Cattlemen become hardened to cruelty as they push terrified beast onto trucks, through crushes and finally into the abattoir. Most people sitting down to a prime steak are vaguely aware of all that, but rarely get to see behaviors like this one, hinting at intelligence that surprised and inspired.
In spring, stone fruit must be culled or all our peaches and nectarines would be tiny things with big seeds and scant flesh. It seems that each tree has just so much sugar to go around which it spreads over as many fruit as it bears. So by culling to an optimum number, the farmer can achieve optimum fruit size. But it must be done as soon as fruit is large enough to rub off the branch to not waste energy on fruit that will be culled. So when the time comes, the farmer is at it each morning as soon as he can see.
In the Dooralong Valley, spring mornings are chilled by cold air trapped in low lying paddocks. Layers of mist, soft cotton sheets floating, thin above frosty grass delineate the strata. Warmer air at the hilltops keeps the cold air down until sunshine caresses the ground, releasing mists to rise and dissipate into invisible humidity. It was through such layered mist I walked, secateurs ready for the occasional overgrown branch or water-sprout when I became aware of the drama being played out beyond the orchard fence.
Covered-wagon style, about thirty cows were in a circle, heads lowered, bellowing their distress, presenting a wall of horns ready to gore and toss any who came close. Three wild dogs circled them, running fast, tiring the cows as they constantly adjusted their line of heads to watch and deter at each pass. Fatigue weakened their frantic hoarseness as fdaster and faster the dogs ran the perimeter searching for a gap. Sensing the rising panic they challenged the line causing it to buckle. Gaps appeared that would widen to let them through and they joined up to exploit weaknesses. Once they were in, organised defence would break apart. In the confusion each cow would search for her own and three dogs would be too much for one cow as they tore at the throat of the unlucky baby. Inside were the thirty calves, all bleating, picking up on the fear, wild eyed and huddled mid-circle.
I ran home for my gun. Two minutes later I was back at the fence ready to drop at least one and frighten off the rest, but a clear target was impossible through the dust, mist and swirtling bodies. Then one looked my way and without any apparent signal, they were all on the other side of the cows and gone. I was through the fence in a moment but by the time I reached the circle’s far side it was as if they had never been. Cows were breaking away and calves rejoining their mothers to suckle and be comforted.
Within minutes all was quite, cows grazing and calves cavorting around them, a picture of sylvan perfection. Not bad for a herd of dumb animals... maybe not as dumb as we would like to believe! Pass the sauce please.