Thursday, 30 January 2014

My Uruguay....Bifis....

Fact: eighty per cent are grass fed and they vaccinate for Foot and Mouth disease.

New Zealand might have that oft-quoted animal to population statistic, but on a carcase weight ratio, the Uruguayan cow wins easily. Three million caves born, two point eight million killed. Fact is, there's an awful lot of offal in Uruguay.

"Anybody for tripe and onions in white sauce?"

These cows can't blow their own trumpets, restricted as they are to a burp of methane. Yet their migrationary history is worth telling. Like rabbits in Australia, possums in New Zealand, those 'introduced improvements' are mere euphemisms for aristocratic sports hunting. A herd of one hundred cows, and presumably some bulls were landed on the banks of the Rio Uruguay, by the then governor of Paraguay in 1611. They went feral, went wild, went forth and multiplied. Which leads to the speculation: who or what was the loser in this equation?

A century later, the small indigenous human population had been eradicated and the cow was being hunted by the gaucho for her skin. The valueless carcase left to rot. The Anglo-Argentine author; W H Hudson, writing about his youth in the 1860s, tells the tale of his elopement to Uruguay, and his necessary quest for employment. He is robbed of his pony and tackle and has to cross the open Pampa on foot. On encountering a bull, he feigns death, is hoofed and prodded, knowing that to show any semblance of being a living horseless human, would result in a fatal goring. Bos taurus would have perceived the man-horse as a single entity, in much the way as the indigenous locals understood the anhialitic conquistadores. Brutal beasts, that even today, haven't long been introduced to historical domesticity.

With all this Wikihistory and collation of statistic, you might have assumed that we would be slaloming flop, fording slurry. Yet the truth is, these herds when you do eventually spot them, are mustered sun-sheltering in the deep shade of gum trees. Or the more incongruous sight of Herefords grazing through palm trees. These pastures are not the bucolics of English imagination, nor the monoculture of intensive rye grasses of popular reality, force fed on prills of Nitram34. At first glance and with a euro-agro prejudiced eye they appear as rank rough scrub. Look closer and there's the slow die back of winter fodder grasses, the new summer herbage breaking through. Wet corners still grow threshes, teasels and thistles, still harbouring a diversity of herb, fauna and mosquitoes. This is a naturally evolved permanent pasture that is still peppered and speckled with wild flowers. This is natural grassland. Only one that's under threat of the plough and the soya bean.

When we do come on a grazing herd closer to the road, they're skittish, easily spooked, flinging their tails to the wind and taking to their heels. Quickly finding cover and camouflage. It's easier to spot their caracatures adorning roadside hoardings, pop bottles and as corralled statues in art galleries and on highway roundabouts. Easier to find their slaughtered produce with a final statistic. Over three quarters of all Uruguayan beef doesn't come in styrofoam tray, but out of a real butcher's shop.