The sight of someone snuggled up to a cow is probably not something that the majority of farmers are used to seeing in their fields.
But that’s not the case for Fiona Wilson, who together with her husband Will, and brother James McCune, regularly offers visitors a chance to cuddle a cow on their farm in Beverley, East Riding of Yorkshire.
Cow cuddling is a wellness concept that has been steadily growing in popularity across farms, from the US to the UK, over the past decade or so.
It typically involves spending time up close and personal with cows, petting them, brushing them, or simply laying with them.
On Dumble Farm, the session all depends on the individual person.
“Some people come because they just want to be close up to the cows to learn about them, find out about the character,” Fiona told Agriland.
“Other people really get into the whole cuddling thing, so just lay with them, stroke them really gently and just snuggle up to them, feel the warmth of the body and the breathing.
“Some people like it almost from a wellness point of view. Other people just like that, being close with big animals and learning about that line, learning about it. Some people like a mixture of the two.”
Dumble Farm is a working farm with a beef herd and conservation projects, that runs attractions like cow cuddling, Highland cow trekking, and Highland cow and wildlife safaris alongside their day-to-day farm work.
“We’re a working farm. But we’re doing the experiences alongside that really, as diversification,” Fiona said.
It was James who had seen cow cuddling online somewhere, and Fiona said since they sat and cuddled their own cows already, they thought they’d try it out.
“It’s going really well, everyone loves it,” she said.
The cows that they use for the cuddle experience are retired dairy cows that they had when the farm was a full-time dairy operation. They are a three-way cross of Montbéliarde, Swedish Red and Holstein.
Although their Highland cows might – to some – seem more cuddly, with their fluffy hair, and often teddy-like appearance, they are harder to hug, according to Fiona.
“We hug Highlands, but we’re very aware of the big horns. People do have to be aware of the big horns,” she said.
In terms of the safety of the experience, the farm has also done a full risk assessment for its attraction offerings, and has a licence and insurance. They also limit cow cuddling groups to six people and give a safety brief to start with.
“We only have six people at once, so that one of us, either myself, my brother and my husband, just spends time with one couple the whole time, and so we can watch them really closely and say to them, ‘I think that cow is going to move, it’s going to stand up, move out the way’,” Fiona explained.
The ‘cuddle cows’ are also specifically chosen based on their temperament and have had lots of practice and training.
“We chose cows that we knew had really good temperaments right from the beginning,” Fiona said.
“We’ve known them from being little calves. We’ve bred our dairy herd from the 70s, so we know the cows and we spent a lot of time getting them used to people socialising them so they know exactly what’s happening, they know what to expect.”
They also get the cows in a relaxed state, laying down and cudding, before people meet them, and explain to visitors how to approach the animals, how to brush them, what not to do and what a cow “might not like them to do”.
“And obviously we’re with them all the time so we can answer their questions,” Fiona added.
The general cow cuddling experience at Dumble Farm, which costs £40/person and lasts 1.5-2 hours, is also only open to people over 16 years of age.
After the cuddle session, participants have a chance to meet and groom Highland cows.
“A lot of people find that very therapeutic as well. Just the whole brushing the hair thing,” Fiona said.
“Some people just stand here all day just brushing them, just learning about them, the different characters.
“The dairy cows and the Highlands are different sort of characters and so people are seeing the contrast between them as well, which is a nice thing to do, learning about the different breeds and everything.”
Fiona also stressed that the cows enjoy the experience – especially the Highlands.
“Highlands absolutely love being groomed. They just love it,” she said.
“And the cuddle cows, as they call them, our retired dairy cows, they enjoy being brushed. Some of them will actually sort of almost go to sleep and put the head on one side while people are brushing them.”
And what surprised her about the whole farm venture, was that it didn’t just attract people from urban area.
“We do actually have some other farmers coming, which surprised me. We have other farmers that have cattle or come and do cow cuddling, and farmers with different sorts of cows, or some of them like Highland cows as well, and they want to meet those, too,” she said.
“A lot of people have had horses that have big animals already and like to interact with other big animals.
“But we do have quite a lot of people that have never been close to a cow before and just want to see what it’s like,” she said.