MYTH: Do cows lie down in the rain?

04 September 2018

Interview with

Tamsin Bell, The Naked Scientists

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Tamsin Bell is laying a rainy myth to rest in this week’s Mythconception…

You may have heard it said before that if you see cows lying down, it’s most likely going to rain. In fact, 61% of us believe this handy method is an accurate way to predict the weather.  It’s not entirely clear where this saying originated, but it’s used widely in the British countryside. So is there any good reason to believe that cows can predict the weather? It would certainly be impressive if cows had this unusual intuition. Unfortunately however, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to support this.

When researchers observe cow behaviour, they tend to categorise this into three patterns: lying, standing or grazing. Overall, cows seem to be sedentary beasts: they spend up to fifty percent of their time lying down, more or less regardless of environmental conditions, and show significant signs of stress if they are prevented from doing so, even for a short time. This means that at any particular time, your odds of seeing a cow lying down are pretty high – although given the British climate, farmers can be forgiven for assuming this behaviour to be a good predictor of rain!

However, even if they don’t have the ability to predict the rain, the weather does seem to affect cows’ behaviour.  For example, they seem to have a strong aversion to lying down in the mud – so much so that in experimental conditions they prefer concrete over muddy ground. This seems to result in cows being more likely to lie down whilst it is raining – presumably in order to protect their patch of dry land (Or maybe just to keep their udders warm!).  However, if they are caught standing in the rain, they are much more likely to seek out shelter than lie down. Additionally, a small amount of light rain might actually encourage cows to get up and graze before the grass gets too wet: it seems that cows graze less when there is a large amount of moisture in the grass, although it is not entirely clear why this might be.

So, it looks like cows aren’t much use as barometers. But are there any other creatures out there that might be able to predict the weather? The answer is a solid ‘maybe’. For example, birds and bees seem to be able to sense changes in barometric pressure occurring before thunderstorms. This prompts them to find shelter, so if the sky looks ominously empty, that might mean there’s a storm brewing. Studies into animal behaviour also indicate that birds change their song before it rains – although this effect may be a little subtle for the average nature lover. Should we want to look at something closer in scale to cows, there’s some evidence that elephants might be able to detect rain storms: due to their amazing low-frequency hearing, they can hear a storm coming from up to 150 miles away. Although unlike most of us, they seem to want to head towards the rain, rather than avoid it!

On balance though, it looks like we might just be better off relying on the weather forecast.

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