If we were asked what we associated with farms, one of the most popular answers must be cows. We see them everywhere in the countryside grazing in fields. All different sizes and colours and the “Mooo” of a cow must be one of the first noises children (who don’t live in cities) learn to emulate.

But they are not all as gentle and placid as we might be led to believe by their looks.  Cows are very protective of their calves and can become quite aggressive if disturbed during the breeding season. Beef breeds are generally thought to be better tempered than milking breeds and the handsome and elegant Jersey bulls, though smaller than the big beef breeds, can be lethal.

Farmers are allowed to graze cows in fields with footpaths running through, but there is still a duty of care to do so safely.  As a walker, do remember to take care if you are walking through a herd of cows and always keep dogs on leads when in the vicinity of any animals. Having said that, dogs are often the focus of a cow’s anger in the first place, as they see them as a threat, so consider whether you need to take that route at all.

The Farm Safety Partnership and the National Farmers Union are focusing on accidents on farms and how to prevent them in 2019, so here are a few cow cases to give you an idea of the sort of things that can and do happen;

McKenny-v-Foster 2008

This case is known as the “show-jumping cow case”, because the cow involved turned out to have a jumping ability to equal some of our top showjumping horses!

The cow, a Limousin, had been separated from her calf and was in an enclosed field. She escaped and collided with a car driven by the Claimant, Ms McKenny, whose partner sadly died in the accident. A claim was brought under the Animals Act 1971.  The expert evidence was that the cow had become extremely agitated on separation and in her desperation to get back to her calf had climbed a gate and jumped a cattle grid. However, the Court did not accept that the owner of the cow knew she had a propensity to behave in that way and so, because of the way the Animals Act is worded, was not held liable for the accident.

But in Martyn Williams -v-Jeffrey Llewellyn Hawkes 2017, a farmer was found liable under the Animals Act 1971. His Charolais steer became frightened by something unknown, causing it to jump out into a road where a collision with a car followed.  In that case, the steer was held to be behaving in a way required by the Animals Act.

Shirley McKaskie -v- John Cameron 2009

A farmer grazed cows and calves in a field with a footpath running through.  He knew walkers used the footpath and he also knew that cows with calves could become aggressive when with calves and cause serious injury. Mrs McKaskie was out walking her dog, though was not precisely on the footpath, when she was indeed attacked and trampled by the herd of cows and seriously injured.  The farmer was held liable under the Occupiers Liability Act 1957 and would also have been liable under the Animals Act 1971. He could have moved the cows; fenced off the footpath or put up warning signs.

The case acknowledged that there is a conflict of interest between walkers wanting to use the footpath and a farmer legitimately going about his or her farming business on his/her own land. But when there is a balancing of rights to be done, it is likely that the safety and rights of the public may prevail. Each case will turn on its individual facts.

Peter Donaldson -v-Alec Norris Wilson 2004

Where a gate to a field is the last barrier to a busy road after a public right of way across a field with cows grazing, a farmer should have taken extra precautions to make sure the gate was secure and the access safe so as to prevent cows getting out on to the road and causing an accident.  It was known that there was a risk that walkers (though they shouldn’t) might leave the gate open.

David Gardner -v- Edward Charles Wharton 2004

The Claimant motorist claimed against the Defendant farmer for failure to fence his cattle in properly when he hit a heifer (young cow) on the road, killing her. The farmer counter claimed for the loss of the heifer, saying the driver had been driving too fast, saw the cow, but then couldn’t stop in time due to his speed and had also not heeded warnings from other drivers.  It was held that the driver had been driving too fast and should have taken into account the fact that it was a rural area with cattle warnings signs. The farmer was not liable and was awarded £900 for the loss of his heifer.

Other cases

A motorist was also held liable in David Livingstone -v-VCH Armstrong 2003 when he struck and killed a cow standing in a road. The cow had apparently somehow escaped from a securely fenced field. The farmer was not negligent. In Hoskin -v-Rogers 1985, the owner of land which was let to someone else to graze cattle was not negligent when one escaped and caused a collision. The land had been adequately fenced when let out and the landowner had no knowledge of it being inadequate. The owner of the cattle was liable, presumably because under the agreement, fencing was his or her responsibility.

Farm animals can also cause diseases if health, safety and hygiene regulations and good practice are not carried out. As in Williams -v- Milk Marketing Board 1993, where the claimant contracted brucellosis during the course of his employment.

What these cases tell us is that each case is fact sensitive and what might seem similar situations may be very different when looked at closely. It is important to have as much information as possible. Expert evidence will in the majority of cases be needed to comment on animal behaviour.

Farm Safety

The other thing we can learn is that a little care and attention is the best prevention.  In the countryside, drive carefully, as you never know what is round the corner. It could be a small sheep and you may get off lightly in a collision. You won’t if it’s a massive combine harvester.

Obey warning signs -they’re there for a reason.

Stick to footpaths and consider whether enforcing your right is more important than sometimes literally risking your life.  Annoying not to, but safer. Can the landowner be politely persuaded to be co-operative and use the land for something else or fence the path off?

It’s not always the farmer’s fault if an animal escapes, but that doesn’t mean he or she can ignore good fencing maintenance. As Robert Frost said: “Good fences make good neighbours”- though boundary disputes are another matter!

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