A familiar sight on a Welsh mountainside, where domesticated cattle have been grazing since the first settlement developed here on the Garth in the bronze age 2000BC. They were first domesticated 8,000 years earlier in Anatolia by nomadic herders.
Along with goats and sheep they are mentioned often in scripture, chiefly in the Old Testament, whose early history concerns nomadic people. Larger stronger beasts pulled carts and ploughs, drove irrigation or threshing mechanisms and carried goods. Meat was offered as a sacrifice in worship, and used as food. Cattle appear in the stories of creation (Genesis 1:25, 2:20), which speak of these animals as a divine gift to humankind to possess and make use of. This understanding is also expressed in a Psalm of praise."You make him to rule over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet, All sheep and oxen, And also the beasts of the field" (Psalm 8:6-7) Unlike Hinduism which regards cows as sacred, to cherish for its milk but not to kill and eat, slaughter and preparation either for sacrifice or consumption was permissible, subject to strict laws laid down in the Torah, in recognition of God's gifts to his people.""If the place where the LORD your God chooses to put his Name is too far away from you, you may slaughter animals from the herds and flocks the LORD has given you, as I have commanded you, and in your own towns you may eat as much of them as you want." (Deut 12:21)Suitable fat beasts were reserved for festivities, and feature as the fare in Jesus' parable of the wedding banquet.
"Then he sent some more servants and said, 'Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet'." (Matthew 22:4)
The blood of cattle was used in purification ritual associated with sacrifices in which meat was burned to ashes rather than eaten."And he shall slaughter the bullock before the Lord; and Aaron's sons, the priests, shall present the blood and sprinkle the blood round about on the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting.". (Lev 1:5)
As an important component of wealth for family or clan, there were sanctions against theft or abuse of cattle. The welfare of animals was a communal responsibility.
"Whoever steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep." (Exodus 22:1)
"Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain." (Deut 25:4)
"If you see your fellow Israelite's ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it, but be sure to take it back to its owner." (Deut 22:1)
The tending of flocks of sheep or herds of cattle was important enough the require someone to stay with them and guard them from predators or straying. The Hebrew kings were called 'shepherd of Israel', representing on earth the Lord who is shepherd of us all. The image of caring for what is most valuable is placed in the Gospel into the mouth of Jesus
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." (John 10:11)
This could equally be rendered 'I am the good cattle herder', and indeed would be expressed in these terms for an agrarian audience, familiar with cows but not with sheep. St Peter also uses the shepherd image in the same terms, in speaking of leadership in the Christian community.
"Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, watching over them--not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve." (1 Peter 5:2)
In many parts of the much urbanised modern world, we have very different ideas about what abundant wealth consists of today, much more abstract ideas. Time, energy and work are invested in buildings, possessions and privileges that are not alive in the way cattle are. We may consider ourselves wealthier in terms of what our possessions enable us to do with our lives, but fewer and fewer of us are in a position to value as profoundly what once connected us all to the created earth, through the animals that provide our food.
In this sense we are impoverished, and in its turn this impacts on the care and concern that we as an evolving species show for the natural environment. Perhaps the clock cannot be turned back, but the question remains: what can anyone do to renew a sense of connection to the life of all the plants and animals that sustains ours?