We don’t usually think of cows as swimming animals. They are large, lumbering creatures with stalky legs and awkward udders. Not very streamlined! However, it might surprise you to learn that bulls can swim and they are actually pretty good at it, considering their shape.
Although it seems unlikely, bulls and cows can swim fairly well when they have to and have been known to swim for up to three miles. This behavior can be found in lots of roaming herd species, especially in Buffalo and Bison, which can cross deep rivers that criss-cross their grazing territory.
In this article, we’ll be looking at how bulls swim, why they developed this ability, and looking at some interesting examples of cows and bulls which frequently swim even today.
Can Bulls and Cows Swim?
Bulls and cows know how to swim instinctively. Although they aren’t very streamlined in the water, there have been plenty of documented cases of cows swimming several hundred feet across rivers and lakes, and even a group of cows who swam three miles over open ocean.
A bull’s biggest risk when swimming is running out of energy and drowning before they reach dry land. Thankfully, most of the time cows only swim for extremely short distances such as crossing a shallow river or pond.
You may think it’s pointless for a cow to even know how to swim since today’s cattle spend their lives on dry land grazing, however, this important skill is a throwback to when cows were wild herd animals roaming the plains of Europe and Asia.
For cows’ wild ancestors, being able to cross bodies of water was a massive evolutionary advantage. Cows who could swim could cross rivers to get to more bountiful foraging ground, and bulls who could cross rivers could get to the cows on the other side.
This type of behavior is found in today’s roaming herd species such as buffalo, whose water crossings have been well documented.
Are Bulls Good Swimmers?
Considering their size and shape, bulls are surprisingly good swimmers.
Cows and bulls swim using their four legs to propel themselves through the water in much the same way that a dog does. Their large weight helps keep them stable in the water, which is important for crossing rivers with strong currents.
In recent history, the longest recorded swim of any modern domestic cattle bull was in North Carolina in the United States, where three cattle were swept out to sea in a storm and managed to swim the 3.5 miles (6km) from Cedar Island to the Outer Banks.
Can Bulls Swim Underwater?
Bulls and cows can not swim underwater. Cows’ large fat reserves and large lungs make them buoyant in the water. Even if they could somehow submerge themselves, they would resurface immediately.
Although common cattle bulls can’t swim underwater, there is another type of bull that can: Elephant Bulls.
Elephants can swim completely submerged, using their trunks to breathe. Some scientists suggest that elephants’ long trunks evolved specifically to use as a sort of natural snorkel.
Examples of Bulls Swimming
It’s one thing to say that bulls can swim, but the proof is in the pudding. Here are three examples of famous swimming cows or bulls.
1. Lough Earn Swimming Cows
On the Crom estate in County Fermanagh in Ireland, there is a famous herd of swimming cattle.
Each year, the cows swim across the waters of Lough Earn, a small lake about 100 meters (330ft) across, to reach their summer pasture.
The Crom estate cows have become quite famous, with crowds turning up to watch the strange occasion.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, National Trust Ranger Scott Scott explains that there are always a few of the herd who have made the trip before and that they take the lead and show the novice swimmers where to go.
2. Sea Swimming Skye Cattle
On the Island of Skye off the west coast of Scotland, there is a long-held tradition of sea-faring cattle.
From a small croft in the village of Staffin, cattle from the croft of Ian MacDonald are driven across the sea to Staffin island.
According to a report in Scottish Field magazine from 2014, the swim takes around seven minutes and has become a local spectacle.
The distance from Staffin Bay to Staffin Island is 275 meters, which is just under 1,000 feet. No small feat for a herd of 1,000lb cattle.
3. Cedar Island cows Swept Out To Sea
In 2019, hurricane Dorian ripped up the eastern seaboard of the United States.
A small herd of cattle from Cedar Island in North Carolina were swept out to sea by the hurricane waves and presumed dead.
Against all odds, three of the cattle were found alive and well on the Outer Banks, a series of islands over three and a half miles (6km) away.
The distance alone is incredible, but to think that these cows swam for hours on end through the open ocean in the middle of a hurricane is mind-blowing.
To sum up, bulls can swim on the surface of bodies of water in spite of their non-streamlined shape, though it’s rare that modern cattle ever have cause to swim.
Bulls and cows have an instinctual swimming ability, which they owe to their wild ancestors, who had to swim across rivers to find new areas for foraging.
There are multiple examples of swimming bulls and cows from recent years, including a herd of cattle in Fermanagh in Ireland which makes an annual trip across over 100 meters (300 ft) of water to their summer pasture.