Wild life

A cow is better than a bank balance

30 June 2018

9:00 AM

30 June 2018

9:00 AM

Laikipia, Kenya

A minotaur head glowers at me through the bathroom window while I am brushing my teeth in the morning. It’s George the bull, who wants his ears scratched. After I get dressed, it’s time to select a cattle stick, known here as a finbo, from an umbrella stand stuffed with crooks, wands, withies, shillelagh-like cudgels and rods that a biblical prophet might have forgotten had he come to supper. I choose my favourite, a finbo that balances perfectly in the hand like a drum major’s malacca cane. Outside, a Jersey bullock is sprawled on the garden path, chewing the cud. I open the gate, passing under the skull of a long-horned beast, striding out among the paddocks where the weaners keen for their lost mothers, where the stirks and the mavericks are already grazing in the morning.

At the crush the cowhands are preparing mobs of stores and culls to be weighed. Hundreds of cattle are bellowing and the din is immense. Some of the men are nicknamed after their favourite bulls. Several have been up all night in the boma with the herds. Others will stay out tending the livestock in the hot sun, guarding against lions and rustlers. As we begin weighing and dosing for worms, I look at the hillsides beyond the ranch boundaries where my Samburu neighbours are letting their cattle out. Thousands of animals sprinkle white and brown across the green. We are inhabiting a bloody eclogue. Everybody here loves cattle. It is what an anthropologist once dubbed ‘udder madness’.

I was always destined for this. A long time ago my ancestors rieved the cattle of the Scots. I am told we were once butchers in Yorkshire. My father was a judge at cattle shows. My mother had a herd of South Devons. At last cattle have become an obsession for me too, while many of the interests I once pursued have faded. On a recent trip to London, I asked for a bullshot cocktail (and was disappointed). While visiting the art galleries with my daughter Eve, I became glued to Poussin’s Israelites adoring the golden calf and I lingered in front of Turner’s cow sketches.

‘A cow is better than a bank balance,’ says my neighbour Mark, one of northern Kenya’s great cattlemen. ‘Keep your money in beef.’ After 15 years of ranching, we have plenty of cattle — good stud Borans — but no money. I have come to know that accumulating cattle is one of life’s most compelling joys. A man can never have too many of them. We are very strict when it comes to selecting animals for the stud. If you see bad feet, a forward hump, narrow behind, squiff muzzle, poor mothering or slow breeding — into the commercial herd she goes. But that’s where the problem starts. I hate to sell a cow. I cling on for years, dithering, before I give in and call the butcher.

In recent days, I have had to go through the herd again and chuck out anything that fell short for the stud. Then I started preparing all less-than-perfect cattle for market. It will improve my herd no end — but I am broken-hearted. I used to adore T-bone steaks on the braai but this has hit me so hard that I have truly become a vegetarian (though I will still consume milk and cheese). There are bills to pay and, just as my friend Mark suggests, the butcher will help us settle them.

With all the rain we have had this year, the pasture has been abundant and the cattle are fat. As each animal goes on to the scale the men cheer at its weight. We have rarely seen such numbers. I jot all the weights down and stroll sadly back to the farmstead to make out the invoices for the animals that will soon be loaded for slaughter in Nairobi. I know one should not be sentimental but I have known some of them very well for years. Walking back into the house at breakfast time, I come face-to-face with the Jersey bull. He has decided to take up position on the veranda. Regarding me with a disgusted look, he urinates voluminously across the flagstones and then saunters off. I go inside, sit down at my computer, put my earplugs in to stop the sound of the calves keening for their mothers in the yard outside, and begin to write.

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