When the cows came home

In the latest FIELD blog the team reflect on an event held in Berwick at the end of year where local residents shared their memories of farming and farm animals.

As part of the FIELD project’s engagement programme we held an event in Berwick-upon-Tweed as the nights closed in: ‘When the cows came home: An afternoon of listening and conversation’ in partnership with Berwick Visual Arts.

A core aim of the FIELD project is to learn how people’s lives and livelihoods were linked to livestock in the past and how that compares with today. We are combining social science interviews and focus groups with in-depth oral history recordings to explore continuity and change over time.

We are always looking for new ways to have these conversations, so the chance to take part in the Being Human Festival 2019 was too good to miss. Led by the School of Advanced Study, University of London, in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy, the festival hosts a nation-wide programme of activities so researchers can share their work with communities across the UK.

Discoveries and Secrets’ was the theme this year, so we invited people to join us on Monday 18 November at The Maltings to share memories of livestock and cattle.

With an almost full house (numbers were capped at twenty to give everyone a chance to talk), we listened to audio extracts from recordings with farmers and vets and enjoyed tea and cake – thanks to The Maltings catering team (their millionaire’s shortbread was a treat) – before breaking into groups and becoming engrossed in conversations hosted by researchers scribbling notes on the paper tablecloths in an attempt to keep up with the non-stop flow of memories, reflections and inspirations for research.

What was it like to walk through a dockside lairage crowded with cattle just arrived from Ireland? What makes a ‘good’ cow? Do cows have memories? Can sheep make friends? What were, and are, the physical risks of working with livestock? Or of meeting them on the cliffs when you’re out for a morning stroll? What was the centre of Berwick like on cattle auction days? Who remembers when livestock were transported by train? And the impact on farmers of Beeching’s cuts to rural railways? And – an important item for the project – the many, and sometimes unremembered, ways that women have worked with livestock.

Thank you to everyone who helped make this such a lively, thought-provoking and (for us) thoroughly enjoyable afternoon of discoveries. We’re already thinking about the next one.