Udderly delightful: How cow cuddling can relieve stress and boost mental health

By | October 22, 2020

In these Pandemic-changed times, availing of any form of feel-good therapy seems like a wise idea. The particular practitioner I am going to see has unusual colouring, with hair the colour of coffee macchiato and she’s a heavyweight in her field, tipping the scales at around 600kg.

othing to concern Weight Watchers here because the lady in question is a Blonde d’Aquitaine cross called Blondie and her owner Fionn Sherlock has agreed to allow me to try the latest idea in animal assisted therapy (AAT) with her — cow cuddling.

The idea is to have a moooving experience by getting up close and personal with a cow. It’s on offer at a couple of farms in the Netherlands and the US, and I want to try the effect here in Ireland and to check that my bovine date and I are, as it were, cowpatible.

While I wait for Fionn to bring me across the fields near my home in Wicklow to meet Blondie, I watch the local farmer’s 100-strong dairy herd. They look the perfect picture of pastoral peace, grazing purposefully, heads into the wind.

But within minutes, as though they were choreographed to do it, the entire herd have stopped tucking into grass and have lain down as one to chew the cud. Herd instinct in action perhaps and watching, I already feel a therapeutic calm creeping over me, but I can’t cuddle any of these cows as they have a couple of bulls running with them.

Blondie and her grazing companions look up expectantly as Fionn drives his 4×4 down the field to where his starter herd of beef cattle are standing and introduces us. A large cow, Blondie is an impressive presence and turns her head to smell me, blowing her sweet- smelling cow breath on my hand (no methane involved, which happens when cows burp).

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And there’s something very soothing about having such a powerful animal stay at ease as I stroke and scratch her, feeling her warmth as I lean up against her (cattle have body temperatures several degrees higher than those of humans). It’s a bit like hugging an enormous teddy bear and induces a cosy sort of mindfulness.

Days later, I am still taking comfort from the remembered sensations. In the peace of pasture, I can tell Blondie anything and she would simply listen, twitching her ears before continuing to ruminate.

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Marianne Heron gets a cuddle from Blondie. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Marianne Heron gets a cuddle from Blondie. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Marianne Heron gets a cuddle from Blondie. Photo: Steve Humphreys

The trend in cow cuddling, which is similar to equine therapy, started in Holland, where it is known as Koe Knufflene or cow hugging, and where it features as part of farm visits. Animal therapy has been found in various studies to reduce stress and the risk of mental problems. It is also used as therapy with a number of different conditions, from depression to Alzheimer’s. Given the interest in diversification in farming, cow cuddling might be something that could catch on here.

Can you have a rapport with a cow, I ask Fionn. “One hundred per cent,” he replies. “It’s definitely a thing. They know when it’s me and when it’s my dad.”

His beasts can tell the difference between the voices of Fionn, who has just completed his studies to become an auctioneer at Bolton Street and his dad, blacksmith Denis Sherlock. They know Fionn best, for he comes to check on them several times a day, especially when a cow is near calving.

“I often lie down beside them to eat my sandwiches. They treat you as if you are like part of the herd. It’s like lying with an electric blanket. People say that cattle are about money, but for me, it’s a passionate hobby, I love it,” says Fionn, who hopes to specialise in cattle auctioneering at the marts.

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He was given a calf 11 years ago — “that’s how I got started”. Now the starter herd he began with his maternal grandfather Johnny Gallagher’s help has grown to 10 and will soon be 11 when his other cow, Anna the Limousin cross, which he bred, calves. Blondie was his first cow and occupies a special place in his affections.

Now eight, Blondie has the kind of calm temperament that makes her a good candidate for cuddling, which is definitely not something to try at home or by yourself as cattle are unpredictable animals. “She’s a very good mother and she has just had her sixth calf,” says Fionn.

But where is the calf? I’ve been told that one thing you mustn’t risk doing is getting between a cow and her new calf. “She’ll have him hidden in a sheltered spot,” explains Fionn, and sure enough, when we drive around the perimeter of the field, we find the new old bull calf called Denis, named after Fionn’s father, lying in the shelter of a bank of brambles.

Fionn is worried that the new arrival may not be getting enough milk, so he calls to his cattle and they come trotting up the field, with Blondie and her calf calling back and forth to each other. The next time I visit, together with photographer Steve Humphreys, Blondie has her calf with her and the clicking of the camera disturbs her calm a bit.

“It will be good when Anna’s calf arrives, then the two will be like friends,” says Fionn. Sounds like a good time for me to return for another cuddle. Meantime, I’m not taking up goat yoga — at least not yet.

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‘Cows are very contact-driven and can remember up to 60 faces’

Milking of the Jersey herd and calf feeding are just two of the things visitors can see on the urban farm at Airfield Estate in Dundrum, Dublin. It is also a training centre for students taking Bray Further Education courses in animal handling, where part of the aim of the course is to foster respect for the nature of animals, explains Dr Kirstie McAdoo, Head of Education and Research at Airfield.

Having done her doctorate in climate change and methane emissions, Kirstie has a particular interest in cattle. “I’m proud to say I spent six years studying cow burps,” jokes Kirstie.

It does seem that aspects of cow cuddling, like brushing and scratching, are in tune with cow behaviour. “Cows have quite a strong social structure in the herd,” explains Kirstie. “There will be an alpha cow and the cows will go into the milking parlour in the same order.”

Grooming, where cows lick each other around the head and neck, plays a part in social networking between cows and maintaining the bonds of cohesion in a herd. Robotic brushing for cows has been found to enhance growing behaviour, reduce stress and increase milk production for dairy cows. “Cows are very contact driven and they can remember up to 60 faces,” says Kirstie.

They also know what they like. Apparently, dairy cows prefer classical music to hard rock in the milking parlour, where music has been found to increase milk production.

Airfield Estate is open from Wednesday to Sunday from 9.30am-4.30pm airfield.ie. Find other farm experiences around the country on familyfun.ie.

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