Health & Safety

Bad Daisy! Risks Associated with Cattle

I was sitting in a neighbour’s kitchen recently with a group of folks who were talking about beating the bounds. This is an old tradition that goes back to medieval times where people walk around a parish boundary.

The organiser was narrating the route and talking about possible hazards along the way and what he wanted done about them. When he got to one particular section he mentioned that he was worried about cows being in the field. He did not want dogs in with the cattle so proposed that the walkers with dogs should take an alternative route (which does not follow the boundary) to avoid agitating the cattle.

This reminded me of a few incidents with cattle that I have had over the years. I do a lot of hill walking – principally Dartmoor National Park now, but previously in the Lake District and Peak District. This has sometimes meant walking across open moorland, or across fields, with cattle. There have been a few occasions when cows have followed us. On a couple of occasions I have had cattle stamp and buck at me. I have to say this is a fairly unnerving experience. I am not a farmer and have not spent much time around cattle. It’s only when you are close to a cow that you realise just how big they are, just how heavy they must be and just how much muscle they carry.

Having a Highland Cow (they are the ones with the motorbike horns) toss its head and stamp the ground at you does make you think.

I had never found myself in a field with a bull though. Until, that is, last year. When I had the joy of sharing the path with bulls on three separate occasions all in the space of a month. In all three instances the bull showed absolutely no interest in us at all. Bulls really make you think.

I remember the anecdote told to me by a student who had a smallholding. A neighbour of his had been knocked to the ground by his own cattle that he saw and fed every day. He was trampled, had his arm broken and only escaped further injury by rolling under his Landrover. And the other anecdote about the farmer who was found dead in his field, trampled by his herd. With no plausible explanation as to why, other than the fact that on the day in question he wasn’t wearing the hat that he always wore.

So I thought I might do a bit of digging to see what I could turn up on injuries caused by cattle. To that end I had a trawl on the HSE website and found a couple of relevant reports (here) and publicly accessible fatalities RIDDOR data (here). Since cattle are virtually always kept by working farmers (rather than a domestic householder as a pet) any fatalities that they cause would be a matter for the HSE and would be reported as work-related. This is what I have found:

  • Over the last 18 years (from April 2000 to current date) there have been 85 cattle related fatalities in GB. Most of these (78%) have involved farm workers.
  • Over 90% of the people killed (77 of the 85) were 50 or over. Some in their 80s.
  • The number of fatalities fluctuates randomly each year, but there are some years where cattle are the second most significant cause of death on farms after vehicle accidents! And this is in an industry with a higher fatality rate than any other, even construction.
  • 19 of the 85 fatalities were to members of the public (23%).
    • For the fatalities involving members of the public many involved lone walkers and/or dogs.

To analyse that a bit:

  • On average, there are 4.7 fatal accidents caused by cattle each year;
  • On average, 1.1 fatal accident to members of the public each year.

There were no fatal accidents involving pigs or sheep in the same timescale. There were five where “animal” was noted as the cause, but no details. Further research showed that at least 2 of these 5 were dog-bite related.

I could only find two horse-related fatalities in the same time period (18 years). Again, I was only looking at work-related stuff – both of these were associated with horse breeding/racing.

Clearly this is not an accurate picture of the horse-related fatalities, but many horse-related fatalities will not be work-related; they will happen to people riding for pleasure or looking after their own animals in their own stables on their own land. Or they will happen on the road and so will be reported to the police and disappear into the road traffic statistics never to see the light of day again. If you want a better picture of what’s happening with horses then look here and here.

This led me to wonder about non-fatal accidents caused by cattle. This is much more difficult to discover easily without access to primary data. But what I was able to find was, an HSE commissioned research project that looked at RIDDOR reportable accidents in the agriculture and food sector for 1996-2003 (here). That yielded the accident ratios for fatal: major: over-3-day injury accidents involving cattle. Note the dates of the study – old RIDDOR reporting criteria not the current ones. That ratio is 1 F : 11.6 M : 10.0 O-3-D.

So, if we use this rough and ready ratio we can estimate that there were (85 X 11.6 =) 986 major injury accidents and (85 X 10.0 =) 850 over-3-day injury accidents in the time period April 2000 to March 2018.

If we take into account the HSE’s own estimate for the under-reporting of non-fatal accidents (they estimate that there are in fact twice as many non-fatal RIDDOR reportable accidents each year than are actually reported – see footnote here) we get the following:

For the 18 years from April 2000 to March 2018 there were 85 fatal accidents caused by cattle and a roughly estimated 1970 major-injury accidents and 1700 over-3-day injury accidents. Just less than a quarter of these will have happened to members of the public.

Which might give you pause for thought.

Because it begs the question – what other animal in the UK is responsible for human deaths. Can it be that Daisy is the silent killer in our midst?

As I mentioned above, sheep and pigs don’t seem to cause any fatal injury accidents to humans. Horses do, but many of the people fatally injured by horses are riding at the time and it seems unfair to compare walking across a field with cattle to riding a horse. People are also killed when grooming, mucking out, etc. As for the number of members of the public killed by horses – that is difficult to discover.

The other notable large animal is deer. Wild deer are notoriously shy of people in most instances. People occasionally come into close contact with deer in deer parks. Rutting stags will attack anything that moves. Dog or no dog. But I can’t find any accounts of fatal encounters in this country. But deer are struck routinely by cars on roads. These collision are responsible for a few human fatalities (see here). But the numbers are low and we have to consider that the injury causation mechanism is the speed of the car and collision with the deer or other solid objects. Rather than the deer attacking, trampling or goring a person.

As for venomous critters, the only venomous snake in GB is the adder and the last recorded death was in 1975 read here.

And, as for bees and wasps, they seem to account for between zero and three fatal injuries per year. This is because of the allergic reaction that people can experience to the toxin read here.

So, it may be the case, that Daisy is the most dangerous animal that you will encounter when wandering the great outdoors.

But, as you ponder these issues of risk, please keep a sense of proportion. And remember that road accidents kill more people each year in this country than all of the cattle, horses, deer, dogs, bees and adders put together. And then some. Over 1,700 people were killed in road accidents in 2016 (look here).

And the real killers are circulatory disease, respiratory disease and cancer (look here). Which are best fended off for as long as possible by adopting a healthy lifestyle! Eat well, get plenty of fresh air and exercise. Get up, get out and go for a nice bracing walk in the countryside….Which I think takes us back to where we started.

Mind you, if Daisy ever learns to drive a car then we really are in trouble!

…and finally Ronny.

If you are wondering why I started this line of enquiry in the first place the answer is two-fold. Firstly, I’m just naturally curious and if you give me the opportunity to follow Alice down a philosophical rabbit hole than I will happily do so. Secondly, and more importantly, it’s an interesting question from an occupational health and safety perspective. To manage risk you first have to recognise risk and you have to be able to quantify that risk in a meaningful way. Otherwise you can end up chasing speculative risk that is never likely to materialise. Looking at past events and good reliable data sources is one of the best ways of understanding and quantifying risk.

The question, “Which is more dangerous; a horse or a cow?” is, at one level, a stupid question that will attract a trite answer. But when you start digging, when you try to find reliable data to properly address that question, when you start thinking about how you can meaningfully compare one set of data to another, then you realise that it’s not a stupid question at all and answering it might be rather difficult. Neigh impossible (sic).


After writing this blog I discovered three additional items of direct relevance. One (here) is an article written by a couple of Liverpool University academics on the same topic. One is an article published on the British Mountaineering Council website (here) which has some interesting personal stories attached to it in the “Comments” section. The third is a website (here) set up and run by people who have had the misfortune to find themselves on the wrong end of a Daisy rampage.

Dr Jim Phelpstead BSc, PhD, CMIOSH

RRC Consultant Tutor