Ethical livestock: The holy cows of Hertfordshire

Posted on: 21 September 2011 by Michael Wale

Michael Wale discovers an altogether kinder approach to raising cows at George Harrison's old haunt – with added Eastern mysticism and an ex-Royal Marine turned Hari Krishna as manager

Moo-ving on up, you're moo-ving on out, time to break free, nothing can stop me...How much would you be willing to pay for a litre of milk? At present the average is 40p a pint in the United Kingdom with many dairy farmers losing up to 3p for each one produced. But imagine; soon milk from protected cows, who will never be killed, will be delivered door to door for just £2.40p a litre.

The producers are the Ahimsa Milk Foundation. Based in the organic Commonwork farm, just outside of Edenbridge in Kent, the inspiration for it came from the cows being kept in luxury at the Bhaktivedanta Manor in Hertfordshire. The manor was originally owned by the late George Harrison, who gave it over to the Hare Krishna movement, which reveres the cow as a sacred animal.

There are 13 cows milked daily at the Hertfordshire manor, always by hand, to the soft background of Eastern music, with each cow being offered treats like specially grown marrows and carrots in addition to their normal diet.

Their milk is sold to the charity that runs the Manor for £3 a litre, and is also made into Panir cheese, butter and cheese.

Farm manager Stuart Coyle has been running the farm since 1992. Originally a Royal Marine, he became a member of the Hare Krishnas after his discharge and adopted the name of Syamasundara dasa. Raised as a Catholic in his native Manchester, his love for farming was inherited from his Irish grandfather.

When Stuart took over as farm manager he realised the calves were being weaned from their mothers and dehorned too quickly. He recalls: “One of the first things I wanted to do when I took over was read up the ancient Indian scriptures about cows, specifically yhe cow-calf relationship”.

He decided to use a different system, where the calf stays longer with the mother while she continues to produce milk. The calf’s mother is hand milked on three of her four teats for human consumption, and then the calf is allowed back in to feed off the remaining fourth teat.

Another big change he brought about was to end the practice of making cows have a calf every year. At the manor, cows are milked until they dry up, which is on average four years, and only then are they made pregnant again.

But what to do with the bull claves? They are brought up to become working oxen. There are 12 of them at present, being used for every job normally done by a tractor on a farm.

As Stuart observed, this measure has proven to be surprisingly popular with the locals: “The oxen also pull the hay cart, which which always draws comment when they're travelling along local roads. Even the car drivers, who normally don’t like slow moving farm vehicles, are tolerant and quite delighted when they see the oxen are pulling the cart”.

In charge of the new Ahimsa milk scheme is senior manager, Sita Rama. He sees the scheme as a great way of propagating his worldview: “I’ve had a personal agenda to make a difference to farming”, he said.

“I’m not a farmer but an environmentalist. In the last 50 years with the introduction of nitrates, and other interference with our agricultural traditional system, means much has been lost. Cows have become victims, and we have this wonderful system here at the manor.”

It was also a system that appealed to potential customers: “Many people have asked for many years whether the milk that is produced here is available. It wasn’t. I wanted to pilot something though, so we consulted the Soil association about finding the right organic farm who would work with us, and they came up with the Commonwork Organic Dairy. I have spoken with the organic milk distributors OMSCO, and we can work with them too.

There is no need to fear for the cowes when their milking days are over, either. “The cows will be retired, when the time comes, to a farm in West Wales. The males will also be looked after and hopefully trained for work with smallholdings.”

Commonwork farm manager Mike Cottrell said that no one from the Hare Krishna movement had ever tried to talk about religion with him. Neither did this happen to me during my visit to the manor. All the same, it was obvious that Stuart Coyle was a highly spiritual person, and the feeling on the farm was one of peace and serenity.

As Stuart told me, “the people who work with our cows and bulls find happiness”.

For more details, go to the Ahimsa Milk Foundation web site.

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