Jane Millton captures the plight of the Kaikoura cows in a kids' book

by Clare de Lore / 22 April, 2017
Illustration from Jane Millton’s children’s book.

illustrations from Jane Millton’s children’s book.

The plight of two cows and a calf grabbed international headlines after the Kaikoura earthquake, and the story of their rescue is now the subject of a new children’s book. 

Like many in the Clarence Valley, Jane Millton found it hard to sleep in the nights after the devastating earthquake that rocked Kaikoura last year.

The 7.8-magnitude quake hit just after midnight on November 14. Two people died and there was widespread destruction in the region. The quake was also felt elsewhere in the country; in Wellington, a number of damaged buildings have had to be demolished.

On yet another sleepless night, punctuated by aftershocks, Millton reached for the notepad and pencil she always keeps by the bed. In less than an hour, she had penned a children’s story, Moo and Moo and the Little Calf Too, from what she calls “the jumble of words” going around in her head. The story, Millton’s first, has just been published, with an initial print run of 10,000, and her publishers think it will be a hit both here and overseas.

Millton and husband Derrick live at her childhood home of Waipapa. They raised three children on the farm, two of whom are also farmers: Ben runs Waipapa and Willie runs Glentoi at Ward.

Although Waipapa’s idyllic house and garden were tossed around on November 14, the house survived relatively unscathed and the Milltons count their blessings, as some of their neighbours were less fortunate. However, the family’s 1400ha hilly, coastal farmland took a massive hit. When the sun rose on the day of the quake, a news crew shot images from a helicopter of two cows and a calf stranded precariously on a newly formed, grass-topped island with no obvious means of escape. A hill had collapsed, the land had moved 80m, and steep cliffs and deep ravines now criss-crossed the landscape.

The image of the marooned animals went viral. Two nights later, after their rescue, Jane, a talented amateur artist with no writing experience, put pen to paper.

Jane Millton. Photo/Millton family collection

How did the book idea come to you?

I always have a pen and an old calendar or diary by the bed to take a note if something comes to me during the night. For some reason, the story of the cows, from being on the hill until the end of their ride, just came to me. I tweaked it, but it is pretty much as I wrote it down during the night.

It was a happy ending for the cows, but what about your other stock?

We lost some. There were big crevasses and ewes and lambs were swept away in the landslide. No one knows how quickly that hill shifted. My story slightly guesses what happened. I am presuming the lucky three were on the top of the hill, and I also presume they surfed their way down.

Did you immediately decide to publish it?

I put it to one side, but unbeknown to me, Allen & Unwin had approached Derrick and said they wanted to do a story. They had arranged for someone to write it and the next thing I knew there was an email with a draft story. I rang Allen & Unwin and said, “Thank you for the email, but these are our cows, and I’d really love you to see what I have written.” I sent it and they said it was fantastic.

Were you, as an artist, tempted to do the illustrations?

We took a break and went up to Auckland to the Coldplay concert. On the way back, I went to the stationery shop – I was like a kid getting ready for school. I bought new brushes, new tubes of paint and a new drawing block. I thought, “I can do this and I’ll do it really fast.” I also thought I might self-publish it, but life got busy, so I put both ideas aside.

The grassy knoll where the stranded animals ended up.

How did you feel about Deborah Hinde’s illustrations?

I had warned the publisher that I was very particular about how I wanted it drawn. I wanted it to be soft, slightly watercoloury and correct. I was born here and my childhood was here on this property. The Clarence Valley is particularly dear to us all, and I’ve got a lot of relations still in the valley. It is a special place. I wanted the mountain to be just so and the valley to look like our valley. Deborah, who illustrated A Kiwi Night Before Christmas, has done a beautiful job.

How are people in Kaikoura getting by now?

In the early days, I was a bit paranoid about even going out the door. I would take a bottle of water with me and leave a note as to where I was going. I got over it, and now when I walk around, I feel quite safe. We had an earthquake just a few minutes ago, the first I have felt for a long time.

And the damaged land? How’s the remediation work going?

We’ve worked very hard. We have had a lot of help from some amazing fencers and we’ve got men living here now who have bulldozed the land. Initially, you couldn’t put stock back on it because it was cracked, with large crevasses and no fences. Now we have good fence lines. We have had good rain since, so some of the rubble has broken down and weathered naturally.

And the neighbours?

When we came to Auckland on that short break, it was interesting that people there knew of us and the cows, but down here, it was more like “those bloody cows”. Other people had broken houses, so the cows were the last thing on their minds.

In the past four months, you will have seen TV coverage of some people raving and ranting about this and that. There have been many ups and downs and a lot of emotion and grief. With winter coming on, a lot of people have hardship, with broken houses and a lack of insurance-company action. I feel fine, but I’m aware of some who don’t feel as good as they hoped they would four months on. The cows were big news, but more so outside this area, because we didn’t have TV at the time.

I gather you had a lot of interest from all over the world.

Someone wanted to pay $2 million for the cows to take them to a zoo or sanctuary in Singapore. That was ridiculous and went right over my head.

You didn’t give that offer a bit of thought?

Well, my son Ben did. He said, “Why wouldn’t you?”, but we wouldn’t consider the offer at all. We just got them back to their pasture so they could carry on grazing.

And what’s become of Moo and Moo and the Little Calf?

Moo and Moo are in calf, which is exciting after their traumatic night. The day after the quake, it had been planned to bring them down anyway, and the bull was going out. So they have conceived, and both will calve at the end of August.

The Little Calf is too young, so she is with other heifers and is growing. Some people thought they should not have been on the hill when the quake struck. But at the time, they were on the best block on the property. Welfare of animals is foremost in our minds. They are not milking cows, as some thought.

You’ve got your own book coming out, but what are you reading?

The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District, by James Rebanks, who is a farmer in England. A cousin, who was also born here, sent it from Auckland at Christmas, with a panforte and a Christmas cake. It’s about a shepherd and his family land. I was touched she sent it to me. It’s quite an appropriate story.

This article was first published in the April 8, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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