June 15, 2017

Are cow attacks becoming more common?

Cows in the field

At RWK Goodman, we act for a number of walkers injured by cows. These incidents happen for a variety of reasons and the precise details of each case are rarely the same.

It's true that there are some breeds of cattle that are known to be more temperamental than others. Generally speaking, the native breeds tend to be more docile and less highly strung than continental breeds. Practically speaking, this information is of limited use as it is unlikely that most walkers will be able to distinguish between the breeds. However the message is one of caution and I would encourage walkers to give cows a wide berth if they cannot be avoided altogether.

Recent changes

In the last 12 months or so it has been really noticeable that clients we represent in animal injury cases have been describing to me the aggression of the cows and strength of the desire of the cows to attack them. These characteristics have been described in circumstances where there have been no calves present and / or where the walker was not walking a dog. This may go some way to challenging the anecdotal view that cow attacks only usually happen when there are calves and / or dogs present.

It appears to be widely accepted that cows present more of a risk to walkers if there are calves in the field or if the walker has a dog with them. I would agree with such an assessment as a general rule and I regularly act for people in such circumstances. I do not seek to reinforce that view here though because, in recent times, I have acted for just as many walkers who have been injured by cows when there have been no calves or dogs present. In those cases, my clients often describe a feeling that the cow was deliberately attacking them (in other cases the view is generally that the cows are defending their young or perceive that the dog is a threat to them).

Whatever it is that causes the cows to behave aggressively, their behaviour is extremely scary given their size and weight, and the speed with which they move. Often these attacks are described as happening in a split second. Some clients describe their fear when the cows continue attacking them, stamping their hooves, snorting and trampling or throwing people into the air, even after they let go of the dog lead (if they happen to be walking a dog).

It is common place in the British countryside for walkers and cattle to interact with each other. Walkers and ramblers following public rights of way are clearly entitled to be there as is the farmer entitled to graze his cows in fields containing public rights of way.

What can walkers do?

In circumstances where there are cattle grazing on or in close proximity to the right of way, I would suggest that all walkers consider whether they take an alternative route through another field (following another footpath rather than trespassing), or whether they can safely and reasonably avoid the cattle by giving them a wide berth, and following an alternative route across the field.

Sometimes these precautions aren’t enough to prevent an incident. I have recently settled a case in which a herd of cattle quickly covered 50 or 60 yards to attack walkers before they could get across the field safely. When my clients entered the filed these cows were a considerable distance away and my client perceived no threat of injury of coming into contact with the cows. The injuries sustained by walkers in these circumstances are often significant because the cows are so large and powerful, sometimes there are fatalities.

Who is responsible?

There are a number of factors to consider when walkers are attacked by cows and each case turns on its own facts. As a general rule, the owners of cows will be responsible for paying compensation to injured walkers if their animals attack and injure them. In most cases, the cow will be behaving normally, it needn’t be proved that the cow had behaved aggressively in the past, and normally the owner of the cow will not have been negligent or in any other way to blame for the behaviour of their animal. Cows are known to behave aggressively in particular circumstances such as where they are spooked, threatened, frightened or perceive some threat from the presence of the (injured) walker.

This may seem unfair to some readers but it has been decided that the most appropriate person to insure against the risk of accidents caused by cows are the owners of the animals.

My advice to walkers this weekend would be to avoid cows and livestock as much as possible. There is probably a greater risk of an incident if there are calves in the field or if you are walking your dog but, recent experience with the clients we have acted for, has shown that there remains a real risk, even if there are no calves or dogs present.

With that in mind I would advise walkers not to engage with cows, to avoid them wherever possible and to give them a wide berth if avoidance is not possible. It is important not to provoke any sort of reaction by behaving in a loud or threatening manner towards the cows unless they are stalking or attacking you in which case such behaviour is entirely appropriate to try and put them off.

Walkers should try to keep a significant distance between themselves and cows at all times. I have recently acted for a walker who thought he had passed safely through a field of cows when a number of them charged at him from behind so I would suggest keeping an eye on the cows at all times while you are in the field with them.

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