The Pretenders’ lead singer is back on the milk run, explaining why dairy cattle should be at the centre of all our lives
Sitting on the floor of a cattleshed, at the business end of a cow, Chrissie Hynde is trying to get to grips with a set of udders. “Are there four of them?” she shouts above the Hare Krishna devotional music blaring out of a CD player in the corner. After a few moments of grappling, milk comes squirting into the pail between her feet. “Awesome!” cries the lead singer of the Pretenders. “I bet Jordan can’t do this.”
We are at Bhaktivedanta Manor, near Watford, Hertfordshire, the British headquarters of the Hare Krishna movement, where Hynde is fulfilling a long-held ambition to milk a cow and explain why she thinks that dairy cattle should be at the centre of our lives.
Hynde, well known as an outspoken animal-rights campaigner, is promoting a bovine-centric existence as outlined in a new book, Cows and the Earth, by Ranchor Prime, a Hare Krishna. The book, with a preface by Hynde, has a Hindu core, but argues that it is a blueprint for the way society as a whole — not just those who believe in reincarnation and the sacred status of cows — should exist with these animals.
The manor was bought by George Harrison in 1973 and given to the Hare Krishna movement. Today it incorporates a temple and school as well as a “cruelty free” 50ha farm. Here cows are allowed to live even when they are no longer useful. Male calves that elsewhere would be slaughtered for meat are castrated and kept on the farm to plough fields. Cows that have stopped producing milk are kept until they die of old age.
According to Prime’s book, “the law of karma says that whatever we take from others we must return”. Cows look after us by producing milk, so we should take care of them. Giving them useful work is seen as a kindness and as more sustainable than using farm machinery.
Hynde regards meat-eating as “like a drug addiction. People like the taste and will defend that, just like I enjoy smoking pot. I am buying into a bloody trade, I know that. I’m a hypocrite. But this is out-and-out slaughter.
“I would say that any form of life is sacred,” Hynde says, “but this one is particularly special because the human family can actually benefit. If we look after the cows, we can make our homes, feed our children and have food all year round; they can plough our fields.”
Hynde is not a Hare Krishna. She loves Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, but is also attracted to the Vedas, the ancient Hindu texts, and enjoys meditation. After we have talked she steps into the temple here and spends a few minutes alone.
Hynde was born in the US, but has lived mostly in Britain since she moved to London from Ohio, aged 17, and became a journalist on NME and then a singer-songwriter, forming the Pretenders and recording hits such as Brass in Pocket and Back on the Chain Gang. The band’s line-up has changed many times, but she has remained a constant. At 58, she still tours, still has the distinctive dark fringe (flecked with grey) and still wears skinny jeans, though today the kick-ass boots are Hunter wellingtons.
She grew up in the Ohio town of Akron and has always loved the outdoors. “I spent all my childhood running around the woods, and I think that really informed my consciousness. If I found a frozen animal that had been hit by a car, I would put it in a box and take it home and bury it.”
As we walk through the cattlesheds, she coos over the cows: “Oooh, you’re absolutely gorgeous, aren’t you? Look at your lickle horns. Can you imagine! What kind of person would allow one of these to be killed?”
Twenty years ago a McDonald’s restaurant in Milton Keynes was fire-bombed two days after Hynde had been critical of the chain. She hasn’t changed her tune. When I mention that there is a McDonald’s by the turn-off for the farm, she glowers: “I am not going to leave this planet until the last one is burnt to the ground. I promise.”
It is clear that while she enjoys trying to shock — “I’m not non-violent, by the way, that’s where I part company with my brothers and sisters here” — she isn’t really planning to spend the rest of her life touring the globe with a box of matches and a jumbo vat of accelerant. She is quick to bark, but swiftly backs down. She is scathing about the TV chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, referring to the latter as “that dickhead” because “he says if we kill it ourselves it’s all right”. But later she acknowledges that their work on better welfare for farm animals has been an important step and pleads: “Can I retract my hateful comments? They are doing great things.”
She doesn’t take herself too seriously. “He looks like he’s backing off already,” she says when one of the oxen edges away from her. “I’m used to that. All my men back off eventually.” (Her relationships have included marriage to Jim Kerr of Simple Minds, by whom she has a daughter, the actress Yasmin Kerr, and a long period with Ray Davies of the Kinks, who fathered her other daughter, Natalie. She describes herself now as a “lone wolf; I’m in a rock band and I tour”). A dog lover, she is preparing to adopt a Staffordshire bull terrier from an animal shelter — a misunderstood breed, she says.
I am puzzled why she supports a dairy farm given that she has said that she is a vegan. She explains that she will consume dairy products that have been produced somewhere such as this, but “won’t buy them from the meat or dairy industry”. She admits that she will eat “a piece of cheese once in a while. A little bit”.
Industrial milk production is “a crime that should be punishable by something very severe”. She claims it is distressing for the cows. Are milking machines really that bad? “Ask your wife! Would she rather have a baby or a machine on her?”
The farmers here claim that they bond with the cows in a way that those who slaughter their cattle do not, with the result being that the cows are happier and the milk is “healthier and more nutritious”.
But it is hard to see many farmers going back to the time-consuming business of hand milking. And how would it be possible to meet the country’s milk needs this way? She and Prime argue that we need to be prepared to consume less dairy food and pay three times as much for it.
As we eat delicious vegetarian Indian offerings, Hynde rails about people throwing away food. I can’t help noticing that she has left some of hers. To be fair, it was a large portion, and she repeatedly says that she is a hypocrite. In her less angry moments she concedes that we should praise people for the positive things that they do to enhance animal welfare and protect the environment, and not chastise them for what they fail to do. While she is mostly vegan, she would wear leathers to protect herself on a motorbike.
She owns a vegan restaurant in her home town, but food is clearly not a big part of her life. I ask if she has to be organised to make sure she gets enough nutrients. “I just eat beans on toast and potatoes,” she replies. “I’m not fussy.”
She has a pallor, but there is no denying her energy. She still tours regularly with her band, sleeping in a bunk on the tour bus, and there is nothing lethargic about the way she stalks around the farm and unleashes verbal salvos. “I haven’t eaten meat for 40 years and I don’t take any supplements. I stand on my head every day, I smoke cigarettes, and I’m OK. I’m still breathing.”
Cows and the Earth by Ranchor Prime is published by Fitzrovia Press
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