The call was low, deep, monotonous. Sounding every five minutes throughout the night; fog-horn like.
The herd stood about, a few under dripping oak branches, finding slightly drier ground where massive roots had sucked up some of the excessive water. Others crowded along the hedge bank, uncomfortable, ill at ease, shifting their weight from foot to foot and creating oily pools of puddled mud. A calf butted and nuzzled at her mother. She was younger than the rest and consoled herself by pulling powerfully on the teat and sucking down draughts of warm milk. Her mother moved uncomfortably.
A number of heifers, nudged out from sheltered spots by senior cows, lay in the open pasture; rust-slicked water oozed around the heavy wetness of them creating an illusion of fathomless dark holes in the night time meadow. They bowed their heads into one anothers’ necks against the persistent rain.
The calling continued.
Sometime during the early hours, hungry and cold, the herd moved through the sodden pastures to where a bale, lopsided and misshapen, had been put out for them. The ring of the feeder had sunk deep into an expanding lake of pungent ochre-grey clay and as the cattle laboured towards it, it heaved and settled yet further into the stinking morass. The animals pulled unenthusiastically at the rancid grass of last year’s harvest; swishing tails heavy with mud which painted loins and rumps with the whorls and swirls of unfathomable tribal markings.
A large bull calf, even now full of bounce and bravado, scrambled onto the sinking heap of metal and forage and stood atop challenging all comers with half-playful swings and biffs of his head. The cows took no notice and carried on mumbling listlessly at the grass; but his peers looked on with envy and admiration; it wasn’t long before another calf tried his luck. Quickly it turned into a game and soon what was left of the haylage became contaminated with mud and dung.
The cows moved away. Some wandered off in search of an edible mouthful of sour grass; others stuck their heads deep into the hedgerow and with long prehensile tongues sought out hidden ferns and undiscovered branch tips.
Meanwhile the mournful bellow was unrelenting.
As the dawn broke they heard the house up the lane shift and wake. The farmer appeared early, worried by the night time calling. Going to the bawling cow the farmer smoothed her along her back and flank, murmuring soothing words, checking both she and her calf weren’t in any physical distress. All eyes were on the farmer, expectant, hoping, pleading – the undercurrent of discontent and expectation was palpable. The farmer walked heavily back towards the gate, then turned to reassure the herd.
Before long the cattle were moving down the lane, a series of vast mud-painted backsides swinging from side to side in unison. Scouring the verges for any vestige of fresh sweet vegetation they were baffled to find the only appetising snack was a riot of lush ferns. They entered the River Meadows just as the clouds parted and for one blissful moment the cows, the farmer and the meadow were bathed in the energising, uplifting rays of the sun.