Being with Cows

Raulet, 100 hilly hectares of unspoilt upland paradise is tucked away on the edge of the eastern French Pyrenees. It is place of rare quietness, where birdsong reigns supreme. Majestic beech woodland bestows a sense of regal confidence upon the land, a feeling that real wealth is counted not in pounds or pence but in deep, dank, moss-scented soil.

We are privileged to consider ourselves as custodians of this wonderful patchwork of meadows and streams and woodland. The farm has organic status, reflecting our deeply held wish that nature is for celebrating, not controlling or coercing into more is better through the use of pesticides and chemicals.

The official title for a farmer in France is exploitant agicole. The phrase speaks of course of production, of exploitation in the name of gain. At Raulet, we are blessed to be able to approach things in a way that puts the wellbeing of all its inhabitants – our family, the cows and the rich mass of wildlife that are the original occupants – at the very forefront of all decision making and planning.

The cattle that are raised here are the very lifeblood of the farm. The Galloways and locally native Casta are incredibly old, rustic breeds, hardy, weather-resistant and perfectly suited to a very extensive form of grazing. For large parts of the year, particularly in spring and summer, they mimic their ancient, undomesticated ancestors by browsing upon the incredible variety of mineral-rich leaves that the woodland has to offer. For months at a time, not a single blade of grass is eaten, yet their coats shine bright in the morning sun and their eyes speak of health and such natural contentment.

That they are allowed to be as nature intends is the absolute bedrock upon which their management is built. They come and go as they please, drawing upon countless generations of experience to stay so very well in habitats that modern agriculture so often mislabels as unproductive.

Acorns and chestnuts form an important part of their diet in autumn, allowing them to build reserves of fat against the coming winter. That they share this activity with their wild cousins, the boar and red and roe deer is a source of immense satisfaction, for it’s clear that on these occasions, they have lost none of their instinctive behaviour. I often feel with the Casta in particular, whose thick winter coat is so similar in both colour and texture to the roe deer, that the only things setting them apart are their bright orange identity tags. Remove such unsightly plastic earrings and here you have but another unconditioned animal making its living from the land.

Having largely escaped the process of selective-breeding, the Casta and to a lesser extent the Galloways have retained a very tangible sense of not wildness, but deep sensitivity and it is this which has had the most profound effect on us over the years.

Their ability to evoke in us a very powerful sense of humility, of steadiness and grounded appreciation for what we are given is what makes them the teachers that we see them to be.

It is they who inspired the name of our core project – Being with Cows – and they who are the undoubted stars of the forthcoming book of the same name.

I’m convinced that they themselves have some inkling of what it means to be privileged to live in such a place. They know that their presence here isn’t measured in kilos and that there is no need to justify their existence in such a magnificent landscape. And if it is necessary to define their purpose, well, they could very loosely be labelled as therapy animals, well-anchored beacons of a quiet simplicity that touches all who spend time in their company.

Throughout the warmer months of the year, guests are offered the opportunity to stay on the farm during a Being with Cows Retreat. Combining quiet meditational walks along the calm-inducing forest paths, with mindful sessions amongst the cows, the aim is to allow guests to unwind and drop quietly down into a place of natural stillness.

Being with Cows
Being with Cows by Dave Mountjoy

The essence of time spent together on retreat here is simplicity. Countless hours spent just being with the cows in a setting that is almost totally devoid of any man-made sound has instilled in us a very deep appreciation of the way they live their lives. When they are well cared for, respected and have ample opportunities to express their full range of natural behaviour, the cows are nothing short of wellness transmitters, effortlessly exuding a sense of warm benevolence simply by being themselves.

And it is this that we simply wish to share with those who feel drawn to these Pyrenean foothills. In all honesty, there is very little, on the surface at least, that we have to offer. No teachings are impressed upon guests, no specific activities are designed to reprogramme or detox a fraught or restless mind. Yet for some, this apparent lack of something to hold on to is the most perfect tonic of all.

Several years ago, one guest wrote movingly of her experience on retreat, of the land and the quietness found amongst the cows. She ended her message with the suggestion that a book should be written, a testament to this undiscovered seam of natural wealth. Several years later, after endless rewrites and enough frustration to stop the whole thing dead in its tracks, the seed has officially grown into a wonderfully visible tree and the book, simply entitled Being with Cows will be published through Bedford Square Publishers on the 23rd of May.

Being with Cows

It is taken as a most wonderful confirmation of all that is good about the whole project and its presence is a life-affirming signal that Life itself supports whatever it is we are up to. From a tragic beginning, with the loss of a beloved brother through suicide, to acceptance and transformation in the company of the cows, it celebrates the healing power of nature and the inherent goodness that is so deeply present in the form of the bovine beauties.

Gandhi called cows ‘Poems of compassion,’ and it is my greatest wish that through the book, people are given the opportunity to feel the deep sense of wonder, compassion and heartfelt gratitude that I have been privileged to experience in their presence and that this leaves a lasting, transformative impression upon the reader.

Being with Cows by Dave Mountjoy is published by Bedford Square on 23rd May, price £18.99 hardback.

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Blog Author: Dave Mountjoy