Grazing questions

Longhorn-Cow(1)© Tony Morrison

Cattle warden volunteer Gill James reflects on the recent return of cows to Wanstead Park, and answers some of the questions park visitors had about Quinine, Nina and Mara

When three large mammals with massive curving horns appeared in Wanstead Park in the autumn, there was shock. We did not expect to see cows here so late in the year. We had no cows at all in 2022, due to the long drought ruining the grazing. 

So, the cattle warden volunteers rushed into action. Our main aim was to tell people why the cows were there and to discourage them, and their dogs and children, from getting too close. Ten metres was the rule. Some people had never seen a live cow before. Most dogs and their owners wisely decided to keep a healthy distance. A few owners had not trained their frisky dogs to come when called, but soon learned to keep them on a lead.

We expected a few people to be angry. “Do you think you own this park?” “What about my dog’s right to roam?” “Why were there so few warning signs up?” But most people were delighted to welcome ‘our’ cows back, and many people remembered them from 2021. A surprising number were well informed already. They asked questions. “What happened to the calves they had?” “What are their names?” “Are they pregnant?” “Why are they here so late in the year?” “How long will they be staying?” “What about all these cowpats?” “Where do they go at night?” Answers: Quinine, Nina and Mara (new girl). They were delayed by the requirement for bovine TB testing as a nearby farm tested positive. None pregnant. They will stay until the grazing gives out in January or February. They stay out all night. Cowpats are very good for improving the soil and overwintering these hardy cattle encourages certain insect species. The grazing clears the habitat of encroaching scrub and biodiversity is improved. A spokesperson for the City of London Corporation explains: “The cows have an important job to do grazing the main acid grassland to remove course vegetation and young scrub, which improves the biodiversity of this special area of Epping Forest. Grazing is particularly important for Wanstead Park because to mow with machinery would destroy one of the main features of wildlife interest, the Yellow Meadow Ant hills.”

Mara, Nina and Quinine are magic in an unexpected way. Calm down, you frantic urban creatures, they say. Though not in so many words. And just a few days after that first excitement, the park went quiet. The cow-gazers still came, but now there was acceptance that this was a special space to share and enjoy. Dog walkers, strollers, cyclists, joggers, we all have to make space for each other. And smile. And look.

A heartfelt thank you to Epping Forest from the volunteer wardens for this wonderful opportunity to engage with the public, to hear so many stories about cows in people’s gardens or back home in India or Ireland or Iran, and to enjoy the park we know so well from a new perspective.

For more information about the cows in Wanstead Park, visit swvg.co.uk/wpcows