At Abi Reader’s dairy farm in South Wales, vegan fashion blogger Sarah King can’t hide her distress.
She’s watching Abi milking her herd of cows, their milk being pumped into tubes by a machine.
Sarah, 26, is a lifelong vegetarian who became vegan after watching a documentary on Netflix called Cowspiracy.
She believes it is wrong for humans to use animals for their own purposes, and would like to see dairy farms turned into animal sanctuaries.
Sarah, from Bristol, says: “Cows can be your food, or can be your friend you can cohabit with.”
Abi is a third-generation farmer from the Vale of Glamorgan who says dairy farming “runs through my veins”.
Some of her herd are descended from the original 16 cows her grandfather bought in the 1940s, and dairy farming goes back in her family even further.
She says: “It’s my job, my livelihood and my community. But I’ve been called a kidnapper, a murderer and rapist, for looking after a dairy herd.”
Today we have asked Abi and Sarah – two women divided by their views on animals – to meet on Abi’s farm as part of the Daily Mirror’s Britain Talks series.
Abi says: “I’ve a lot of admiration for Sarah for coming on to the farm.”
The next day, Abi will visit vegan shops and cafes in Sarah’s home city.
As she rarely has a chance to leave the farm, this will be a challenge for her too. “I couldn’t think of anything worse than a city break,” she says. An hour away, Bristol is “another world”.
Abi gets up to milk her herd of 200 Holstein Friesians and Dairy Shorthorns every day at 4.30am, seven days a week.
In Bristol, Sarah is usually up at 6am, blogging about vegan fashion before she goes to work at a training company.
She says: “I’m vegan because I don’t think it’s ethically right to cause an animal pain, or use it for my own personal gain when I don’t have to.
“We’ve moved on from a time when we needed animals to survive. The dairy, honey and egg industry industries do hurt animals, even if they have the highest welfare standards.”
Abi didn’t always want to be a farmer. But she describes arriving at agricultural college in Cirencester as like coming home.
“It was my Harry Potter moment when he discovered spells and potions,” she says. “Except I was doing livestock and grass management, and farm accounts.
“I lived and breathed it – I was top student three years in a row and got my Bachelor of Science in agriculture. Then I stayed on and did a postgrad degree in farm business management.”
Abi went home to work on the farm. Then, when her dad was diagnosed with heart problems, she took over running the family business.
“Sometimes when the rain is lashing down, I don’t want to get out of bed in the morning,” she says. “But the cows make you. I need them, I enjoy being around them.”
The birdsong and early morning sun make it all worthwhile, she says, adding: “I’m producing a product the public want, and to the highest standards that we know of today.”
Their daily lives could not be more different, but from the moment the two women meet, it’s clear they share a love of animals.
“I love my cows like they are part of my family,” Abi says.
“All cows have personalities – you work with them long enough and you get to know them really well.”
She clearly loves both her working collie dog Gwen, who lives outside, and her Staffie house dog Harold, who is scared of the wind.
Some of the retired milkers are kept on as pets, but “it would cost too much to keep them all”. The oldest is Margery, once the farm’s highest-yielding cow.
Abi introduces Sarah to Daisy, a retired show cow. “A cow supermodel,” she says.
Abi adds: “Our cows are happy, but apart from a few pets they’re commercial animals. When they’ve finished, they go to a slaughterhouse. Dairy cows are not a prime cut so they’ll usually become mince or dog food.”
Sarah, whose parents brought her up vegetarian as they believe cutting meat consumption will help solve world hunger, says she doesn’t believe in the word meat.
“It’s just flesh,” she says. “If you asked someone if they wanted some flesh, people would recoil at that.”
Abi does not watch Netflix, or even Countryfile. Her entertainment highlight is a podcast called Rock & Roll Farming. But her hours are too unforgiving for much else.
She says: “I don’t ride, shoot or fox hunt. All I do is farm.”
Sarah is “very anti fox hunting”, but Abi says her family allow hunts to cross their land. “The hunts are very important as they collect dead animals for us, and feed what they can to the hounds.”
She looks across the stunning Welsh countryside and says: “If we weren’t farming here you have to think what the countryside would look like. The way we farm creates this green countryside.”
In Bristol the next day, Sarah takes Abi to a vegan fashion shop. “It’s not about ugly hemp festival clothing, you can still enjoy fashion and make-up,” she says.
“Vegan fashion is clothing that doesn’t include the product of an animal –fur, leather, wool, silk, feathers. Alongside the plastic leathers there are more plant-based materials – like pineapple, apple or orange waste from food production.”
Abi says not shearing sheep would be a “serious welfare problem”. She asks Sarah which is more biodegradable – vegan plastic shoes or a woolly jumper?
At Sarah’s flat the fridge has been clear of milk and eggs since she and boyfriend Jordan watched Cowspiracy four years ago. She makes Abi a cuppa with oatmilk and Abi admits it “tastes like tea”.
She says: “I wouldn’t try to convince a militant vegan that what we do is right. That’d be like trying to tell someone who believes in God that He doesn’t exist. But I would say, don’t believe everything you read online because a lot of it is lies.
“One bad driver doesn’t make five million drivers bad. My cows will only give me milk if they’re fit and healthy.”
Sarah says visiting the farm has confirmed her vegan views.
But she says: “I need to think more about how things work in the UK and other places.
“There are differences, and it’s important for vegans to see things for themselves.”
Do they have more in common than that which divides them? “What we both have in common is that we love animals,” Abi says, as Sarah nods, and they both drink their oatmilk tea.
“We both think about them a lot.”
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