Studies of a Cow

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For the next few months, the farm is fostering Seymour the cow on behalf of the Ahimsa Milk Foundation – a not-for-profit dairy company that  produces slaughter-free organic milk. Inspired by the Hare Krishna-run Bhaktivedanta Manor, Ahimsa is researching innovative and sustainable farming methods using oxen, including a pension scheme and hospice for non-productive cows and bulls. For a little insight into the farming at Bhaktivedanta Manor, watch Donna Lipowitz’s short documentary film Gokula – A Place of Earth for Cows (2011).

It is a daunting business getting in close proximity to a juvenile bull who is still adjusting to new people and surroundings. I sat with Seymour in his cow shelter, stroking his nose and photographing different parts of his body. He was restless with the heat and flies incessantly buzzing round his face. Last Tuesday I recorded him mooing. As I stood by the gate, he licked my knee, his tongue large and rough.

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The process of taking the photographs reminded me of the beautifully stark, fragmented self-portraits of John Coplans that I first saw at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh when I was 17. I remember how exciting I found them – the forensic examination of his ageing, hairy, male body, its otherness glorified in large black and white prints covering the walls. I still have a certain fondness for those images, and the exhibition catalogue sits on the shelf above my desk.

 Picture 1Then there is Helen Sear’s photo series Grounded (2000), where the furry backs of animals become vast  landscapes against the backdrop of her skies. I remember her showing them to us in an artist lecture on the first year of my photography degree when I was 19. I remember the pearl necklace she was wearing.

I remember the summer in France when cows were calfing in the forest surrounding our house. There was a particularly inquisitive ginger one, whose attempts at affection were hindered by her large horns. I remember how it felt to be living a wild life amongst boar, bear, vultures, vipers, deer and dormice. That feeling came back to me as I stood surrounded by large scale pencil drawings and oil paintings of animals in Clara Drummond‘s recent exhibition at Flowers Gallery on Cork Street. A strong longing to be immersed in nature.

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1. Samantha Sweeting, Lying with Cows, 2006
2. Clara Drummond, Running Hare, 2013

Three bags full

I realised today that I hadn’t yet posted any sheep sounds. So I wandered over to their paddock, where Teggan was busy scratching her belly on a hay bale, and the other ewes were hanging out in their light summer coats, having been sheared at the annual Sheep & Wool Fayre earlier this month.

Katriona the Castlemilk Moorit.
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Gracie the Southdown x Suffolk sheep, who celebrated her 1st birthday in May and was recently seen walking across London Bridge with Stephen Fry.

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Recording no. 1 is less an example of sheep sounds – they didn’t utter a single bleat while I was there – but more an excerpt of the various ambient noises that the farm sheep hear: ice-cream van, children in the play ground, trains, a power drill, and so on. It begins with Gracie peeing, then there’s an exciting moment 1 minute in, when a bee buzzes around her legs. 

Recording no. 2 was made in the sheep’s night enclosure, as they were waiting to be fed. The loudest bleats are from the Castlemilk Moorits. 

Every sheep has its own distinctive bleat, which they use for communication between mother and lamb or with other flock members. They also bleat to signal distress or impatience when waiting for food, as in my recording. Sheep are very sociable animals and need to remain within site of one another. Apparently, their flocking instinct is so ingrained that in 2006, over 400 sheep died after following each other over the edge of a cliff in eastern Turkey. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/4665511.stm

Which draws obvious reference to the lemmings suicide myth, created by contrived documentary footage in the Walt Disney nature film White Wilderness (1958):

Clicker Training

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Today, Connor the animal behaviourist was at the farm doing clicker training with Derek the Donkey. Derek is a young donkey and was particularly skittish when he moved to Spitalfields. Connor has been working with him over the last year, using the technique to help Derek assimilate to his new surroundings, while also providing mental stimulation and exercise. Most commonly used with dogs and horses, clicker training shapes animal behaviour through positive reinforcement. As the animal performs the desired action, the clicker is pressed and the animal is given a reward, such as food. Soon the animal equates the sound of the click with the treat, and is encouraged to carry out the new behaviour.

SamanthaSweeting_Derek_clickertraining_3SamanthaSweeting_Derek_clickertraining_2To further aid Derek’s desensitisation to unfamiliar sounds and objects, various colourful items have been placed around his paddock and stable – including an easel because Derek likes to paint. (More posts about this soon, I hope).

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Via these interactions, Derek has formed a close bond with Connor, and brays every time he arrives or leaves. I recorded one of his calls today, then, out of curiosity, played it back to him on a speaker. Derek became quickly excited, possibly distressed, before letting out the loudest, most animated ee-aw I’ve ever heard. Unfortunately, I did not record this one and didn’t have the heart to repeat the experiment.

The noise of the clicker reminds me of the sound I intuitively mouthed when making my performance video She Wants It, She Wants It Not with Gina the Donkey in the Pyrenees some years ago. Gina was the guardian for a flock of sheep, and used to bray each time I called her name. She epitomised donkey strength and pathos. I was very fond of her and, in an expression of empathy, I made a mask for myself in her image.

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For live demonstrations of clicker training, equine hoof care and donkey rides, come down to the Spitalfields City Farm on Donkey Day, Wednesday 8 May, 12-3pm.