The Curious Case of the Opitsaht Cows of Vancouver Island
To be fair, the cows themselves don’t rouse all that much curiosity.
I am, after all, talking regular mooing livestock commonly found roaming in herds across green fields or dusty plains.
It’s where you find this particular little group of cattle, and what brought them there, that adds the hefty pinch of intrigue.
If you ever find yourself heading off in a Zodiac or Cabin boat on a whale-watching excursion from the laid-back little haven of Tofino on Vancouver Island, make sure that you cast eyes across the water towards a white sandy beach at Meare’s Island, Clayoquot Sound.
Bovines ‘n’ Beaches
You may first notice a small number of brightly coloured wooden chalets lining up across the beachfront. Got them? Good. Now look a little closer, between the buildings and the seas. Look for some movement. See those large brown/white patches shifting along the waterfront? Those are the cows. Yes, bovines on beaches. What’s this all about then?
This beach marks the coastal frontier of the Opitsaht Reserve, one of several communities of Tla-o-qui-aht people of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation. With just sixty homes and around 174 people (at last census in 2006) this tiny hamlet is the oldest continuously occupied village in British Columbia.
Since the late 18th century foreign explorers began to take advantage of the area’s natural wealth and valuable resources, and over the decades exploitation and colonization increased.
Still, despite enforced limitations on the use of their land, the Opitsaht maintained their customs and way of life.
A life defined in part by its reliance on the sea for sustenance and a livelihood.
Presents With A Purpose
So when missionaries arrived at the turn of the last century bearing generous ‘gifts’ of several cows in an attempt to make good, solid farmers of the indigenous folk, you can imagine how mystified and unimpressed they must have been.
If your ancestors have flourished for over 5,000 years on a plentiful diet of salmon, crustaceans and molluscs all on your doorstep, why would you re-evaluate your culture to satisfy a bunch of unwanted visitors?
Needless to say, roast beef did not become a staple meal in this corner of the world.
Consequently, the cows were left alone, and decades later their descendants form one of the oddest legacies of the early days of foreign invasion.
The Opitsaht understandably chose not to change their way of life, but what about the cows themselves? They had very little choice in the matter.
Happily, these relocated bovines found a way to adjust to an oceanside existence. No need to mow the village lawns here every weekend, the Opitsaht cows graze the community turfs to a grade 1 crop.
But these traditional greens are only part of their diet. The chances are that when you see them, they’ll be grazing nonchalantly on the beach, feasting on sea lettuce and eel grass (also known as tape grass), an aquatic plant with ribbon-like leaves which grows abundantly in the intertidal zones of this region (see images below).
It’s a unique example of survival through adaptation to a new habitat.
New Predator, New Prey
Diet aside, the herd has had other challenges over the years. Numbers dropped dangerously low in 2008 when wolves hunted down one of the 2 males. Opitsaht residents, despite not officially holding any responsibility for the herd, tried to seek advice on what to do. None of the cattle experts consulted had much idea of how to deal with this intriguing yet unprecedented situation.
The good news is that the following May two calves, one of them male, were born, thus restoring the balance somewhat. Today, as our guide summarises their unique history en route to our whale-watching location, I’m not sure what their numbers are, but they look carefree and nonchalant enough as they graze away (is ‘graze’ even the right term in a beach context?!).
Thankfully wolves and cougars rarely prey on the herd. The main nuisances are the resident dogs who frequently hassle them and nip at their haunches. When that gets too much, these docile, out-of-place creatures do what all cows do very well indeed….
They wander off somewhere else for a while.
Disclosure: Our whale-watching excursions with Remote Passages Marine Excursions were arranged for me and Kathryn (from Travel With Kat) courtesy of Destination Canada, as part of Travelator Media’s Explore Canada RV Road Trip. Thanks to our guides Tim and Randy for their expert knowledge and guidance.