Once, fossil fuels were regarded as the primary evil threatening our planet’s future. Recently, however, the humble cow has come to take its place alongside them. Methane from bovine behinds is now recognised as a major contributor to climate change.
Cows are iconic of the countryside, especially in countries, like the Netherlands, where they have an outsized economic role. The well-known black-and-white dairy breed, the Friesian, was originally Dutch and the cow has long been celebrated in Dutch culture. Last year, a new museum glorifying Gouda cheese opened in the town in South Holland from which it takes its name. It was also the four-hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Dutch painter Aelbert Cuyp, famous for his pastoral scenes with cows. Cuyp’s pictures are realistic in a double sense: the cows are convincing and the paintings also capture a period of agricultural modernisation in the Netherlands. The Dutch Golden Age was an era not only of great painting but also of economic prosperity. The Dutch imported cheap grain from the Baltic as livestock feed and used their lowland pastures to fatten cattle and produce dairy products, such as cheese, which were exported abroad. They invested their substantial profits in land drainage and waterways. Simon Schama says that Cuyp’s cow paintings are a bovine