QUITE a bit of my childhood was spent with cows. Growing up on a Northumbrian farm, as a youngster I would often sit in the fields and wait until a crowd of them would gather round, their big curious heads stooping down to check me out, soft-nosed and breathy. When I was a toddler, according to my parents, I would run across the fields after the herd, a tiny person unbothered by their size.

What I’m saying here is that I know cows and like them a lot, and when, last year, The Secret Life Of Cows, the memoir of Cotswolds farmer Rosamund Young, went hurtling up the bestseller list, I took a look at it and found I could relate to some of the encounters she described. Cows, she was basically saying, like humans, have their own personalities. But what struck me, as probably did most people, was that the success of the book seemed so unlikely. Who’d have thought that in todays age of celebrity culture and tech obsession, a book that lovingly describes the characters of a few cows, would have such appeal?

Except, of course, The Secret Life Of Cows, is actually part of something wider, a zeitgeist moment that ties cows into how we feel about the way our food is produced, and how the world has changed. The book was actually published by a small press back in 1993, but it was praise from Alan Bennett, recorded in his diaries (“it alters the way one looks at the world”), that prompted its revival. A Faber & Faber editor saw that observation, checked out the book, and decided it deserved another chance.

The Secret Life Of Cows’ popularity is a sign that the cow is at the centre of how we feel about many things about modernity, and where we are heading, as a society that consumes, and changes, shapes and depleting the environment. Whether it is possible to farm cows in an ethical, sustainable way is one of the big questions swilling around our culture.

Cows, in fact, are everywhere. This month, for instance, sees the publication of The Book Of The Cow, by Irish writer John Connell, telling the tale of how one winter he found meaning and connection when he went back to help on his family farm in Ireland. They are also in galleries, on card designs, printed onto cushions, and, if you go to any popular art gallery most likely in many of the images there. Among the most popular limited edition prints are pictures of Highland cattle. We love to put great big hairy, cuddly coos on our walls, our furnishings and our clothing. Meanwhile, one of the great British films of last year, Hope Dickson Leach’s breakthrough debut feature, The Levelling, told the story of a dairy farm in the flood-devastated Somerset levels.

Yet few of us come anywhere near cows in our daily lives. For the vast majority of the British public the only contact they have is when they’re dead and on the supermarket shelves, or their plates. And even then we often don’t even notice they are cows. We don’t talk about eating cow, we eat beef. Milk is just called milk, rarely “cow’s milk”.

That's the case for me too, now a city dweller, and for my children. What strikes me is that they have rarely met a cow, but actually have seen a great many images of them: in books, in adverts, as marketing images, staring out of artworks and as a design feature on cushions. Cows are out there. But they aren’t real cows. They are caricatures, characters. Cows in children’s stories are usually sweet-natured but dim. What they symbolise is the slow life, gently chewing the cud, at one with nature and the clover.

The sweetness of these images couldn’t feel more at odds with the fevered battle that is going on in our culture right now over the future of the cow in global farming.

John Connell, the farmer behind The Book Of The Cow describes the cow as “the hidden member of the family of man”. “We’ve had a relationship with this animal for over 10,000 years. We domesticated the horse and the dog in order to move and protect these animals. We displaced indigenous people around the world, removed all the buffalo, in order to make way for cattle. It wasn’t just for people. We give cows more resources than we give any other animal. We also give them more land than we give ourselves.”

He has his own view on why there is this sudden interest in books about cows and farming. “Food,” he says, "is about to become very political. As climate change increases we are going to have wars over resources and food. Coupled with that you have people who are now engaged and aware, and a powerful vegan movement, who want to know where the food is coming from. Be it beast or plant, they want to know what the provenance of it is. And if it’s an animal what the welfare of its life was.” He describes this as an “upsurge in consciousness”. "People are saying, well, what am I putting in my body?”

The dairy industry is certainly in the firing line of a powerful onslaught. Vegan restaurants are popping up across the UK, and the vegan movement, though still in a minority at 540,000 in the UK, is forcefully making its voice heard. The debate is no longer solely about animal welfare and the ethics of eating meat – it’s also about climate change and the environment. Documentaries like Cowspiracy are gradually winning consumers over to the no-meat, no-dairy life.

The arguments are frequently emotive. Earlier this year, vegan activist Joey Carbstrong, accused farmers of being “rapists” for their insemination of cows, as well as of “murder”. Farmers have received death threats. Earlier this year they hit back by celebrating the month of Februdairy.

Yet, at the same time, we are consuming more milk than ever. In the last three months of 2017, the UK population spent £2.6 billion on dairy products, up 6.3 per cent on the year before.

Connell believes that not enough emphasis is given to the fact that many farms are family farms, which raise cows on pasture. “The animals, the cattle farmed in the UK are farmed on a grass-based system, they’re farmed in a really environmentally friendly way. We need to not undersell that. We need to make sure people know that, and that they’re willing to pay the proper price. Because what the supermarkets did about 20 years ago, was, a little like drug dealers, push cheap meat on people.”

The kind of farms he speaks of sound very like those I remember from my childhood. When I was in my late teens, I worked for a short while on a local dairy farm, doing the early-morning shift, getting up at 5am, bringing in the girls from the field. I feel a lot of nostalgia for those mornings, the warmth of the parlour, the smell of milk, the radio in the background, and the copious water with which I sprayed down the floor.

But not all farms in the UK are like this. Our restaurant critic Joanna Blythman drew attention to this fact in a piece she wrote in the Guardian last year. “If you’re unfamiliar with the workings of the modern dairy industry and take at face value the nursery rhyme marketing images for standard milk, you can be forgiven for believing that all milk is from free-range cows. It once was; now it isn’t.” In fact, Blythman, notes 20 per cent of dairy cows in the UK are zero-grazed, and housed permanently indoors.

The message farmers like John Connell are keen to convey is that we as consumers have to push for what we want from our farms. My interpretation of this is that if we don’t want any animals to be killed at all, then, yes, veganism has to be the answer. But if what we want is better welfare, then we have to spend more and buy products from the farms that provide that kind of environment.

Bryce Cunningham runs one of those farm in Ayrshire. He is a young farmer who has taken a gamble on doing things differently. When, in 2015, following his father’s death he took over West Mossgiel, the farm his family tenanted, he decided to not only farm organically, but also to bypass the supermarkets and sell direct to the customers. This was at a difficult time in the industry. The milk price had collapsed and was down from 28p to just 9p per litre. Mossgiel milk looks distinctive. It carries on its label the face of Robert Burns, since the bard himself used to farm the land at Mossgiel.

“I decided there was no way I was going to let a supermarket dictate how much our cow’s milk was worth. Because I feel our cows produce a very high-quality milk. They’re Ayrshire cows. I love working with my cows and I think they’re fantastic. And to get a crap return from them isn’t what I wanted to do. So we decided to sell our own milk.”

Cunningham is attentive to the welfare of his cattle. They try, at Mossgiel, for instance, to keep the calves with their mothers all the time, to do things differently. But even he, he says, has been attacked by vegans. “It’s a really strange time at the minute. The vegan moment seems to be a small group of people with a very, very loud voice. Because of what you see in social media. Someone started attacking me last week. They were vegan and thought the dairy industry was the worst thing on the planet.”

It is, he says, the consumers that have most power to change how our milk is produced. “I do think that there needs to be a better communication from farm to shop, and certainly from farm to consumer. I think that consumers play a vital role. How they spend their money is a vote for the world they want to live in. So if they go into a supermarket and just pick a pint of milk off the shelves, then they’ve got to expect there’s going to be factory farms. However if they really want cows in fields and organic milk they are going to have to put their hands in their pockets."

John Connell suggests a similar approach. Does he think that cattle and dairy farming will still have a place in our world in the future? Or might it be that the cow will become just one of those characters in our children’s books, a pattern on a cushion or wallpaper? Might we some day contemplate, with astonishment, "Remember how we used to eat cows"?

“I think there will always be a place for livestock farming,” he says. “I’m not so naïve to think there won’t be lab-grown meat. The world’s population is growing so we will need it. But there will be people who want to eat proper meat. There will probably be less cattle and the public will want people to work organically with the land.” This future he sees as a good thing. Better for the animals, better for the farmers, and better for the planet.