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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 dangerous (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 fairy tales, stay on the path and walk calmly, and no harm shall befall you.
  • Not too close. Give the animals a wide berth 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 fearless-four-legged friend with you on your rambling, there are a few more things to bear in mind.

  • Keep Fido on a lead or under close control. All dogs behave differently around livestock, but if in doubt it’s best to keep him or her on a lead, especially if there are pregnant ewes or ewes with lambs.
  • Put yourself in the middle. If there are animals in the field, be sure to keep yourself between them and your dog.
  • Release the hounds. If you are threatened by animals and need to make a quick getaway, release your dog so you can both get to safety separately. Animals are more likely to chase your dog, and four legs can run faster than two.
  • Watch out for your dog. Cattle see dogs as a greater threat than humans and are more likely to become aggressive towards them or give chase. So be prepared for them to react.
  • It’s not an ice lolly. If your dog does get too close, the cows might try to sniff it or even lick it. Don't worry, this is just them investigating because they don’t have very good vision.
  • Do it, bag it and dump it. Your dog’s poo, that is. 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 ruminants 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.
  • “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.
  • Don’t speed up. Don’t worry, the cows aren’t going to hurt you, just keep walking at a steady pace. They aren’t chasing you, they’re just trying to keep up.
  • “They know, I’m telling you”. For reasons unexplained, cows have been known to take a special interest in mothers-to-be, so if you are expecting, maybe you shouldn’t go leaping over that fence.
  • Assess the situation. If you do feel unsure of the cattle when entering a field, wait just inside the gate for a while to see how they respond. That way, if they do start coming towards you, you can beat a hasty retreat and make another plan.
  • 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 the cows do start to display signs of aggression or you feel threatened, you should 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 will 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 school yard.
  • You have the high ground. By crossing the field at its highest point, 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, test its maternal instincts (or make them think you are) and you’ll be dealing with its most ferocious side.
  • Don’t draw attention to yourself. Bright colours, flappy loose clothes, these are the types of things that could get you the unwanted attention of a wouldbe-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 weighed down with a thick fleece. A sheep on its back can potentially die if left unassisted.

This is the only time when you should intentionally approach a sheep and help it to get back on its feet. You can do this simply by taking a good hold on its fleece and giving a shove. 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 be woolly wallies when it comes to bramble hedges and fences. They get trapped in them and can’t free themselves. Usually, your presence will 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, as they can carry ticks and other little nasties.

What to do if you see a bull

Notoriously ill-tempered and quite scary looking, bulls can be extremely dangerous, so avoid getting into a field with one. There’s one (make that two) very clear ways 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 bull in the field, find a different route.
  • They can’t be that dangerous, can they? That’s true. The more dangerous and aggressive breeds shouldn’t be kept in fields with public rights of way, so chances are, any bulls you do meet will be docile. But in any case, see the previous point.
  • 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’s 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 to make it a higher welfare feast.

About the author

Jodie Adam

Jodie is RSPCA Assured's Digital Communications Manager. 

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