Humans’ ability consistently to see fairies is poor and has to be acquired- either by ritual, contact with an endowed person or, sometimes, by descent. In contrast, puzzlingly, animals seem to be far better at this than we are; many seem naturally to be gifted with this ability. We know this from the reactions of pets and livestock- but have to assume that wild creatures are equally as aware of the supernatural beings around them.
In one story from Northumberland, for example, a man’s hunting dog would ‘point’ the fairies which were invisible to its master (although he could hear their music). Instinctively he saw them and responded to them as prey. It seems, then, that for dogs at least there is no inherent awareness of any supernatural nature nor any risk. Previously, I have written about dogs that detected the presence of supernatural beings and then chased or attacked them, faithful to their duties of guarding their human owners. Sadly, these hounds’ encounters with faeries seldom finished well for them. Dogs may sense the ‘stranger’ status of the beings, but they lack any instinctive fear.
Cattle are aware, but seem to have no aversion to the creatures. For instance, the well-known story of ‘The Little People’s Cow’ from Cornwall encapsulates many of the key aspects of the situation. The dairy maid only sees the fairies when she accidentally includes a four-leaf clover in her ‘wise,’ the cushion of grass on which she rested the milk pail on her head. Then she witnessed:
“A great number of little beings- as many as could get under Rosy’s udder at once- held butter-cups, and other handy flowers or leaves, twisted into drinking vessels, to catch the shower of milk that fell among them, and some sucked it from clover-blossoms. As one set walked off satisfied, others took their places. They moved about so quickly that the milkmaid’s head got almost ‘light’ whilst she looked at them. “You should have seen,” said the maid afterwards- how pleased Rosy looked, as she tried to lick those on her neck who scratched her behind her horns, or picked ticks from her ears; whilst others, on her back smoothed down every hair of her coat. They made much of the calf, too; and, when they had their fill of milk, one and all in turn brought their little arms full of herbs to Rosy and her calf- how they licked all up and looked for more!”
The human can only see the fairies with magical aid; the cow does not require this (unless, we might speculate, she has the benefit of eating the clover) and there is apparently a mutually rewarding relationship between cow and fays.
Horses, in contrast to cattle, seem to be alarmed by fairies. In Yorkshire there was a tradition that boggarts would disguise themselves as stones on moorland tracks, deliberately to trip up passers-by. Horses, in particular, were able to see them better than people could- and often when they reared up unexpectedly it’s because they had ‘taken the boggart’- they’d spotted one, even if it didn’t look like a boggart.
Something similar is reported from the Isle of Man. Here, there was once no bread delivery at Orrysdale in the north-west of the island because the baker’s boy said that his cart horse was able to see the fairies after dark and would take fright. On this particular occasion, as it was getting near dusk, the boy decided not to risk the horse rearing or bolting- and had accordingly gone home instead of completing his round.
As these 1930s postcards indicate, it has become customary for us to assume that the faes are allied with woodland creatures. This is very much a development of the last 175 years or so. Victorian poets such as Madison Cawein and twentieth century writers such as Enid Blyton and Beatrix Potter elaborated these ideas, but the older evidence implies a more complex and less harmonious relationship. We shouldn’t forget, for example, that our medieval forebears accepted without question the notion that the faeries would be out in the woods, not gambolling happily with squirrels and bunnies, but hunting them with hawks and hounds. On this basis, it’s understandable that some animals might exhibit a measure of caution, if not fear.
For more on the faeries’ interactions with animals and nature more widely, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):