BEVERLEY (UNITED KINGDOM) - Morag, an imposing Highland cow with a caramel coat, ambles out of the main shed at Dumble Farm in northern England and stands ready to meet her guests.
Visitors have travelled from far and wide to the farm near Beverley in east Yorkshire, not to buy milk, yoghurt or cheese, but to enjoy a cuddle with Morag and her companions.
Fiona Wilson and her co-farmers at Dumble Farm started offering the cuddling sessions in February when it became obvious that economic difficulties of modern dairy farming had become untenable.
"Some people like to engage with dogs or cats or horses and other people find that cows are the animals they want to be with," Wilson told AFP.
"People are coming for a wellbeing point of view. That anxiety relieving-ness of being with animals is almost like a therapy."
- Horn of a dilemma -
Dumble Farm's owners looked to diversify because a sharp fall in the price of milk and high inflation was crippling their dairy farming business.
Economic hardship has forced farmers to leave the industry in their droves for decades.
According to a House of Commons Library research brief, the UK had 196,000 dairy farms in 1950. By 1995 there were just 35,700.
Lower milk prices and rising energy, fuel, feed and fertiliser costs since the outbreak of war in Ukraine 20 months ago has been a nail in the coffin for many more.
In its latest survey of major milk buyers, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, which represents farmers, estimated that there were 7,500 dairy producers in Britain in October 2023.
For Dumble Farm, flooding in six out of the past seven years was an added challenge, leaving the farm under water often for months at a time.
Wilson said she and her partners at the farm, who include her husband and brother, were working 14 hours every day of the year and losing money.
"It's impossible to live like that," she said. "There was just no future. We were just getting nowhere."
In January 2022, the farmers decided to diversify and sold off their dairy herd other than five cows that they could not bring themselves to leave.
"They were our friends really, with placid friendly natures," Wilson said.
"We thought maybe that we could try having a go at cow cuddling, just to earn a bit of extra money on top of our conservation scheme and also to engage people with what we were doing here."
The farm prepared the cows for months before inviting customers to come and cuddle them -- and the cows appeared happy to oblige.
"They are inquisitive animals. They are interested when people come down to see them," said Wilson.
- Udder bliss -
The experience, which also includes educational activities on conservation and sustainable farming, draws couples, families and cow lovers from across the country.
The pound sterling50 ($63) per person tickets sell out months in advance.
Inside the barn, dozing cows delight in having their chins scratched and their soft coats brushed by the paying visitors.
Steven Clews said he bought the experience for his wife who loves Highland cattle.
"I'm fond of all animals, especially cuddly ones, so being able to cuddle a big one is really cool," he said.
"They are so easy to brush," his wife, Emma Clews, said.
"I didn't think I would find it relaxing, but they are just so cuddly. It's very therapeutic."
When the sessions end, the visitors are herded outside the cowshed and into the sun where Morag awaits.
Morag raises her head to the sky as visitors brush and caress her soft furry chest, drawing smiles and hums of delight from her human companions.