The story of Poland’s wild-living cows who were sentenced to slaughter

At the beginning of the month, some of you may have noticed news reports in the English speaking media reporting that some 185 cows are living wild in Poland after being abandoned by their carers. The reports said that after ‘years of neglect’, the cows are due to be slaughtered following a court order.

This story ain’t that simple.

According to Polish weekly Polityka, The semi-wild heard of cows is indeed living in western Poland in Deszczno county: some 100 miles from Berlin. Originally much smaller in numbers, they have been roaming freely for a decade, and quickly became a part of a local landscape. The nearby nature reserve praising them for grazing at its lands, and while doing so, promoting plant diversity: an excellent service to the birds in the area.

The cows seem to be healthy, clean and well fed, with some farmers commenting that they actually look better than their own livestock. The animals officially belong to twin brothers living locally. Both are in their late 50’s and with decades of experience in cow herding. They own 2 ha of land and in the past applied to the local government for a leasehold in order to provide the animals with appropriate space. This was refused, so they let the cows roam freely.

However, contrary to the reports, they are actually looking after their cows. As confirmed by the locals, the brothers visit the herd frequently, and in Winter provide it with extra food supplies and make sure to break ice on the local river whenever needed, so the animals have access to drinking water. Occasionally, they were seen milking the cows. The brothers insist that the animals are in good shape because, you know, they are free.

The cows, however, are also troublemakers. In April, the herd descended on the local village, trapping the locals in their homes and forcing the cops  to deal with the cow invasion. This wasn’t the first incident when the cops intervened against the cows: in the ten years, they had to do this 20 times. In 2010, the same herd had to be rescued by Polish army and fire brigade, after, then much smaller, herd got themselves entrapped on a small island on the Warta River during a flood. That rescue mission, while sounding silly, was actually quite a big deal, with bulls trying to protect the females and calves and soldiers together with fire people having to fight them off. It also costed a small fortune.

Following the most recent incident, the local council has decided to enclose the cows, and, on Mayday, they all ended up in a cow prison: a fenced-off area where they are unable to graze and need to have food and water provided by humans. There, the animals are waiting to be killed. This also cost the local government a small fortune.

In October 2018, the local veterinary service decided that the herd must die and their corpses destroyed. In November, that decision was approved by a court, and later by Poland’s Agriculture Minister. The reason: the cows are not registered and don’t have appropriate medial checks. The fact that the cows appear to be healthy, well-fed, happy, and provide a valuable service to local wildlife didn’t matter and no alternative to slaughter was considered.

The brothers can not believe that healthy animals can be treated like this, and they don’t want to give up the ownership of the herd. The locals, despite of some past trouble with the herd, are also outraged and insist that instead of killing them, they should be medically examined, and if healthy, they can be adopted. The local council received dozens of phone calls  from people wanting to take care of the cows. What’s more, after two animal welfare charities announced that they are looking for people wanting to take care of the animals, within a couple of days they have managed to find 510 people willing to adopt them, and agree that they will look after them until natural death, prevent them from breeding, and won’t eat them. Simultaneously,  an online petition to save the cows’ lives so far gathered almost 18 thousand signatures.

But the Agriculture Minister’s decision seems final. One of the reasons could be protection of Polish meat industry. Recently, Poland’s beef industry- 7th biggest in the EU-experienced a series of scandals, largely involving health and safety concerns: with sick animals slaughtered and their meat put on sale across the Europe, and the European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety sending inspectors to the country in January 2019. The local officials concluded that having a herd of free-range cows can result in EU embargo on beef from the area: regardless of how healthy the animals in question appear to be. It is simply cheaper to kill and dispose of them rather than seek alternatives.

And so, the happy cows must die.

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Polish Ministry of Agriculture can be contacted here, and the Chief Veterinary Inspectorate here.

Photo credit: Jacek Halicki, CC BY-SA 4.0