cowssss© Natalie Cleur

English longhorns returned to Wanstead Park last month for another stint of grazing in the area south of the Temple, until the beginning of September. Karen Humpage is one of the volunteer cow wardens

I saw the cows in Wanstead Park last year but missed the chance to help out with the cow-sitting. When I heard about the call for volunteer wardens this year, I knew I had to sign up.

Our job as wardens is to be near the cows and to inform walkers of their presence. Despite posters being displayed in the park, many people are surprised they are there at all, and we don’t want them running into them unexpectedly! Even though our longhorns are quite docile, we ask dog walkers to keep their pets on a lead and away from the cows while in the grazing area. During our two-hour watch, many people stop to chat about the cows, mostly asking questions about why they have been brought here. And some regale us with stories about the cows that used to roam freely about Epping Forest up to the mid-1990s, when they would invade people’s gardens or stop traffic; something that is quite dear to my heart, having published an art book on the subject two years ago.

Sometimes, the cows are quite active and move around the park, though during one of my sessions, they had secreted themselves in a thicket away from the main paths. They have a designated area they are allowed to roam, so there is no chance of them escaping into the nearby roads. The area is marked out on the ground by GPS, and the collars around their necks are linked to this. When they get near to the ‘invisible fence’ a warning beep sounds; the cows have been trained to turn away from the beep. If they don’t and continue forward, they get a negative stimulus from the collar, but most times they are intelligent enough to come to a halt at the beep.

Our three cows this year are Nina, Nutty and Goose. Nina is eight years old and was in the park last year. Nutty is seven and in calf – she is expecting in the autumn. Goose is the grey, grand old lady of the group at 18 years of age. They are part of a 200-strong herd owned by the City of London and they graze in other parts of Epping Forest for the rest of the year.

As a heritage breed, English longhorn are less fussy about what they eat than modern commercial breeds. These manual mowing machines perform a better job at grazing the area selectively, which is quite uneven due to the presence of anthills. They are able to eat around the ants’ nests, thereby exposing them to sunlight and the attention of insectivorous birds such as woodpeckers. They also eat tougher plant life, such as saplings and shrubs, which prevents the area from becoming too overgrown with thickets and allow a more diverse flora and fauna to establish. Their dung is home to a wide variety of beetle and fly larvae, who recycle it back into the earth. The larvae also provide food for more birds and other small creatures, so the presence of cows in the landscape is of great benefit to a thriving ecosystem.

Karen’s book Common or Garden Cows, and cow art prints, are available from karenhumpage.co.uk