February 12, 2019

Cow attacks: what are the odds?

In 2015 cows were officially declared the most dangerous large animals in Britain, with 74 people killed between 2000 and 2015. Of these, 54 people (an average of three a year over this period) appear to have been killed by cows whilst at work. Compare this number of attacks with the 17 attacks carried out by dogs in the eight years leading up to 2015, which arguably garner a lot more publicity, and it becomes apparent that the media are not paying much attention to this relatively high risk of walking in the countryside and working with cows.

What to do to minimise the risk of a cow attack

So when encountering cattle, what can be done to minimise the risk of attack and what can you expect if you are injured?

1 - Be careful with your dog

If you are walking your dog on a public footpath near a herd of cattle, you are immediately more at risk of attack (even with your dog on a leash as it should be) as the cows will view the dog as a natural predator. This is particularly true if you see cows with a new calf, as they will be especially protective at these times.

When confronted by the possibility of an attack in these circumstances, the safest thing to do is to let your dog off the leash: the dog will much more easily be able to outrun the cattle, and they will certainly be able to outrun you. Furthermore, because it is the dog the cows are more afraid of, they will more likely chase the dog than you, meaning both of you are safer than if you try to pick up the dog and carry it to safety.

2 - Avoid cows with calves

This is the other main risk factor in walking near cows, whether or not you are walking with a dog. An increase in pasture-based systems, decreased routine contact between handlers and non-lactating cows, and an increase in cow-calf contact after they are born have all lead to an increased risk of maternal aggression. Whatever the reason, cows with calves are best avoided altogether if possible.

3 - Practise vigilance

If you cannot avoid walking near a herd of cows, vigilance is key. Try not to make sudden movements or noises, and if you feel a herd may be threatening to attack you, carry on calmly and quietly; often the cows will leave you alone once they realise you pose no threat. The best advice, however, would be to go another way if at all possible.

Of course, it is not entirely your responsibility to keep yourself safe from cattle attacks. For example, it is an offence to keep a bull of a recognised breed older than 10 months in a field that contains a public right of way. For any other breed of bull the farmer must consider the temperament of the animal and decide whether it is safe to keep it in a field to which the public has access. HSE guidance also suggests that signage be put up to warn walkers of the presence of cows, and that gates and fences be checked regularly to ensure that they are fit for purpose, among other things.

In 2016 an 83-year-old farmer was ordered to pay £30,000 and received a one-year sentence (suspended for two years because of his age) after a retired professor was trampled by his unusually aggressive herd. This was an exceptional outcome, but it was achieved because the herd had attacked four other people in previous years, and the farmer had singularly failed to implement any changes to his practices to prevent more attacks from happening.

However, in the majority of cases a farmer is entirely blameless for the actions of their cattle. Despite farmers’ best efforts, cows are temperamental creatures, and anything from the weather, to illness, to raised stress levels can cause them to become distressed and thus aggressive. So what happens if you have suffered a cattle attack?

What you can do if you have been attacked

Under the Animals Act 1971 keepers of non-dangerous animals are nonetheless strictly liable for any injury caused by them if it is likely that they could cause serious injury due to dangerous characteristics which are very often perfectly normal behaviour for cows.

It is therefore crucial for farmers to keep their public liability insurance up to date; with members of the public allowed to walk in fields containing herds of cows, the risk of injury is inherent, and in order for neither party to suffer unduly should an accident not be the fault of the farmer it is crucial that the cost of that risk is spread with proper insurance.

Both farmers and members of the public therefore have a duty to protect themselves against cattle attacks, but it is the insurance companies that ensure that those who suffer injury are not left to bear the losses.

Injuries involving cows at work

Farm workers inevitably know the risks of working with cows and practically all will have stories of accidents and near misses. It is important to recognise that staff are entitled to claim compensation for injury caused by cows or otherwise. They are not barred from doing so just because they know the risks.

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