The ground behind and to the side of my house is occupied by a small group of Farmer Stan’s beef herd. They’re happy animals, I suppose because they’re living a more or less normal life for a bovine. There are sixteen in that group, mostly black and white Friesians with a couple of brown and white ones and three pure white Charolais.
This afternoon I watched as the group made its way in line astern down the field towards the feeder trough at the bottom. (Once or twice a day they get fed with some kind of meal which I assume contains a growth hormone. They seem to like it.) The two brown and white ones – let’s call them B1 and B2 – stood back and seemed to be taking up ‘sentinel’ positions about 50 yards apart. I counted them all and there were six missing.
A few minutes later the first of the errant six appeared from behind a hedge, rubbed heads with B1, and then walked off to join the line. As each of the remaining five appeared, it rubbed heads with either B1 or B2 and joined the others. Once the last of them had gone, the two sentinels indulged in a bit of leaping and leg kicking, and trotted off to catch up with the group. But here comes the interesting bit.
When they caught up with it, the last of the errants in the line turned around and rubbed heads again with B2. B1 walked up, nudged B2 in the rump to push him forward, and all sixteen walked down to the trough with the two boss cows bringing up the rear.
It really seemed – and I don’t think I’m being unduly fanciful here – that the two sentinels really were playing a sort of shepherding role. So what was the head rubbing all about? Some kind of recognition process, a display of relative rank, or simply a greeting? How would I know?
You wouldn’t think cows would be that well organised, would you? Seems they might be.