Four Cotswold farmers on the natural behaviours of their animals

PUBLISHED: 15:02 23 August 2019 | UPDATED: 15:02 23 August 2019

Mel and Jonathan Brunyee at Conygree Farm, Aldsworth

Mel and Jonathan Brunyee at Conygree Farm, Aldsworth

Alvin Burrows

Dogs are loyal and bright; cats are solitary predators. But what do we know about other animals that live side by side with the human race? Are sheep intelligent? Do cows recognise people? What natural behaviours do pigs or hens display? We asked four farmers about their animals - and what they say might surprise you

Sheep:

Jonathan and Mel Brunyee farm 180 acres at Conygree Farm, Aldsworth. Their Cotswold sheep graze exclusively on a natural diet of organic herb-rich pastures and wildflower meadows all year round. (The farm also keeps traditional Hereford cattle and native-breed pigs.)

Natural behaviour: We like to allow our flock to demonstrate as much natural behaviour as possible; for example we provide access to shade during the summer months and shelter in the winter, and we allow our lambs to self-wean rather than separating them from their dams.

Sheep like to be together. Their flocking behaviour is useful to farmers, allowing us to keep them together on unfenced hill areas (hefted) and herd them over large distances (pastoralism). They can also be led as well as herded; once one sheep follows, the others tend to do the same. It's usually the oldest members of the flock that take the lead. They are a prey species, so avoiding isolating individuals is important for them to feel safe and prevent stress. The exception is at lambing time, when the ewe will go off to her chosen spot to lamb away from the others.

Lambs: As the lambs become more independent, you often see them gambolling together in large groups, as if playing their own sheep version of tag or follow-the-leader. They can have strong social bonds and we often see mothers and daughters together within the flock. They learn their grazing and browsing behaviour from each other; our sheep definitely like to browse our hedges here at the farm.

Recognition: During lambing time, we are in and out of the lambing field checking the flock. They get used to your voice and presence and, even in the dark, will not react to us or the torch. That's impressive for a prey animal. When they are in need of assistance, they will often let us walk up and catch them; they seem to understand that we are there to help them get their lamb out into the world.

We round up and move animals without the use of a dog or feed so our flock have got used to our calls, and they remember where the gateways are. If we call them and move towards the gate, they know they are moving on to fresh pastures.

We have bottle-reared lambs that will remember being raised by us years later. They still walk up to you in the field for a head scratch or a rub round the ears and under the chin.

Quirks: I [Mel] remember when my Herdwick sheep kept escaping from a paddock of electric fencing but I could find no sign of how. Watching them from a vehicle, we discovered that two individuals would 'sit' on the fence and let the others across!

Jonathan: We notice our Cotswold and Hampshire sheep handle differently. If the Hampshires don't want to do something, they lie down; the Cotswolds plant their feet and stand fast - they can both be stubborn over different things and in different ways.

What we'd most like to know: There is research to suggest sheep can recognise individual faces and read human facial expressions. It would be really interesting to understand how this impacts upon their behaviour. Recent research has also shown they demonstrate different facial expressions and body-language themselves; from this we could understand more about how they are feeling and their general health. We would love to understand this better and put the findings into practice here at Conygree Farm.

(c) savoilic / Getty Images(c) savoilic / Getty Images

Cows:

Third-generation farmer Ian Boyd and his wife, Cathy, run 700-acre Whittington Lodge Farm in the countryside outside Cheltenham, producing pedigree Hereford beef. The farm is organic, Pasture For Life-certified, and practises regenerative agriculture, focusing on caring for soil and enriching biodiversity.

Our cattle constantly migrate around the farm. This means we're grazing very tall grass with lots of roots, which has a dramatic effect on the health of the soil; it also means the cattle get a fresh bite of grass every day. I go out there, call them, and they come running.

Natural behaviour: This 'migration' would have happened naturally in the prairies of North America, where the bison would have been harried by predators. They would slowly move across America, trashing long grass, and then moving on - and migration wouldn't take them back for several months. That was followed up by the cowboys constantly moving their herds of cattle. There will always be a lead cow, and you've got to work out who the boss is. When you want to move the herd, as long as you've got that lead cow in front, you know the rest are going to follow.

The cattle are browsers as well as grazers - they like variety. Turn them into a field and they'll ignore the ripe grass and go straight for my hedges! They'll also hunt out the sainfoin. It's very nutritious, with worming properties and 'anti-bloat'.

Calves: When calves are very young - for the first four days - they will hide in the long grass; after that, they'll have enough energy to stay with the mother. A cow will know where its calf is all the time - you never want to get between the two when you're walking a dog because the cow will come thundering over. Groups of calves tend to lie down together - and there will always be a cow there, seeming to be looking after them.

Grieving: Occasionally, we lose a cow, and it's always a problem: What do you do with the calf? We've found we're far better off leaving it - it gets very distressed for a few days but the rest of the herd will look after it. It will learn to suckle another mother and that mother will adopt it.

When a calf dies, you need to leave it with the mother for at least a day so she can grieve and know that it's lost. If you take it straightaway, the cow will look for it. It has to go through that grieving process.

Relationships: We take the stock away when they wean at a year old, and they don't tend to go back to the herd unless we reintroduce them as heifers. Sometimes, though, when we do, we'll see two together and think, 'Oh! That's that one's daughter!' It might be several years old, but it's still made its way back to the mother.

Character: Because you're with them every day, you get to understand their quirks. No two cows are ever quite the same. Some are always wary of you; some are trusting.

I can do most things with my cows; but, if a stranger comes into the herd - a vet, for example - they don't trust them at all. They get to know their stockman.

Cows mothering multiple calves at Whittington Lodge Farm. Pic: Ian BoydCows mothering multiple calves at Whittington Lodge Farm. Pic: Ian Boyd

Hens:

John and Fiona King's farm - Abbotswood - is located on the Cotswold escarpment just below Cooper's Hill. Animals include a small herd of Welsh Black suckler cows, and an even smaller flock of Shropshire sheep that graze amongst the farm's plantation of pick-your-own Christmas trees. Their main enterprise is a flock of free-range laying-hens, with eggs sold locally to shops, colleges and restaurants.

Natural behaviour: We provide our hens with 'toys', such as old milk containers filled with grit, which they love to peck at. Some carefully remove the lid, while others peck the plastic to pieces to get at the grit. After Hallowe'en, they get unsold pumpkins, donated by some of our customers, which the hens carve and hollow out. They've even been known to climb inside and lay their eggs!

After harvest, the combine is parked up in the field to sweep out any remaining grain before being put away until next season. But the hens don't see it as a combine - rather, a large portable nest-box and a great place to lay eggs: in the cab, in the tool box and even in the header.

Strangers: Several times a day, we walk among them, checking water, feed, and for any signs of stress or problems in the shed. We always knock on the door first so as not to alarm them. We also wear the same dress-code of blue overalls and green wellies, which the hens are familiar with, as strangers can upset them. The hens like to follow you around the shed playing grandma's footsteps, with a few cheeky ones pecking at you. They particularly like to peck shiny rings!

They play similar games if you walk in the pasture - they have 15 acres of parkland to explore during daylight hours. They're very inquisitive, particularly if you stand by the gate; they'll come over to eavesdrop on any conversation you might be having!

Disagreements: The hens love to scratch and dust-bathe, and frequently group into little huddles. You'd have to watch Chicken Run to begin to guess what they are discussing - but they do have disagreements and will squabble amongst themselves. If there is an odd cockerel in the flock, he certainly understands the meaning of being hen-pecked and has to be removed and re-homed for his own safety.

(c) NikonShutterman / Getty Images(c) NikonShutterman / Getty Images

Curious: What we'd most like to know is why some of the hens refuse to lay their eggs in the cosy nest-boxes provided, preferring the floor or the combine. We'd also love to know why some are such dirty stop-outs and refuse to come home after dark!

Pigs:

Tim Wilson farms 600 acres at Adeys Farm, Breadstone, Berkeley. Mainly grassland, and all organic, it runs down towards Slimbridge and Purton. On the farm are around 250 cattle, 400 ewes and their lambs, and 20 sows and their piglets. They're all free-range and kept outdoors throughout the year.

Natural behaviour: Our pigs are Old Spot crosses, which we move to new pastures as often as they need it, supplemented with plenty of hay and haylage. To be happy, they need to be able to root and wallow and scratch. We use Old Spot Duroc crosses: the ones that are pink are much more prone to sunburn and skin infections than the dark-skinned ones. To cool themselves down, they roll in mud and wallow. In summer, they really need a boggy, watery area to do this. They also love to rub themselves on the side of the pig ark or the feeder or a gatepost.

Intelligence: Pigs are the most intelligent of the three [cows, sheep and pigs]; sheep are a bit dim, I think! The pigs seem to quickly learn their way around. You'll find the little piglets have escaped several fields away, but they'll always find their way back home. Piglets, like lambs and calves, will play. They go on a sort of walkabout - which is when they'll escape under the electric fence. You'll see them disappear in groups - not so much in families but groups they've matched up themselves - like a band of friends. They'll be off, having fun, doing a bit of rooting under the trees.

Inquisitive: Pigs can be really friendly if they want food: 'I'll come over to you because you might have a bit of food in that bucket!'- and they certainly recognise the farmhand who feeds them. But I'd say they're more inquisitive than friendly. If a stranger goes into the pen, they'll shoot off… But then they'll turn round, come back and think: 'What's this all about, then? Let's go and have a look.' And, before long, they'll be nibbling at your wellies.

Family bonds: Just like human beings, pigs all have different personalities. Even ones that are similarly related. Some are really cheeky; some are far more timid. But, if they were brought up as sisters and you mix them in a bigger group to go to the boar, they definitely recognise each other. They choose the company of those they're related to. Friends for life.

Pigs all have different personalities, and tend to choose the company of those they’re related toPigs all have different personalities, and tend to choose the company of those they’re related to

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