Cattle

The cattle are in the field across the river again. Larger, more diverse characters than last year’s lot. They can pick out the sound of the farmer’s jeep and they moo rowdily, impatiently, as soon as they hear it progressing down the lane with their dinner. The uncontainability of their excitement, ringing out along the valley corridor, is overbearing and exquisite: part of a summer soundtrack to the village that will seem, by November, like something unreachable that we once hallucinated. Three weeks after their arrival, the field looks sensitively strimmed, with no electricity or plastic coils of twine required. They were nervous to come to the water’s edge for the first few days but now they regularly get right down to the bank and gawp at us while we wash the dishes. We tell them they are welcome to wade over and hang out. This building, after all, was originally intended not for us but for their antecedents, maybe even their actual ancestors, and for the more skittish ovine rivals they compete with for occupancy of the field. Also, would it really be such a far-fetched and unique living arrangement? For a decade and a half, from 2005, a kind, society-rejecting loner called Tony Trewin occupied a run down cottage on Bodmin Moor with a house-trained Highland bull called Scrunch. Scrunch – as is shown in this short film from 2018, directed by John McFarlane – loved Tony even more than the teabags, Rizlas and cheddar he frequently stole from him. 

I stumbled upon Tony and Scrunch’s story entirely by accident, within a listing for the delapidated cottage on Rightmove, a website I sometimes like to look at to torture myself by fully addressing the hard facts of how impossible it would be for me to ever purchase a house again. Cats and dogs often wander into shot on property listings but it’s less common to see a bull chilling out in a kitchen. Intrigued, a few days later we drove just over an hour west to find the ruin, a cloud sucking us into its nexus when we entered the moor, as if we had passed through an interdimensional portal into a squelchy sunless otherland. Pontius Piece Cottages, where Scrunch and Tony lived until Tony’s death a couple of years ago, is inaccessible by car but not hard to find, as a public footpath from the village of Minions runs directly past it. An old kettle had been nailed to a tree in the garden and the roof looked like a small moth only needed to land on it to reduce the whole building to rubble.

Normally I’ll excitably crawl through a hole into the most precarious derelict building I find on a walk but this was a rare occasion when I stopped myself. I didn’t want to die under an avalanche of granite but, also, the scene felt precious and sad. This was one the last times the final remnants of Tony’s amazing life with Scrunch would be witnessed by anyone besides some waterlogged sheep. Soon – however sensitively whoever ended up buying the ruin and its accompanying, swampy land renovated it – it would all look very different, feel very different. The ashes of Tony and Scrunch – who died not long after him – were here, somewhere beneath our feet. These chairs we saw abandoned to the elements were the ones Tony had sat in and Scrunch had hornbutted and hurled around the garden for fun. The mid 20th Century dresser in front of the shed, with its warped wood and peeling turquoise paint, had probably once housed the baked beans Scrunch loved to eat. Behind some planks nailed haphazardly over a window I saw a faded postcard featuring three happy cows in front of a blue sky. Apparently Scrunch would often wander over to meet the rest of his temporary herd, sometimes arriving back at the cottage with a ladyfriend or two. He could never stay away for long, always returned to Tony. Way back before Tony found Scrunch as a freezing calf in the snow and bottle fed him to health, before the owner of the ruin had taken pity on Tony and allowed him to live in the house, Tony had worked as a butcher. After getting to know Scrunch, he said he could not imagine being able to do such a job again.

We live in our own bubbles of alleged reality in order to survive. For more than three decades, my own was the bubble of a soppy animal lover who ate meat and didn’t give a whole lot of thought to how it ended up on my plate. Then, around 2010, something clattered into the bubble: namely, the juggernauts that would clang and grunt to a halt outside my house in heavy traffic on their way to the turkey processing plant a few miles up the road, owned by the grinning, soon-to-be-deceased factory farmed meat celebrity Bernard Matthews. The conditions I saw in those lorries, the desperate and unhappy smells I smelt coming from them, they were enough, although it took me a couple of false starts to get fully there as a veggie. Twelve years on from the bursting of that bubble, it’s an extremely long time since I ate an animal, and I feel nauseous and melancholic at the mere smell of cooking flesh, but I live in a different bubble now: the bubble of someone who will not let himself think or find out about the greater destiny of the cattle he sees through the open window of his kitchen, as he makes his morning coffee, who will not think about the meaning of the plastic numbers attached to their ears. They continue with their efficient, decorative strimming, between the giant clumps of buddleia, their tails swaying in beautiful unison, sweeping away the midge clouds that rise off the water. Every so often, one decides it’s time for a little gallop across the hillside and the other seven, thrilled to have a friend who has such ingenious ideas, eagerly follow. I wander over, amidst them, and one of the more confident bullocks licks the crisp salt off my hands and t-shirt. I imagine taking things a step further, try to remember if we ate the final tin of baked beans from last week’s supermarket shop. I definitely have some teabags: turmeric ones I bought from Morrisons ages ago which I can’t seem to fob off on anyone. A gunshot sounds, in the woods beyond, and I worry: it penetrates my bubble in a way that whatever horrific thing in a slaughterhouse happening right at this very second does not penetrate my bubble. An angry dog barks. The summer village soundtrack is not as wholly sweet and melodic as we will remember, when trying in vain to reach back towards it.

A few days after we returned from the ruin, we found a cow in the lane, a few yards from our front door. Soon, another cow appeared, then five, six, seventeen. A hole had been made in the hedge opposite, and now a full blown mutiny was on the cards. They were all off together, along the rumpled tarmac. We informed our neighbours, who we knew had the farmer’s number, but part of me was egging the cows on. They – not the cattle in the field next to the river, but a rival team, quieter, oft-underestimated undercattle from across the valley – looked so excited and free, sniffing and licking almost everything in their path, yet forging on, dauntless, towards all the things that were very much part of the neighbourhood but which they had probably never seen: the old oak tree which someone bizarrely stuffed fluffy toys into every December, the charity plant stall and the newly reopened pub and the glass-fronted noticeboard with the yellowing, ever-more forlorn piece of paper inside that still said “Three strong-minded independent women looking for shared house, preferably with land, £900 pcm or less” just like it had for at least the last twenty six months. What was their plan, the cows? How would they live, if they were never recaptured? I thought about the calves that used to appear in the field opposite my bedroom in early spring when I was in my late teens, the way I’d wake to the sound of their delicately galloping hooves and swishing tails and it would fill the air with something sweet that changed the complexion of the day even though I wasn’t aware it changed the complexion of the day. I thought of Scrunch’s trusting, adorable face in the photos of him as a baby being fed by Tony. And I thought of how often people who claim that animals have an emotional life are written off as sentimental nutcases, and how infrequently people who claim that animals are purely there for our convenience, and have no feelings at all, are questioned or lambasted. 

But there was an image I flashed on above all of these others – an image that I keep returning to, months later – and that was of another young bullock, a Highland, like Scrunch, about a mile from here, that I’d seen running through a meadow parallel to my car. It had been on one of those early May mornings when everything seems to be coming alive, when all the moor’s nature feels like it’s hitting the prime of its youth. I just can’t get across to you in words how joyful that run was: even more joyful than the sudden, arbitrary stampedes of the gang across the river. Obviously, the golden light of the morning, bathing that soft red fur, helped, but there was something very private about it too: as if the bullock believed nobody was watching, and that elevated everything. But I was watching, very much so, and I stopped the car to continue doing so. I half-expected the calf to say fuck it and break into a slick disco move too, while it was on the case. I remained, taking it all in, apparently unbeknownst to the calf, for a minute or two, until the beep of an impatient SUV from behind punctured the moment. And then I proceeded down the hill, wondering when my local field would be occupied again: hoping it would be soon, but also not wanting to wish the fast-accumulating summer away.

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6 thoughts on “Cattle

  1. I am now in love with the memories of Scrunch and Tony.
    And the happy calf, running with joy, like no one was watching.
    This is beautiful, Tom.
    I worked with dairy cows, decades ago, and went veggie myself.
    Wonderful, sweet, loving, smart, trusting…friends.
    Thank you so much for this.

  2. As a fully paid-up bovinophile, this was such a treat. They are the most beautiful and serene creatures, galloping up to greet you for a nuzzle and a slurp – all part of their hulking charm. Would love to have met Tony Trewin. Thank you for another superlative read.

  3. That was a really moving, memorable and thoughtful piece of penmanship. I wish more humans would think about the secretive, quiet and precious worlds of other creatures…and that the world was less crazy/manic and populated with more, off-the-grid temperate folk living in harmony with their animal companions, like Tony & Scrunch. Thank you for sharing this story.

  4. The bullock’s joyful capering reminded me of when the smallest pony foals on Dartmoor suddenly realise what their legs are for and run in circles, first away from, then back to their mothers. It is not the joshing, pranking run they do when they are playing with other foals, but an individual flat out gallop of total abandon.
    Your writing often reminds me that we are part of nature and connected to our fellow creatures.

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