Leading by a nose


One of the things you learn when working with cattle is that that they tend to lead with the nose. It’s obvious that scent is very important to them, and at the same time, if the nose is sniffing something, the eyes and ears are conveniently placed to study the object of interest as well. When you think about it, herbivores, being towards the bottom of the foodchain, tend to try and look in all directions simultaneously. It’s vitally important that they see what’s coming and there are no blind spots. Cows might seem to treat the rest of the world with casual disregard when they’re focused on you, but in reality, they still have a 300 degree field of vision because their eyes are at the side of the head. Terry Pratchett in fact took this and extrapolated it in one of his stories, with a bull whose head was so broad that the eyes didn’t have any common field of vision. So the bull had two personalities, the one who was looking out of the left eye and the one who was looking out of the right. It’s an amusing conceit but I suspect cows manage it better than that. Note that this means that you do not attempt to creep up behind cattle. They can see you, and even if they don’t see you well, they don’t need a lot of data to work out which hind leg they lash out with. If you are seen creeping up you’re obviously a predator up to no good. If you approach openly with a cheery demeanour than they’re less worried.

The side effect of their panoramic vision is that cows have poor depth perception. Farmers will tell you that there are gates it can be impossible to get cows out of. This is because the gate opens on to a lane and there is a hedge on the other side of the lane. The cows, until they get to know the gate, don’t appear to realise that it is a gate, because they just see a comparatively solid block of hedge that you seem to be intend in herding them through. In such cases it can often be better to lead them with a bucket of feed, on the grounds that they can see the feed, they can smell the feed, and it is more real than imaginary gates in notional hedges. So by the time they take their attention off the bucket and think to look round, they’re standing in the lane and even to them, it’s obvious that there was a gate there.

The other day I was taking some feed to some young stirks. (This is a vague farming term, it technically means a yearling bovine but is often used for those who’ve stopped being calves, itself a vague boundary to cross; and aren’t yet bulling heifers.) But still these stirks were between six and twelve months old. Unusually they weren’t waiting for me, instead they had clustered around a couple walking along the footpath. I discovered later that the lady was somewhat afraid of cattle and of course her reactions made her even more interesting, ensuring that the cattle gave her their full attention. After all, she was doing strange stuff and they didn’t want to miss any of it.

When I appeared, the idea of feed overcame their curiosity and they converged on me and the couple continued their walk across the field. She apologised for upsetting them. So I explained that they were just curious because they were only little.

To which she replied that she was only little as well.


Normally with cattle there is always somebody mooing or bellowing or whatever, but last night, after milking, we had also finished feeding calves. The dairy cows were all either snoozing in their cubicles or were out eating silage, and we’d fetched the heifer into the calving pen who was due to calve. It was then, on a still night, we realised that it was utterly silent. We couldn’t even hear any cars on the main road.


At this point it struck me you might be in need of a good book!

As a reviewer commented, “Benor is a cartographer and he’s come to Port Naain to produce a handbook. He makes a home with Tallis, a professional poet and his wife Shena. She’s a mud-jobber or as we might say, a beachcomber. Some of her combings include bodies. Everything has a price and families will pay for the privilege of burying their dead and, if possible, finding who caused it. Benor is a natural. He’s a nosy person and, with the aid of the wonderful Mutt, a ten year-old wise beyond his years, he sorts out the villains from the corpses. This first short story from The Port Naain Intelligencer bodes well for the rest of the series. A really great Whodunit.”

Tagged: , , , ,

14 thoughts on “Leading by a nose

  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt September 16, 2019 at 7:42 am Reply

    You always make it sound bucolic; I can’t even begin to imagine the hard work you do.

    • jwebster2 September 16, 2019 at 7:55 am Reply

      bucolic like all good things demands a lot of hard work going on behind the scenes to keep the show on the road 🙂

  2. rugby843 September 16, 2019 at 2:48 pm Reply

    We had a dairy farm in Vermont, USA. Growing up I loved the cows. I read and enjoy your posts because they remind me of that life and I’ve learned a lot from you about sheep also.☺️

    • jwebster2 September 16, 2019 at 3:18 pm Reply

      I learned about sheep later in life 🙂
      Seriously, once you’ve worked with cattle, sheep are something of a let down

      • rugby843 September 16, 2019 at 3:40 pm


  3. Widdershins September 16, 2019 at 8:46 pm Reply

    You know that that sort of silence usually heralds the end of the world, right? 😀

    • jwebster2 September 16, 2019 at 9:09 pm Reply

      perhaps they just switched it off and switched it back on again to see if it made any difference 🙂

      • Widdershins September 16, 2019 at 10:41 pm

        Hehehehehee … 😀 … damn, I shouldn’t’a blinked! 😀

      • jwebster2 September 17, 2019 at 4:30 am


  4. patriciaruthsusan September 26, 2019 at 11:34 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Musings on Life & Experience and commented:
    First, a description by Jim Webster of raising cows and their behavior when young. Next, a book by Jim on offer about a mystery featuring Tallis’ friend Benor the cartographer. A good review by a satisfied reader is included.

    • jwebster2 September 26, 2019 at 11:41 am Reply

      one of life’s pleasures can be working with dairy cows 🙂

  5. Jack Eason October 4, 2019 at 6:13 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    A bit of a snotty tale – Moo!!!

    • jwebster2 October 4, 2019 at 5:18 pm Reply

      no need to rub my nose in it 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: