Running With the Bulls (or in my case, Heifers)

By Cam Mather

Many people have to fly to Spain to risk life and limb and run with the bulls. I get to do right in my own backyard. And in the dark at that! And while for me it’s actually running with the heifers, when you check out the horns on these Highland cows I don’t think the gender matters if you get gored.

Last Thursday night our neighbor Alyce brought “Aggie” over to board with “Betsy” in our paddock. Both cows were pregnant and she thought it might be nice to have the mothers and babies away from the main herd. Not a bad idea when you see how big these animals are and how they flail those horns around while swatting flies like a veritable bull in a china shop, but with razor-sharp human-impaling swords on their heads.

I’ve always been a morning person, liking to tackle the big jobs fairly early in the day, but Alyce goes and goes all day long and is often still going as dusk turns into night. At this time of the year I’m usually awake by about 5 a.m. and in the garden by 6 a.m. and so 9:30 p.m. is when I’m usually heading off to bed. To say I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed at this time of night is an understatement.

In June at this time of the year the one place NOT to be if you want to avoid mosquitoes is outside at dusk. There are none to be seen in the daylight hours, but they descend at dusk. I’m grateful they don’t carry West Nile virus or I’d have been in hospital by Saturday morning.

As Alyce backed the trailer up to the gate, it was Ken and my responsibility to direct her back and get the gates and trailer doors open at the requisite time. Well, officially it’s Ken’s responsibility. I’m just a naive onlooker. They are the cattle wranglers. I believe Alyce’s herd is close to 20 now so they have the experience. I’m just a spectator.

So as Alyce backs the trailer close to the paddock, if you open the paddock gate fully to the left, and swing the door of the trailer to the right, you create a perfect little corral to unload safely. While doing this though there is a momentary lapse in the security perimeter in which the gate is fully open and unobstructed for any wayward animals to vacate the premises.

This didn’t seem likely with Betsy. For the week she’d been here by herself she was quite mellow and docile. But somehow the excitement of the trailer arriving and sounds of another cow in the trailer got Betsy into a bit of tizzy. So as Ken walked the gate open to allow the trailer into the correct position, Betsy decided to make a run for it.

First off let me say that I did not see this is a likely outcome from the whole operation. Betsy had given me no reason to believe that this was in her nature. Secondly, if I had suspected this was a possibility, the correct thing for me to do would have been to enter the paddock with a herding pole to make sure Betsy knew she wasn’t to make a move towards the open gate. And when I say the “correct” thing for me to do, I mean if I was clad completely in GORE-TEX and NASCAR driver crash gear. Because there is no way on this planet I am putting my 150-pound self between Betsy and freedom. It’s like your car stalling on railroad tracks. Even if it’s an SUV, if the train is barreling towards you, the odds are not in your favor. Better to get out of the way.

That excuse given, Betsy was unencumbered by the time Alyce had exited the truck and made her way to unload Aggie. Alyce seemed about as open to hearing our side of the story about how this had happened as my physics teacher in Grade 10 when I tried to explain how my dog ate my science experiment results. How did he know our family didn’t have a dog?

Betsy’s first move was toward the driveway. At the end of the driveway was of course the road, the ultimate metaphor for freedom. Perhaps Betsy thought this was finally her chance to relive a Jack Kerouac adventure, or discover the joy we’ve all had on a road trip. One way or another Alyce was on her way to the driveway to close the gate. I also moved that direction, but kept a safe distance. When I say “safe” distance, I mean about the same distance required to land the Space Shuttle. Have you seen Betsy’s horns? Have you seen those videos of bullfighters getting gored? You know, the ones where he’s tossed around like a rag doll? I’ve gotta say, knowing the ultimate result of a bullfight (the bull’s demise) there have been times I’ve been sympathetic with the bull. Regardless of my animal welfare views, Betsy has the capacity to do me great harm.

I plan to hit the army surplus store on Princess Street in Kingston someday and see what a used GORE-TEX vest costs. I think if I had something protecting my internal organ area I’d be more likely to be a significant factor in the safe retrieval of wayward Highland cattle.

As I told Ken when I got back to the trailer after Betsy had left the driveway and headed towards my scrap woodpile, I had only one focus during these activities. And that is to always have an exit strategy. Now that I was back to the trailer this involved scrambling up the slatted walls on to the roof. Sorry Ken, but I’m heavily into self-preservation in these situations.

Alyce managed to herd Betsy back down the road to near the trailer. She was now between my vegetable garden and the trailer. All we needed to do was get her to move down the fence line and into the paddock. As she made her way toward the trailer I swung the door open but there was still a three-foot gap between the fence post and trailer door. And yes, I filled that gap. Just like as I’m prepared to do when I finally confront a bear in the woods, I made myself as large and scary as I could and made it very clear to Betsy her only real option was to turn right and enter the paddock. There was no way she was going to get through the gap I was now filling. “Come on Betsy, you want a piece of me?”

To say I am grateful Betsy took my bluff is an understatement. In reality if Betsy had made any motion to come my way I would have been behind that steel door faster than a speeding bullet on my way to the safety of the roof of the trailer. Ken and Alyce, of course, had no way of knowing this was my ultimate end game, and I think were very impressed with my, shall I say it, what the heck, my extreme heroics. Well Alyce was. I’m sure Ken’s night vision isn’t what it used to be and I think he missed a lot of the death-defying events as they unfolded.

You want to know what’s wimpy? Flying to Spain (with it’s incumbent carbon footprint) and running like a little girl from a bunch of bulls, in broad daylight, where you can run down an alley at any moment to get out of their way. Try that in the dark where it’s just you and the bull, mano-a-mano (hoof-o I guess) eyeball to eyeball, staring each other to see who will blink first and show submission. A real man would stay up late and let Alyce unload cattle into their paddock. In the dark. Alone. (With just a loosely roughed out exit strategy in case it came to that.)

Aggie’s calf was born the next morning

7 Responses to “Running With the Bulls (or in my case, Heifers)”

  • Hilarious Tai! Thanks for sharing your memories!! ~Michelle~

  • Hi Neil! Thanks for sharing your stories! And happy (belated) Summer Solstice to you. We solar-powered people LOVE these LONG and SUNNY days! ~Michelle~

  • Tai:

    Brought back memories of growing up on a Texas cattle ranch and “working cattle”. My sister and I were chased many times by irrate moms being seperated from their calves. We would run like the devil was after us right behind my dad, it was his job to protect us- fending them off with an old feed sack!! What great times!

  • Neil B. Orleans:

    Once again, a great story Cam. It certainly brings back many memories of growing up on a dairy farm many years ago. My memories were that cattle like routine. Anything out of their daily routine is when cattle don’t act in a “normal” manner (like new cattle arriving which results in a “cow stroll”). Some cattle will not act normal if they are in heat as well.
    Yes, I have been kicked by cows and the bull once (funny story) and got a horn across my chest from a heifer that left a big red mark but no stitches. This minor events were not a big deal. We have had cows that follow you around like pets and some that would avoid you like the plague and everything in between. My brother has a cow that will take a bottle of organic beer from his hand and drink it. I heard today, that the locally Brewery in Eastern Ontario (Vankleek Hill, Ontario) who makes the beer now want to film the event.

    Texas Longhorn, Highland Cattle and Ayrshire are the 3 breeds with huge horns (I grew up with the Ayrshire Breed). Ayrshire were even used as Oxen. I believe Upper Canada Village (Morrisburg, Ontario) had a huge pair of oxen back in the 70’s and 80’s. You can see a sample picture at The ones at Upper Canada Village were bigger than this pair.

    Although I personally tend to eat like a vegetarian, I am not a vegetarian. I try to follow my own rule and avoid processed foods. In your book “Thriving During Challenging Times”, you talk about Peak oil, peak food, peak climate, etc. If all these events happen at the same time, your book mentions we could have a “hard landing” or as some people call it TEOTWAWKI (The end of the World as we know it). If this ever happens, I want to keep my eating options open and will eat meat if necessary.

    Happy belated Summer Solstice!


    A hint from living with yaks: take some used golf balls and superglue them on the ends of the horns…. worked for me. A friend had a calf that the mom tossed away so it was hand-fed, ergo: balls on it’s head!

  • StaceyG:

    Hey Bruce… he can’t really say that… he’s vegetarian! They just want to go for a little run. They’re kept penned up their entire lives, so why not let them have their little rodeo, right? As long as they find their way home again. (PS… as a vegan, I can’t say I entirely agree with your perspective, Bruce!) I’ve been wild goose (uh, cattle) chases plenty of times in the dark in wide open fields (grew up on a farm). I can certainly understand the desire to jump out of the way of those deadly horns!

  • Just remember that when they get a bit difficult to handle, you can always look them in the eye and say, “You’re going to taste so good.”

    Keeps things in perspective.

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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