When push comes to shove, aren’t we all looking for a bit of peace and quiet? An escape from the hustle, bustle, and pressure of the world around us – and the one within us, too?
Following the death of his brother, Dave Mountjoy found this ‘quiet’ in the company of cows. Soon after, he opened his retreat, Being with Cows, where visitors are invited to take part in mindful activities on the farm, in the company of the cattle...
For city-dwellers and weekend-walkers alike, cows might be no more than another set piece in the British countryside backdrop. But for Dave Mountjoy, they’re a key player in his quest for ‘quiet’.
Since leaving the UK six years ago, Dave has set up a new life with his wife and two young sons in an off-the-grid house tucked away in the French Pyrenees. Here, the family share their home with 20 cows, and the visitors who travel from near and far to spend time with the herd at Dave’s unique retreat, Being with Cows.
Research shows there’s something special about cows – one study by the University of British Columbia revealed that cows have personality types, and can be sorted as a ‘pessimist’ or ‘optimist’. Another study from Northampton University found that they form incredibly strong bonds, and even have
But for Dave, the inspiration behind the retreat was personal.
‘It’s best to start at the beginning, I suppose’
Dave grew up on his mum’s farm in rural west Worcestershire.
“Of course, it gave me a grounding in feeling comfortable with animals,” Dave explains. “But it’s nothing like what’s going on now.”
After leaving school, Dave spent years travelling around the world, before returning to the UK where he qualified and worked as a primary school teacher. But his heart was in the French Pyrenees, a landscape he had fallen in love with on long visits during the school summer holidays.
In 2013, Dave took the plunge and bought a farm in Mirepoix, in south-west France. It was there that he began building his herd.
“I know it sounds corny but, in that moment, literally everything had fallen into place,” he says.
A moment of quiet
It was four years later when things took a devastating turn; Dave’s brother completed suicide.
“It was a raw event,” Dave tells us. “Although it wasn’t unexpected, there had been little tastes of it before.”
After the funeral, Dave recalls returning grief-stricken to the farm. It was then that something astonishing happened.
When Dave walked into the fields, the cows – usually independent and detached – ran down the slopes towards him. Dave believes that the cows were able to sense the immense pain he was going through. He felt an indescribable connection to the herd as – touched by their quiet, almost meditative presence – the emotion that he had been carrying entirely disappeared.
Of course, the grief returned soon after. “But when I went through that initial pain, the cows helped me to ground it, and just acknowledge and accept it – which is often the hardest thing,” Dave says.
This experience was so powerful that, soon after, Dave knew he had to share it with others. And so Being with Cows – a unique retreat where visitors take part in mindful activities in the presence of Dave’s herd of Casta and Galloway cows – was founded.
Being with the cows
The retreats run throughout the year, and offer visitors the opportunity to take part in group meditation and outdoor yoga sessions, as well as walks and nature-spotting around the farm and local landscape.
As the name suggests, the cows play a vital role in the experience. For Dave and the visitors, they act as a mirror – reflecting back emotions that we may have brewing below the surface, but that we might not always be aware of.
While Dave strives to “get away from the idea of a teacher” – instead preferring that visitors in search of mindfulness, or ‘quiet’, find their own way – there are still lessons to be learned from the cows.
“I just completely feel that these animals are existing in the meditational state that most humans who get involved in these kinds of things crave,” says Dave. “They’re just existing.
“On one of the retreats, I spent the whole five days almost without thinking. And I know it sounds a bit weird, but you just go into this deep space where you don’t need to think about anything. It’s just like the deepest relaxation.”
The Castas and the Galloways
This is an effect that Dave first noticed in his Casta cows – a local endangered breed that, despite their intimidating horns and stubborn nature, have a sensitivity that Dave believes “will crush straight through any pretence that you have of yourself”.
“Whatever mood I was in, almost like clockwork, they bounced it back to me,” he explains. “Especially if I carried a bit of anger or had any resentment. They never attacked me, but they would back away or shake their heads at me.”
At the other end of the scale, Dave’s second breed – the Galloways – embody an open, sturdy serenity; a state that inspires visitors, rather than confronts them. Famed for their thick, glossy coats, robust stature, and sweet, teddy-bear faces, he explains that guests often find themselves physically drawn to the Galloways, who he explains as being “earthy and welcoming” in nature.
“The Galloways are quite round and soft, and really grounded in the earth. It’s almost like anything you could throw at them, they could take it in their stride.”
With their sensitive natures and stoic dispositions, these two breeds of cows – distinct both in their appearance and temperament – are the cornerstones on which Dave’s retreat is built.
“It’s a bit of a cold way to say it, but the cows are beautiful tools,” he explains. “You can feel it, just being in their company, whether you’re into cows or not.”
‘Quiet, that’s really what we’re involved in here.’
“So, that was where the idea for the retreat came,” Dave finishes. “Because I was working on myself for so long, I realised that these cows could really teach people things, and show them the way.”
For Dave, the retreat is more valuable than a quirky holiday destination, and more complex than a sort of serene Eden. It’s a way of life; it’s a living, breathing journey. And in our busy, noisy modern lives, a quest for quiet seems as honourable and necessary as any other.
So next time you’re passing a field of cattle, seize the moment to take them in. Because these unsuspecting creatures may just hold the key to unlocking a whole new perspective.
To find out more about Being with Cows Retreats, head to beingwithcows.com