Born this way: Born for the arena

Lets begin on a provocative note. Tongues out. I’m fully aware that what I’m blogging about (and will later write about more formally) is not to everybody’s taste. I hope this serves as an invitation to engage with the topic, rather than condemn it though.

Calf number 4106. Female. Tongue out.

Calf number 4106. Female. Already showing an advanced understanding of how to communicate with the camera.

Over the last few weeks over 30 calves have been born on the estate. I’ve alternated between taking photos and cooing over the fluffy little things as they run, play and sleep (so much sleep!). However, the foreman, working tirelessly to keep track of the new births, has been keen to make sure that when I write about the calves I emphasise that they have been brought into the world to be ‘fought’* in the arena. Though to be honest, this is never far from your mind when weaving among cows that are liable to charge the 4×4 you’re seated in at the slightest (perceived) provocation. It is very apparent that they are born this way. (Ok at this point I’m going to confess to writing this post while listening to Lady Gaga’s Born This Way. Without shame.)

A scene that conveys exactly what these animals have been bred for. The calf is showing almost ideal charging form: head down, committed and tail up. She can't quite escape her cuteness though, no matter how hard she protests being tagged.

A scene that conveys exactly what these animals have been bred for. The calf is showing almost ideal charging form: head down, committed and tail up. She can’t quite escape her cuteness though, no matter how hard she protests being tagged.

The main concerns when dealing with newborns are to sex them, tag them (on the ear) and also to identify the mother and insure that she has taken to her calf. This might seem straightforward enough, but we’re talking about fighting stock here. Not only are they difficult to manage, but they also live in an opened, lightly wooded landscape (dehesa). This landscape is known for its beauty and biodiversity, rather than for making finding, catching and tagging newborn cattle an easy task. Particularly as the cows excel at hiding their calves alone in hollows or tall vegetation while they graze.

There are various ways of going about the task. At present at Partido de Resina it is done from a 4×4, rather than from horseback. We drive into the field and go to the cows, where the already born calves can sometimes be found too. A headcount is done and we check for signs that a cow has recently given birth or is likely to give birth soon. The obvious signs of the former being ’emptiness’ and a dangling placenta. Sometimes a cow can be seen on her own, looking for a spot to give birth – with a distinctive waddle and raised back. They mostly give birth overnight though.

"If I wish really really hard, they won't see me."

“If I wish really really hard, they won’t see me. Feel the grass. Be the grass. I am the grass. Invisible.”

Once a likely new mother is spotted or suspected, then the field must be carefully searched. People like me (not driving or doing anything more useful than taking notes/photos) have the dubious privilege of being sent aloft in the morning cold to perch precariously on the windowsills of the battered Landcruiser and scan the shadows beneath the olive trees. As well as every likely dip and bush that the mother has been looking at. There’s a blue petrol can in one of the fields that I think is a calf every time I see it out of the corner of my eye. Every time.

A calf found on its own (hiding) is the easiest to tag and identify. The foreman can often jump out and do the deed without the calf even getting up. He does an excellent imitation of a baby bull/cow call, so the mother can then be called over and her number noted.

Calling Mum

Calling Mum over to claim her calf.

Things get more complicated when the calf is at foot or when the mother spots the Landcruiser nearing her calf and rushes over to protect it. There are many cow shaped dents on the vehicle. The cow can usually be driven off or separated from the calf long enough for it to be grabbed, tagged, sexed and released. It’s always touch and go though. Nobody wants to be caught in the open with the calf of a fighting cow in hand. I pity the Landcruiser’s suspension and the wild chases and retreats it has to endure. Not to mention the snorting charges of the angry mothers. Though perhaps it finds moments of solace when the calves seem to momentarily imprint on the vehicle (or the foreman within) and follows as we move off. Tragic, but comical nonetheless.

Foreman and anthropologist alike spend spare moments in the fields frantically scribbling numbers and notes down. I’ve rediscovered the joys of pencils. It’s easy to get numbers and even sex wrong when you have to break off suddenly. Scrambling back to the safety of the Landcruiser as someone shouts “The mother is coming!!”.

I suspect that most people are reading this post for the cute pictures of the little calves, so I’ll conclude with a few more.

Suspicious mother

A suspicious mother observes our approach in the morning sun. The ground is very dry for this time of year.

Gang

Once the number of calves grow, they start to form little play gangs (and sleeping gangs).

Feed

The straw feed the mothers get also serves as a comfy sleeping surface and cosy hiding place.

Checing

A mother moves to check on and also protect her offspring as we enter the field and head towards the calf.

Until next time – don’t forget the foreman’s wish to connect the almost idyllic infancy these calves have with the larger world and purpose of the bulls. It might seem a bit facile to connect the two, but they’re undoubtedly entangled, as much for the aficionado of the bulls as for the commentator concerned with ethics.

*I appreciate that ‘Fought’ is truly a rubbish way of translating lidiado, but I can’t think of any alternative apart from using the Spanish word itself (or one of many other words used to describe what goes on in the arena). ‘Fought’ just has too many clashing connotations in the anglophone world, particularly those that evoke (blood)sport or fairness (as Alexander Fiske-Harrison has pointed out on multiple occasions).

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