Recently a herd of cows appeared at my local trail. They often block the trail. I, being a city boy, don't know how to respond. I don't feel comfortable yelling at a creature which could easily break half of my bones with a single shot. This is especially true when there are little calves with their moms present. What is the right way to politely ask cows to move over?
In short: You don't have to fear cows, but a healthy dose of respect is appropriate.
Normally cow herds aren't really aggressive. Therefore, it's quite safe to just go around the herd (if it's blocking the trail), or pass the herd if it's close to the trail. Going right through the herd is unwise unless you know what you're doing.
Additional caution is advised when encountering:
- mother cows, which always want to protect their calves,
- and/or bulls, which can be somewhat aggressive.
If either of the above situations are present, keep your distance. Consider leaving extra space between you and the herd, so as not to get too close. Depending on the size of their meadow, it may be easiest to just avoid their meadow altogether, or at least stay 50 to 100 meters away.
Something that has not been mentioned so far. Be aware of the herding dog. In the area where I bike (South Italy), herds are usually left with a couple of herding dogs by the shepherd. The only bad experience I had with a herd was not with cows itself, but with a dog. Since then, I pass through if there is no dog, or I wait/turn around if there is a herding dog.
When I read your question I had a vague recollection of reading something not so long ago about this. Have a look at this article from a UK newspaper (check out also the related articles on the page):
So you are absolutely right to be cautious - people have been killed by cows.
Personally, I live in a rural area (the New Forest in southern UK - ponies, cattle, donkeys and even pigs roam pretty much freely) and have done a bit of walking myself. I've never seen what you might call aggression, but cows can get boisterous especially, for example, if they think you're bringing them food.
Bearing in mind that a cow could weigh several hundred kilos or more, if one were to bump into you, even if not particularly intentionally, you'd certainly know about it. The article is right in that when we see them at a distance we think nothing of it, but meet them close up - they are enormous and you can quite easily imagine how people get trampled and crushed.
Now, as regards what you should do, I think you probably need to play every scenario by ear, but most of the time they won't be interested in you so as long as you proceed with caution and give them as wide a berth as possible you should be fine. Don't necessarily expect them to move for you, it'll probably be you who needs to take action to avoid them, but you should be fine.
In Switzerland, "normal cows" (milking cows with no calfs and no bulls) are generally not seen as dangerous. I passed them many times from very close distance. Of course, you should not touch them or anything the like and do not squeeze between them so that they could push you to the ground and then step on your bicycle (that might injure also them, then I already do not know). See here about Swiss cows.
Still, if a cow attacks seriously enough to bring you to the hospital, you are likely to stay there for 4.5 days in average and the mortality rate is 3 %. The cow most likely will try a headbutt (36%), closely followed by the kick (35%) and then physical contact (20%) or trampling (12%) (source).
Cows with calves may attack: mama cows are very protective and may charge anything they see as a threat. Accidents do happen. The danger is, calves grow fast and may just look like "smaller cows" rather than "babies" so you may not be that quickly aware of.
Bulls are uncommon in these days but they generally may attack without obvious reason so pass over large distance with great respect.
As a bit of a farm boy. Cows are normally pretty docile, generally if you just let them know you're there and are calm, they will also be calm. Get in their eye line so they can see you approaching, and they will in most cases move out of the way on their own accord.
Of course, there are exceptions, so it is a good idea to show a healthy amount of respect and be prepared to turn tail and bolt
The best way to safely pass cows on a bicycle is to slow down, approach them carefully, and try to pass them without startling them. You can also let them know you're there by saying "Sorry cow, I'm just passing by" in a friendly tone. Also, if there are farms or landowners nearby, you can enlist their help in moving the cows safely through the area. Another thing to pay attention to is not to wear red cycling clothes, that's all. I am more afraid of running into dogs than cattle.