‘We all get on well’: the town in England where cattle roam free

<span>Cattle often wander into town in Minchinhampton in Gloucestershire.</span><span>Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian</span>
Cattle often wander into town in Minchinhampton in Gloucestershire.Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian

A bright afternoon on Minchinhampton common in Gloucestershire. Ramblers, golfers, fliers of kites and model aircraft were enjoying the midsummer sun – and the sight of the Highland cattle roaming freely.

“They’re wonderful, aren’t they?” said Mary Griffiths, who was searching for bee orchids in the knee-high grass, careful to dodge the hooves of a nearby group of cattle.

“You learn to live alongside them. If you don’t disturb them, they don’t disturb you. It’s a matter of using common sense. If there are calves around, you have to be extra careful but they don’t cause a problem.”

Cows, particularly calves, have been in the headlines after a Surrey police car rammed a 10-month-old escaped calf called Beau Lucy on a residential street in Staines-upon-Thames.

Footage of the incident caused outrage, with the RSPCA calling the tactic “disproportionate” and the wildlife presenter and conservationist Chris Packham asking: “What sort of monster rams a calf?” James Cleverly, the home secretary, asked for a “full, urgent explanation” saying it seemed “unnecessarily heavy-handed”.

“It was a silly thing to do,” said Mark Dawkins, the hayward at Minchinhampton, whose job is to look after the wellbeing of the cattle on the common.

There have been unfortunate incidents here too. In spring 2016, a Highland calf, Jonny, died after a collision – this one accidental – with a police car responding to an emergency call. Its mother was hit and killed by a van next morning, apparently while searching for her calf.

The common is dotted with warning signs asking for motorists to watch out for cows and stick to the speed limit. Not all obey but the cows like to use the signs as scratching posts.

“We do have accidents here from time to time sadly,” said Dawkins. “You need common sense [that concept again]. It’s up to the motorists to slow down.”

Beau Lucy appears to be recovering well but the incident has proved divisive among farmers. In the immediate aftermath, a National Farmers Union (NFU) representative for the east of England, Hugh Broom, said the police “probably” did the right thing. “God forbid it had gone the other way and the animal ran off and bumped into someone, sent a child flying.”

Once the dust had settled, the NFU put out a statement from the livestock board chair, David Barton, in which he said he was “deeply shocked and disturbed by this awful footage. There has to be a protocol in place to humanely and safely deal with these situations.” The College of Policing has said it does not provide specific guidance on how to deal with escaped livestock.

The police watchdog, the Independent Office for Police Conduct, has examined all the footage it can find and police incident logs. It says the calf appears to have charged at members of the public, rammed a police car and “posed a risk to road users”, but added that Surrey police’s professional standards department should investigate.

Safety around cattle has been troubling the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). It is running a “safer British farms” campaign, calling for farmers to keep people and cattle apart.

According to an HSE summary of fatal agricultural injuries, eight members of the public and farm workers were killed in 2022-23 in incidents involving cows in England, Wales and Scotland.

Wayne Owen, an HSE inspector, said: “All large animals can be a risk to people. Even a gentle knock from a cow can result in people being crushed or falling. All cattle should be treated with respect.”

In Minchinhampton, they have learned to live peacefully with the cows. After all, this has been common grazing land since the middle ages. The Highland cows often wander down into the town – but are left alone.

“They’re quite a sight,” said Eric Guy, a post office operator. “But they don’t cause any trouble. We sell greetings cards of them, which goes down well.”

Shaun Webb, a butcher, said the Highland cows could be stubborn. “But we behave – and they behave. We all get on well.”