that these cows seemed perfectly content chewing the cud, that is until one of my friends decided to approach what he thought seemed a friendly-looking cow to take a close-up photo. Neither he nor I were prepared for the cow to start charging him, and needless to say we made a quick exit to safety. After this we were more cautious around local livestock and gave the cows, horses and donkeys a wide berth.

Our experience in the Dolomites got me thinking about what we should do when we encounter livestock while on a walk here in the UK. In my last article I focused on walking with a dog and the Dog Walking Code. Here I’m going to review the Countryside Code as it relates to cattle and horses, since these are the types of livestock that we are most likely to come across.

When I think of charging animals, I automatically think of bulls. As far as bulls are concerned, it is the responsibility of farmers to ensure that walkers are not exposed to unnecessary risks when walking on rights of way. This means that it is against the law for bulls over 10 months old to be on their own in a field crossed by a public right of way. It is also an offence to keep a bull of a recognised dairy breed, even if the bull is accompanied by cows or calves, on land crossed by a public right of way. It is up to farmers to do what they can to minimise the risks to walkers by putting up signs alerting people to the fact that there is a bull in the field.

Most of us are aware of the danger associated with bulls, but few people realise that cows can be just as dangerous at certain times of year, for example in the Spring when cows are with their newly born calves. As with bulls, farmers are advised to erect signs informing people that there are cows with calves in a field.

As walkers we want to enjoy our time in the countryside without having to worry about cattle on or near our path. So, if you do come across cattle, what should you do? The general advice is to use your common sense and avoid any behaviour that could be interpreted as threatening. Follow the advice below and you should have a safe and enjoyable walk:

  • Do read the signs and act accordingly!
  • On entering a field with cattle, check the lie of the land; in other words watch how they are behaving. Don’t walk too close to them and if they look aggressive in any way, consider your other options. I always check my escape routes too and mentally make a note of where the nearest gate or stile is located, and whether it would be possible to climb over a wall or fence if I had to.
  • If there are cows with calves in a field, do not walk between the cow and its calf, even if they are standing across your right of way. Now is not the time to be belligerent! Find a way around them.
  • If there are cattle blocking the path through the field where you want to go, find another way. You are within your rights to find an alternative route to avoid them. Don’t put yourself at risk and only re-join the path when you consider it safe to do so.
  • Be prepared for cattle to react to your presence, which may simply mean that they start to walk towards you. Keep calm and don’t panic, since most cattle will stop before they reach you. Carry on your way even if they do follow you.
  • Move steadily and quietly. Walk at a sensible pace rather than run, even if you want to get away from the cattle as quickly as possible! Any sudden movement is more likely to make them twitchy and run after you.
  • If you do encounter any problems, report the incident to the landowner. It may not be obvious who the landowner is, but in any case you should contact the highway authority and/or the Health & Safety Executive as well. The police need to be informed if the incident is serious, such as if you are attacked or injured.

In the case of horses, it’s best to be cautious in the same way as with cattle. It’s not uncommon to come across horse riders on bridleways and although they don’t have priority over walkers, be mindful of the fact that horses are much bigger than you and can do you a lot of damage!

  • Keep your distance and don’t walk too close behind a horse.
  • Let the rider know you are there from a safe distance, especially if you are approaching them from behind and they haven’t seen you.
  • Give horses a wide berth when passing them on foot, just as you would if you were in a car.
  • Don’t startle horses by shouting or making a sudden noise or movement.
  • In the same way that it’s advisable not to walk between cows and their calves, avoid walking between mares and their foals.

If you encounter a horse that behaves aggressively or chases you, report the incident to the local authority.

Originally published 24/10/17

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