The Dangers of Cows: A Hiker’s Guide to Avoid Being Trampled to Death

I’ll level with you, I am terrified of cows. Whenever I am outed as someone who has a fear of cows, the first thing I get asked is ‘are cows dangerous then?’ And whilst the question is meant to make me feel like I am being taken seriously, people rarely succeed in hiding the smirk behind their words. 

Whilst it is easy to scoff at nervous hikers like me who start quietly fretting the minute they see one of these bovine creatures, cows can actually be very dangerous to humans and attacks happen more than you probably realise. 

A field of bovine beasts, Norfolk, UK.

As someone who spends a lot of time hiking, I have had more than my fair share of standoffs with cows. Having to pass through a field of cows can be very nerve-racking and when all goes wrong, downright terrifying. Whilst I would very happily never enter a cattle populated field again, this is just not practical, especially if you are somebody who enjoys the great outdoors.

During my hikes across the UK, I’ve been nudged, stalked, stared out and stampeded by cows. These experiences were not fun but they’ve taught me a thing or two about staying safe around cattle. This guide will tell you everything you need to know, from how to cross a cow field to what to do in the event of a stampede. 

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Are Cows Dangerous?

As I’ve already mentioned, there is no doubt that cows are dangerous. The average cow weighs in at 1,390 lbs so it is no surprise that when they are spooked, they can do real damage to walkers. Whilst cow encounters are not commonplace, they happen regularly and if you are someone who hikes in rural areas frequently, you will likely have a troubling cow experience at some point during your life. 

If I had a pound for every time that people have laughed at me for my fear of cows, I’d be a very rich lady. However, did you know that in the United States on average, sharks kill one person a year, whereas cows kill 20? It doesn’t seem quite so ridiculous now does it?! 

Whilst it is largely accepted by the general public that bulls are dangerous, they may pose less of a threat than their female counterparts. This is because of the inherent maternal aggression that heifers exhibit when accompanied by their calves. According to Explore the Countryside, more people have been killed by cows than bulls in the UK over recent years. 

Highland cow
Cows can be more dangerous than you think! (Just look at those horns)!

Recent Cow Attacks 

Just a few months prior to the time of writing, an 82-year-old man sadly died and his wife was seriously injured after being attacked by cows whilst walking in the Yorkshire Dales. This article states that it is unknown whether they had a dog with them. 

Around the same time, a woman from Market Harborough also reported being attacked by cattle as she walked her dogs. Even after letting go of her dogs, the herd actively pursued her. She managed to grab a stick and scare them off, allowing her enough time to escape from the field. 

In July of 2020, during my Weaver’s Way hike, I also had a run-in with cattle. Tim and I entered a cow field and began making our way down the footpath. Suddenly the seemingly docile animals turned and we were stampeded by the herd (including a bull). We hadn’t antagonised the animals in any way and did not have a dog with us. However, there were calves in the field. We got out with seconds to spare but had we have been any slower, we would have been trampled. 

What Makes Cows Attack? 

If you consult the literature online, the main factor which seems to encourage cow attack is the presence of a dog in the field. The Ramblers Association say that cows see dogs as much more of a threat than humans. If your dog is caught worrying livestock, the farmer is legally able to destroy it so you should always keep your pet on a lead in cattle fields. 

Another common risk factor is passing through a field in which there are calves present. Heifers are naturally very protective of their young and this can drive them to attack if they feel you are a threat. In my latest run-in with cows, there were calves present in the field which is what probably drove the herd to start stampeding. 

Sometimes there will be signs displayed which warn walkers about the type of livestock in the field. Whilst there was a bull warning sign at the entrance to the field where I was charged, there was no indication that were calves present. However, I have seen signage warning of ‘cows with calves’ numerous times during my UK hikes. 

One final thing that could provoke cow attacks is how the public reacts to the interest of the animals. Naturally, cows are very curious creatures and may approach walkers. This should not be seen as aggression (although it can be very frightening, especially when there are lots of cows) and you should not run as this will encourage them to chase you. It is worth noting here that when you are terrified, this is easier said than done! 

How Fast Can a Cow Run? 

Cattle can run at speeds of up to 40 km per hour, which is around 25 miles per hour. This is only a touch slower than the fastest man in the world! This means that unless you are very close to the field exit, your chances of outrunning a cow are very slim. (Unless you are Usain Bolt of course, in which case, you stand a pretty good chance.) It may also surprise you to discover that cattle can actually run faster than horses when traversing boggy landscapes. 

Cow with calf in field
Be particularly wary of walking through fields which contain cows and their calves.

Staying Safe Around Cows: 10 Tips

1. Never enter a field which has both cows and calves

Taking place during the spring and summer months, trampling season often coincides with the time of the year that you are most likely to see cows with their calves in fields. You should never enter a field where there are cows with their calves and not knowing this simple fact puts many hikers at risk every year. Cattle are far more likely to be aggressive when they perceive a threat to their young. 

2. Don’t surprise cattle

One of the things that can spook cattle into charging is being surprised. Without being threatening, make sure you have made enough noise upon your entry to the field that the animals know you are there.

3. Look for warning signs before entering the field 

Although it might not feel like it at times, there is a difference between cows approaching you quickly out of curiosity and those charging. Cows who are charging will have their heads down whereas those who are curious will run with their heads up.

Before entering a field, look for visual cues that the cattle may be agitated. Signs include pawing the ground, wrinkling the nose or tossing the head. In these cases, definitely don’t enter the field!

Cattle grazing sign
Signs should be displayed to warn of livestock, especially when cows are with calves or a bull is in the field.

4. Don’t walk through a group of cattle

If you enter a field and cows are obstructing your path, find an alternative route through the field, away from the cows. Rejoin the footpath as soon as it is safe. 

5. Keep your dog on a lead

Cattle perceive dogs as a bigger threat than humans. Keep your dog away from cows and remember that farmers are legally able to destroy dogs which worry their animals. If prosecuted, you could also receive a hefty fine. 

6. If cattle charge, let go of your dog

If cattle charge towards you or act in an otherwise threatening way, let your dog off the lead. The dog will be able to outrun the cows and this will demonstrate to the animals that you are not a threat. Only do this in threatening circumstances because there are penalties for allowing your dog to worry livestock. 

7. Move calmly and don’t run

Perhaps the most important (and hardest) thing to do in the face of an agitated herd is to be calm. Do not allow yourself to panic and run. Not only will the cattle be able to outrun you but they will also try to match your pace if you speed up. 

Whilst you can and should speed up at a measured pace if you are being charged (and the cattle are still some distance away), only ever run if you are confident you can reach the gate before the cattle reach you, usually around 20 metres away. 

8. Carry hiking poles

Much of the advice says that those carrying a stick will be more protected in the event of a cattle attack. Hikers are at a bit of an advantage here seeing as many of us already hike with poles. These can be used to intimate the cows in the event of a stampede or charge. 

Girl hiking on West Highland Way
Hiking poles could be used for defence in a serious cow attacks.

9. Shout at the cows

Cows can be dangerous and you should try to protect yourself any way necessary. It appears that many walkers have had success with shouting at the cows when they get too close. This can scare them off. Whatever you do, don’t mention the Big Mac you had last week though. 

10. Punch them on the nose

Okay, last chance saloon here. If you haven’t managed to get the cows to back off, you may be faced with no option but to get physical with them. Using your hiking poles or stick, firmly biff them on the nose. This should stop them in their tracks. Even if it doesn’t and the worst happens, at least this makes for a cool story, right? 

What Should You Do If You’ve Been Attacked by Cows? 

Once you have removed yourself from the dangerous situation, you may wonder what you should do next. Surprisingly, there is not much information online about where to report cow attacks. This seems to be because organisations and landowners do not want to perpetuate the belief that these attacks are common or that cows can be dangerous. 

If the attack is serious and there has been an injury, you should contact the police and the Health and Safety Executive. All cases of a dangerous or frightening manner should also be reported to the landowner (assuming you know who that is). 

To my knowledge, there is only one website which aims to collate data for all incidents with cows, including near misses like mine. Appropriately named Killer Cows, you can report your own cattle attack to them using this link

Under the Animals Act (1971), those who keep non-dangerous animals (which bizarrely cattle as classed as) are liable for any injury caused by them. That means if you are injured by cattle, you can sue the landowner. 

Have you had a scary experience with cows? Let me know in the comments below!

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