Grazing the long acre

By Joseph O'Brien

Recently on my way home from work I came across a lone cow eating a lush sward of grass on the margin at the side of the road. She was a Friesan cow from a local daily herd and was unconcerned and undisturbed by the numerous cars containing weary workers on their way home after a long days work in the city and the local towns, and would probably give a good evenings milk as a result of the free nutritious grass on which she was grazing that evening. No doubt the farmer would eventually fence off the gap she found to access this grass and she would in future have to content herself to whatever she could find in competition with the remainder of the herd inside the boundaries of the field. I did not see her on successive days and it is a rare sight indeed to see animals grazing along the public roads. Of course it was not always this way. In years gone by it was quite common to see some cotter, as a person in a cottage would be called, turn the cow and maybe a few calves as well out on to the side of the road where they could graze safely for the day until it was time to bring them back for the evening milking. It was not always necessary to go and fetch them home, as they generally knew that it was that time of day and would return to the cottage for milking themselves.

They never went far and usually had their own few local roads where they would graze. All the locals knew them and generally would look out for them making sure they got a drink at the local pump and informing the owner, or the member of his family who might enquire about their whereabouts, where they might be found. It was not uncommon to see a farmer who was out foddering his own stock, throw a forkful of hay across the gate to the forlorn looking animal on a hard frosty morning. Indeed in those years, before climate change and global warming happened, winter mornings could be quite hard with frost on average three or four mornings every week over the season and snow guaranteed to fall a number of times over the season. It would be a well known fact that a cotter, who didn’t have a field to graze his cow, would hardly have much hay for her so the locals would throw her a bit for which the owner would be very grateful.

In some cases the grass on the side of the road could lead to local disputes with some cotters, or indeed small farmers, policing their claimed area and chasing trespassing cows off a particular stretch of road. These disputes generally had their origin not so much with cows grazing a particular claimed stretch of roadway, but rather by the inclusion of a large number of animals. It was generally acceptable to have the cow and calf along with last year’s calf that was now a strong weanling or store animal. It was not acceptable for the grazer, be he a cotter or a small farmer, to have much more than this. Nonetheless some tried it on in any event with the purchase of a couple of animals at the local fair or the new marts that were setting up in all the local towns at the time. I don’t know if it ever came to blows but am aware of two old men who fell out and threatened to go to law about it. They had been migrated from the west up to the lush pastures of County Meath and thought it was a shame that all this good grazing on the roadsides beside their farms, should be let go to waste. The problem was that they both wanted to do the grazing at the same time resulting in all the animals mixing up together and when you wanted to take your cow home for milking, not only would your stock come, but the other mans as well. Some harsh words were spoken between these two old men and a friendship which had endured from boyhood down the west threatened to end in a County Meath court over who should be allowed graze the roadside, a practice which the court would have taken a dim view of in any event. I understand that thanks to wiser heads in the community eventually there was a reconciliation between them with peace and harmony being restored over a few pints in the local.

Apparently it was, and probably still is, an offence to graze ones animals on the side of the public road. The owners could be summoned to court and fined for allowing their animals to wander on a public thoroughfare. I am aware of one old lady who was actually prosecuted and fined for doing so. In this case the local sergeant in the barracks wasn’t too bad, as he was from a small farm himself. He understood the appaling poverty that many of these families lived in and wasn’t going to be too hard on people who were trying to improve their lot. He knew what it was like for a mother not to have some milk for her children’s breakfast. However, the guard who looked after the area was always trying to ingratiate himself with his superiors in the hope that it would earns him a promotion, so he took a different view. I believe the sergeant eventually told him to cop himself on and look for some real crime to solve like who had a dog without a licence.

One woman, recalling her days as a girl, told me that as a child it was her job after school to herd the cow and calves on the road. This was a task which she particularly loved as she could read her borrowed library book, while sitting in the most advantage position on the roadside, but at all times being able to see her animals as they munched on the lush grass which grew along it’s margins. The only thing she feared was that the local guard would come round her road and catch her in the act. However, being a wise young girl she knew the road this guard regularly went and would take her animals round some small back roads with plenty of hills climb. This would give the guard plenty of trouble pushing his bicycle up the hills and she could see him from afar, giving her good time to get her animals away. Sometimes she would put them into an adjacent vacant field from where she could easily retrieve them when the danger had passed. On other occasions she would steer them down a nearby lane. But if these escapes were not available she would just drive them on down the road pretending she was just bringing them home for the evening milking. This was allowed, provided you didn’t loiter so that the cows could have a good feed going or coming from the field which the usually resided in.

On one occasion when she was well and truly caught she started driving them home. The guard duly arrived and dismounted from the bicycle. “Hello guard” she said. “Miss” he said sternly, “are these your cattle?” “No guard they’re my mammy’s”. She replied truthfully. “Well what are you doing with them on the roadside?” he asked. I’m bringing them home to my mammy can milk the cow for the tea,” she said. “Were you permitting these animals to graze the roadside,” he asked. “O God no,” she lied, “sure you could get into terrible trouble for doing that.” The guard knew he was not going to get anywhere with her so he muttered something under his breath, mounted his bicycle and away he went.
However the same guard did on one occasion summons her mother, who was the old lady I already mentioned. He found the animals on the roadside without the young girl who was at the time at her school desk learning the three R’s that were religiously thought in those days. She was fined five shillings or about thirty cent in today’s money. This of course was a huge amount in the nineteen thirties and could be ill afforded by most ordinary people at the time. It didn’t stop the family from availing of the roadside pasture, they just became more careful.

Of course this pasture was invariably of a better quality than that which grew in the local fields as all the nutrients that fell on the roads from passing carts, and the odd tractor pulled trailer, ended up in the margins. This was an important consideration at a time before artificial manure became plentiful and relatively cheap. The animals themselves of course did their bit to maintain this fertility.
It used to be a source of considerable annoyance to the roadside grazers, when a group of Travellers, or the Tinkers as they were referred to then at that time, visited the local area. Apart from the fact that their presence, particularly their dogs, would disturb the grazing animals, they usually had a large number of horses who would, in the short time they were there, consume all the available grass for about a mile or so each side of their encampment. It was however best to avoid any unpleasantries as it would only alert the guards to the fact that animals were regularly being grazed on those roadsides.
In these days when we are all in our cars the margins of country roads are usually choked, not with lush grass, but noxious weeds and in particular with the large white flowering weed which I understand is called cow parsley. These weeds did not exist in bygone days as the grazing cows would consume them when they were young shoots and those that lived to the mature stage usually got trampled underfoot or would be used as a soft bed for the cow to take her rest. This, of course, permitted the grass to compete more vigorously than it does today. The result was that there was not the unsightly growth of weeds on the roadside that we very often have today. Isn’t it amazing that a marginal economic activity, for which the practitioners were frequently prosecuted, could have such a beneficial effect? Nowadays once a year, if at all, the council comes with a large cutting machine and cuts all in front of it without regard for the wildlife which also exits along the roadside margins. For the rest of the year the public, including visitors and tourists, have to ensure the unsightly weeds that now prosper where once cows grazed the lush roadside grass.

When I was very young, a cotter who had no land but had one cow, lived near me. It was a white cow and I believe it was of the shorthorn breed, which was popular then with cotters, small farmers and commercial milk producers alike. The more common Friesan or Holstein dairy cow of today hadn’t yet made much of an impression on the Irish countryside. This cow kept his family in milk and butter for the year. He managed to raise the cow’s calf as well and this would give him a cash bonus at the end of the year when he sold it. The money presumably went to buy such Winter-essentials as new shoes or clothes for his children. If he was lucky he would on occasion manage to take a few acres on which he would make a few cocks of hay for the Winter and then have the after-grass for the cow and calf. This was on vary rare occasions indeed as he would have to compete with all the small farmers in the area who needed the few available acres which were for letting locally on the eleven months system. Most years he would just let the cow ramble the roads and hope to buy a cartload or two of hay that he would ration out to his cow on those hard Winter mornings. Some farmers might give him some turnips or kale to supplement the unfortunate animal’s diet and of course there was the odd forkful of hay tossed across the gate to the hungry bovine. The cow would meander up and down the road all day long and as was usual would be close at hand morning and evening for milking.

On one evening in early June she wandered down past our house. It had been a very warm day and my father realised that she was probably looking for a drink and had made her way to where she knew there was a pump and where she would quench her thirst. The pump in question, if it had survived to the present day, would no doubt be taken up and placed in a museum. It was the only one of it’s kind I ever saw as it was made of one long piece of oak which was all of thirty five or forty foot long. It had been bored down it’s entire length and the pumping mechanism was then placed inside it with a large pumping handle on the side. The mechanism was similar to what you would find in the more common green cast iron pumps, which alas are also disappearing from our countryside in these more progressive times. In any event the water was duly pumped into a trough, which lay beside the pump, and the grateful cow drank her fill. Unfortunately for me I stayed out to long in the cool evening air helping my father with the cow. I ended up getting pneumonia, which nearly ended my young life. However the cow who caused it all lived to be a very old age. I would see her on my way to and from school every day and sometimes she would be at the chapel when I went to mass. Right into my late teenage years she grazed the long acre, sometimes with a few others but mostly on her own. I am not sure when she eventually went to the great roadside in the sky, but I’m sure she is up there now grazing away along with her many companion who never had their own field to graze.