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Advice for Walking in the Countryside

Phones off, sun hats on, this weekend it’s time to head into the great outdoors known as the English countryside. There’s something very British about taking a stroll through our bucolic verdant fields. It helps us relax and get back to nature, away from the stress of digital life.

Hopping over stiles and following the secret and forgotten pathways following only the well-worn wooden signposts proclaiming “public footpath” evokes our adventurers’ spirit and makes us feel like we can take on the world.

That is, until we run into one of the countryside’s cutest hazards: a field with cows or sheep in it. At which point, our gumption and bravery evaporate quicker than a white wine spill on the picnic blanket as we turn to each other and hesitantly ask “Sheep aren’t dangerous, are they?”

“No, of course not”, our rambling companion replies, trying to reassure themselves as much as us, “you go first though”, they offer cordially.

Of course, sheep and cows aren’t usually a problem (we’ll get on to bulls later) but there are always risks, and a little caution goes a long way in avoiding wilderness woes.


Commonsense While Walking in the Countryside

“Shut the gate”, we’ve all read it on walks through the country, and it’s an important one to pay attention to, but you’d be surprised how many farmers complain about gates being left open - and for good reason. So, as a quick refresher, here are a few more general tips to make sure walking in the country stays safe for you, those around you and of course, the animals.

  • Keep your distance as much as possible. Before you go hopping over the stile into a field of cows, take a quick look around to see if there’s an alternative footpath.
    Stick to the path. Just like in the fairytales, stay on the path and walk calmly, and no harm shall befall you.
  • Not too close. Give the animals plenty of space and they probably won’t even notice you’re there.
  • No surprises. Just as you wouldn’t like a bull sneaking up on you, animals don’t like to be surprised either. There’s no need to let off party poppers, but a little bit of noise to let them know where you are wouldn’t go amiss.
  • Plan your route. Know where you’re going to go before starting out and stick to the footpath.
  • Exits are located to the front and rear of the field”. Before embarking on your cross-field journey, take a moment to see where the exits and hedges are in case you need to make a last-minute getaway. These could be located anywhere in a field whether it is through a gate or over a style.
  • Keep your kids and buggies close.
Walking with Your Dog Near Animals

If you’re taking your four-legged friend with you on your rambling, there are a few more things to bear in mind.

Keep Fido on a lead. All dogs behave differently around livestock, but it’s best to keep them on a lead, especially if there are pregnant ewes or ewes with lambs.

Take the long road. If there are animals in the field, try to take the route which places the greatest distance between you and the animals.
Do it, bag it and dump it. Your dog’s poo, that is. Always clear up after your dog and please don’t leave your little plastic-wrapped parcels lying around, cows and sheep have been known to die choking on them.

If You Encounter Cows in a Field

Gentle giants standing in the field enjoying the grass, cows are generally no threat to anyone and won’t bother you as long as you leave them alone. But just in case, here are a few tips from our resident ruminant experts.

  • Don’t mess with mum.  Like all animals, cows are naturally defensive of their young, so you should be especially cautious if you see calves in the field as well and don't approach them.
  • “Intriguing”, said the cow. You might not know it, but cows are actually very inquisitive animals, so if they do approach you, they are probably just investigating.
  • Assess the situation. If you do feel unsure of the cattle when entering a field, perhaps wait just inside the gate for a while to see how they respond to you first.
  • Give them a round of applause. If you do feel threatened and have the confidence, turn to face the animals and start clapping and shouting, this should hopefully be sufficient.
  • “It’s time to go”. If you do feel threatened, just make for the nearest safe exit (even if that means going back the way you came).
  • Must go faster. This really is a last resort since running may only encourage them to chase you, and cows can run faster than humans when they want to. Of course, if they do charge at you and you don’t have time to make it to safety, start running - quickly.
Meeting Sheep in the Field

Yes, they are generally (almost always) fluffy clouds of cuteness on legs, but very occasionally you might feel threatened by a sheep. Don’t worry, if you do, we’re here to help (and we won’t tell anyone. We promise your secret is safe with us).

  • It’s rude to stare. A dominant sheep may take your staring as a sign of aggression, so eyes down and hope they don’t notice you. Just like with the bullies back in the schoolyard.
  • You have the high ground. By crossing the field at its highest point, which should be the footpath, any sheep would have to run uphill to get at you. This is probably more effort than it's worth for them and they’ll leave you alone.
  • Never put you between ewe and her lambs. Like any animal, its maternal instinct is to protect its young, so just be a little extra careful around animals that are with their young.
  • Don’t draw attention to yourself. Bright colours and flappy loose clothes are the types of things that could get you the unwanted attention of a would-be-Rambo woolly warrior.
A Fallen Sheep!

From time to time sheep can fall on their backs and, like a giant white fluffy tortoise, find it impossible to get back up. This mainly happens in lambing season when they are pregnant and are carrying a thick fleece. A sheep on its back can potentially die if left unassisted.

First of all, try and find a farmer to inform them of what has happened. However, if no farmer can be found, and you feel confident, then you could approach the sheep calmly and gently to roll it back onto its feet. This is the only time when you should intentionally approach a sheep. Be sure to wait around a few minutes afterwards to make sure she’s found her feet and can be on her way again.

Sheep can also become stuck in bramble hedges and fences. They get trapped in them and are unable to free themselves. Sometimes, your presence may be sufficient incentive for them to get themselves free, but if for some reason you can’t help, be sure to let the farmer know so he can take care of them.

Always be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after touching sheep or any livestock.


What to Do if You See a Bull

Mature bulls can be quite scary-looking, but they are typically very friendly animals. There’s one (make that two) very clear way to tell if it’s a bull or a cow, so if you’re unsure, take a look.

  • There has to be another way. If you see a mature bull in the field and you’re worried then consider finding a different footpath.
  • They can’t be that dangerous, can they? That’s true. Any bulls that could pose a risk to the public shouldn’t be kept in fields with public rights of way, so chances are, any bulls you do meet will be friendly.
  • Is that bull ‘broadsiding’ you? If your would-be aggressor turns sideways while continuing to stare at you, he’s showing off how big and powerful he is. It’s his way of saying “Get out of my face”, and in your wellies, we’d listen to him.
  • Is he about to charge? Lowering his head, rounding his shoulders forward and scraping the ground are all good indicators that he may have taken a dislike to you and he could well be planning to charge. Back away immediately and head towards the nearest safe exit. Avoid the temptation to run, unless he actually charges, in which case - run fast.
  • Tell the farmer. Any signs of aggression should be reported to the farmer, so they can remove any animals that may pose a risk to the public.

Hopefully, your weekend wanders through the wonders of the British countryside will be free of bovine bullies and unwanted rumbles with ruminants. And if you are taking a picnic with you, make sure you buy RSPCA Assured labelled products to make it a higher welfare feast.

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