Monthly Archives: September 2019

Large animal vets and bovine TB

Finished Tattoo

I’ve been working with large animal vets all my life. Indeed as a small boy I remember my father ‘looking’ after me when my mother had to go shopping. This looking after me consisted of me sitting on the shippon window ledge whilst they were TB testing. Given the thickness of the wall, the window ledge is about eighteen inches deep, so there was plenty of room. So one of my earliest memories is of the TB testing of cattle.

There was my father, my uncle and the vet. Back then, cattle didn’t have to have ear tags, identification was by ‘owners recognition.’ It was accepted that a dairy farmer would know his cows, and in the smaller herds that is still true. My grandfather was obviously ahead of his time, his cattle had had their ears tattooed with their number and there was a lot of peering at ears to try and work out what number the animal was.

The problem is that when the government recommended tattooing, they trialled the technique on Ayrshire cows. These have red ears and the black ink shows up reasonably well. Ninety percent of dairy farmers had Friesians and these have black ears. OK so the inside of the ear is a rather lighter shade but as there was only black ink it still is suboptimal.

So as a small child I witnessed three men trying to clean the inside of cow’s ears to read the tattoos. One thing that makes if difficult is that cows intensely dislike getting water in their ears. A tip for you. If you ever have to get a cow to stand up for its own good, pour some cold water down one ear. She’ll shake her head, flap her ears and probably stand up. So washing the inside of the ear so you can read the tattoo pretty well guarantees that you cannot read the tattoo because she’s shaking her head so much. I often wonder if the language I was exposed to as they tried to hold cows heads steady had an impact on my own vocabulary.

In the end they gave up on trying to read the tattoos. My father would tell them who the cow was. They then looked up her tattoo number from the herd list, and wrote that down on the sheet next to the readings from the TB test. Farmer’s recognition, you cannot beat it.

But to be fair, however we did it, here in the North of England we got bovine TB cleared out. In fact in Britain we almost cleared it out of the country, we got down to a handful of parishes in the far south-west which still had the disease.

But this area was one of the first. Indeed the senior Ministry Vet in our area wrote a rather nice letter to our vets congratulating them. Apparently they were the first practice in the county to have all their clients TB free. The letter thanked them, acknowledged the hard work and dedication that went into getting through the workload and then finished with the following comment.


I’m quoting from memory, it’s an awful long time since I saw the letter, but it read approximately as follows.


“We acknowledge the importance of ‘farmer’s recognition’ in correctly identifying animals, and realise that giving cattle descriptive names are an important part of this process. That being said, could people remember that our office staff are town girls and are having problems with cow names such as shitarse and long tits.”

If you want an insight into that world, the Yorkshire vet, James Heriot, wrote a series of books which cast a light into the time and place. Try

to begin with.


Still, I know a lady with her own opinions of vets


As a reviewer commented, “Another great collection of bite-sized tales from the author’s farming life. (The first one being ‘Sometimes I sit’s and thinks’)
A gentle sharing of observations from a sheep farmer (and his collie)
More wry observations of animals and humans!”


A snapshot of blue …

One of the best descriptions of coping with grief and the world that I’ve seen

M T McGuire Authorholic

It isn’t always like this, but I’m feeling a bit blue today. Then again, it’s probably only to be expected because I have, as we might euphemistically say, the painters in. But I’m going to take a few moments out to bang on about grief again because I suspect the way I’m feeling is pretty universal, so it might help someone to read it and see they aren’t alone.

As a human, I’ve always approached my life, and my future, with an attitude of mild interest, a kind of, ‘I wonder how this is going to turn out.’ That doesn’t mean I don’t try and mould my destiny at all, but I am aware how many other riders there are affecting the outcome of anything I plan. I hope my actions make a difference. Fervently. But I also think I’d be a fool to think I can realign the stars…

View original post 2,078 more words



The Belted Galloway is one of our traditional native breeds (although it was only formally established as a separate breed in 1921.) They’re tough cattle, and can live on poor quality pasture and can cope with unpleasant weather conditions. When I was a child, one of the farms in the village nearest to us had to do everything differently. While every other farm in the parish milked Friesian cattle and used the Hereford bull to serve those cows they didn’t want dairy heifers off, he milked Ayrshires and used a Belted Galloway bull instead of the Hereford. His livestock were no better behaved and no worse behaved than anybody else’s.
Yet our Vet was based north of us and covered a lot of the South-West of the Lake District, and had to deal with a lot of farms where they ran suckler herds. Fifty years ago, one of these herds ran Belted Galloways. Orders came down from the Ministry than this herd had to be blood tested for brucellosis (there was an eradication scheme running at the time) so all the animals had to be brought in to blood test.

Apparently it was mayhem. This herd was barely domesticated. Whereas a dairy herd will come into close contact with humanity at least twice a day, a suckler herd is a far more ‘natural’ construct. They’ll be gathered for worming, and for weaning calves and suchlike, but they can go weeks with no more human contact than somebody passing through them as they graze the open fell.
In spite of everybody’s efforts, when they were gathered in the yard to test, the young heifers cornered the dog and killed it, and the bull broke loose and was finally tested when it charged the tractor and knocked itself out. So you can see the two extremes.

In the early 1980s I went to Iceland. The Icelanders imported Belted Galloway stock (from memory before the Second World War, but I could be wrong), and they were held on a quarantine island. They developed ringworm. Iceland didn’t have ringworm and they were determined not to get it. So all the cattle were slaughtered, but one pregnant cow had her calf delivered by caesarean first. That calf was kept from all other cattle and fortunately it didn’t catch the ringworm that the others had. Thanks to Artificial Insemination, that bull calf was at one time the father of all the Beltie cattle on Iceland.

When I was there, I was shown a Belted Galloway suckler herd. Shown is the right word. They were on one hill and we were on the other, and we were told we were lucky to get so close. Seriously, they were more nervous than deer. Yet I went to farms where they had calves born to a Belted Galloway sire. These calves had been taken off their milk cow mother at a day old, were bucket reared and they were so friendly they came across to get their ears scratched. Indeed in one pen there were three calves curled up snoozing happily, with the dog making a fourth.

So it’s not that this is a breed that is destined by nature to be feral. If handled and domesticated, they’re fine. It’s just that I saw the sad story of woman trampled to death by cattle at Linchmere Common. The cattle were belties. They are managed and owned by the Lynchmere Community Grazing CIC. Now here I speak from a position of complete ignorance, I know nothing about this august body save what they say on their website. There they have photos of Belties and a comment, “Lynchmere Community Grazing CIC (Community Interest Company) is a not-for-profit, member-led organisation that manages a herd of Belted Galloway cattle on the beautiful lowland heath landscape of the Lynchmere Commons in the South Downs National Park. We are reliant on our membership to keep these amazing and useful animals safe and happy.”


Now there is a very strong conservation argument for using cattle for conservation grazing. I agree with this entirely. There is also an argument that in these places it would be nice to use native breeds, if only to help preserve them. Here to, I’m in total agreement with this argument.

But the questions I have to ask myself are, “Does the Lynchmere Community Grazing CIC ‘farm’ these animals?” “Are they handled regularly?” “Do they make an effort to ensure they remain domesticated and are friendly towards people?”

On farms we do get dangerous animals. My father was hospitalised by a cow that knocked him down as she attacked the dog. I’ve been attacked by a bull but survived because I half expected it and was ready for it. But because we know the risks, we make the effort. In the modern world, because we’re the people who have to handle any dangerous cattle, we do our best to make sure we haven’t got any dangerous cattle. Somebody complained to me that a bull I had in a field might be dangerous and attack him. I merely pointed out that he was contemplating entering that field once. I went in every day, and had to move the group, including the bull, from one field to another as they needed more grazing.

If I had anything to do with environmental grazing on an area with a lot of public access, I suspect I’d handle things differently. If the conditions were reasonably soft, I’d be tempted to buy some elderly dairy cows who had come to the end of their working life and were not in calf. I’d summer them on the area. They’re used to people and are very unlikely to cause a problem.

If whoever was laying down the law over grazing wanted native breeds then I’d probably chose something like Herefords. They’re far more placid. Not only that but I’d have somewhere on the common where there was a loading pen and I could feed them every morning. It doesn’t take a lot of feed to ensure that they think of you as ‘the nice guy’ and one of life’s positive experiences. And when I was feeding them I’d just wander through them (useful for making sure everybody is OK) and just scratch a few ears.

Of course, the problem then would be they weren’t particularly bothered by people and would probably wander up and terrify people by scratching their heads on a person’s leg, or trying to get their nose into the bag the person was carrying to see if there was anything in it worth eating. But between ourselves, I’m happy enough to be asked to educate and domesticate cattle. Somebody else can do the far more difficult job of educating and domesticating people.


There again, what do I know? Check with the experts!

As a reviewer commented, “This is a selection of anecdotes about life as a farmer in Cumbria. The writer grew up on his farm, and generations of his family before him farmed the land. You develop a real feeling for the land you are hefted to and this comes across in these stories. We hear of the cattle, the sheep, his succession of working dogs, the weather and the neighbours, in an amusing and chatty style as the snippets of Jim Webster’s countryman’s wisdom fall gently. I love this collection.”

Leading by a nose


One of the things you learn when working with cattle is that that they tend to lead with the nose. It’s obvious that scent is very important to them, and at the same time, if the nose is sniffing something, the eyes and ears are conveniently placed to study the object of interest as well. When you think about it, herbivores, being towards the bottom of the foodchain, tend to try and look in all directions simultaneously. It’s vitally important that they see what’s coming and there are no blind spots. Cows might seem to treat the rest of the world with casual disregard when they’re focused on you, but in reality, they still have a 300 degree field of vision because their eyes are at the side of the head. Terry Pratchett in fact took this and extrapolated it in one of his stories, with a bull whose head was so broad that the eyes didn’t have any common field of vision. So the bull had two personalities, the one who was looking out of the left eye and the one who was looking out of the right. It’s an amusing conceit but I suspect cows manage it better than that. Note that this means that you do not attempt to creep up behind cattle. They can see you, and even if they don’t see you well, they don’t need a lot of data to work out which hind leg they lash out with. If you are seen creeping up you’re obviously a predator up to no good. If you approach openly with a cheery demeanour than they’re less worried.

The side effect of their panoramic vision is that cows have poor depth perception. Farmers will tell you that there are gates it can be impossible to get cows out of. This is because the gate opens on to a lane and there is a hedge on the other side of the lane. The cows, until they get to know the gate, don’t appear to realise that it is a gate, because they just see a comparatively solid block of hedge that you seem to be intend in herding them through. In such cases it can often be better to lead them with a bucket of feed, on the grounds that they can see the feed, they can smell the feed, and it is more real than imaginary gates in notional hedges. So by the time they take their attention off the bucket and think to look round, they’re standing in the lane and even to them, it’s obvious that there was a gate there.

The other day I was taking some feed to some young stirks. (This is a vague farming term, it technically means a yearling bovine but is often used for those who’ve stopped being calves, itself a vague boundary to cross; and aren’t yet bulling heifers.) But still these stirks were between six and twelve months old. Unusually they weren’t waiting for me, instead they had clustered around a couple walking along the footpath. I discovered later that the lady was somewhat afraid of cattle and of course her reactions made her even more interesting, ensuring that the cattle gave her their full attention. After all, she was doing strange stuff and they didn’t want to miss any of it.

When I appeared, the idea of feed overcame their curiosity and they converged on me and the couple continued their walk across the field. She apologised for upsetting them. So I explained that they were just curious because they were only little.

To which she replied that she was only little as well.


Normally with cattle there is always somebody mooing or bellowing or whatever, but last night, after milking, we had also finished feeding calves. The dairy cows were all either snoozing in their cubicles or were out eating silage, and we’d fetched the heifer into the calving pen who was due to calve. It was then, on a still night, we realised that it was utterly silent. We couldn’t even hear any cars on the main road.


At this point it struck me you might be in need of a good book!

As a reviewer commented, “Benor is a cartographer and he’s come to Port Naain to produce a handbook. He makes a home with Tallis, a professional poet and his wife Shena. She’s a mud-jobber or as we might say, a beachcomber. Some of her combings include bodies. Everything has a price and families will pay for the privilege of burying their dead and, if possible, finding who caused it. Benor is a natural. He’s a nosy person and, with the aid of the wonderful Mutt, a ten year-old wise beyond his years, he sorts out the villains from the corpses. This first short story from The Port Naain Intelligencer bodes well for the rest of the series. A really great Whodunit.”

I too am mostly cheating


I tried to blog this but the buttons didn’t work so I’ve shared it anyway. Every so often you come across somebody you wish you’d met, a person who makes you feel that as a species, there is hope for us.
Also it’s a eulogy by his daughter, written in the proud tradition of Anna Komnene.

This week, I am mostly, cheating!

Greetings, late as ever. I appreciate that this is a late post. I knew things were going to get a bit hectic and sure enough they have. I had to set up McMini’s computer for school and it took approximately one thousand years. OK not quite one thousand but it felt like that, especially when I had bloody microsoft asking me to sign in and then saying ‘oops there seems to be a problem.’

After searching for what felt like fucking aeons, I realised that the problem was simply that McMini is under age and therefore I had to sign in as me to move windows from some crappy version, where you can’t download anything off the Microsoft app store, to normal windows that everyone else uses. As a result I have nothing to witty to blog this week and had to resort to Things I Have In Reserve, in this case, my Dad’s Eulogy.

It might seem like a strange thing to share, but it was written for laughs and it even got some! Next week, I have some absolutely chuffing amazing news for you! In the meantime … enjoy …


The difficulty talking about Dad is that I have so much material, so it’s tricky to know where to begin and when to stop. The fact his nick name, at the school, was ‘Johnny the Legend’ probably says it all.

I’ve made some notes.

Obviously, as his daughter, I’m biased and see him as a shining example of what it means to be human, and a Christian, and to do Christianity and humaning really well. There are certain words that crop up again and again in the letters and cards we received; Gentleman, kind, warm, radiant, humour/joie de vivre, fun, funny, witty, generous, non-judgemental, wise, humanity and a word he used about others but which also very much applied to Dad, himself, effervescent! Dad lived his whole life with an aura of intelligent enquiry and seemed, to me, to have a genuine interest in everything and everyone around him. He also had a sense of fun and mischief but coupled with a sense of social justice and a kindly disposition which meant the mischief was never cruel. He was genial and good humoured and would often tell stories against himself if he believed his antics were funny enough. Probably one of the most indicative things about Dad, and Mum, is the friends they made and the people they have around them. They seem to be pied pipers of lovely people.

Dad delighted in sharing the Latin and Greek roots of words, especially if they were slightly dodgy or a little bit lavatorial. I can still decline the latin verb from which we get the word, ‘constipation’. Despite being a committed Christian, Dad would sometimes take me aside after church and we would both giggle as he pointed out the double entendres which Victorian poets, in a more innocent age, had unwittingly put into that Sunday’s hymns. ‘Oh Lamb of God, I come,’ was a particular favourite, and the fact it was written by an ancestor on my Mum’s side just made it even funnier.

He loved to prick the bubble of the self-important and was proud of any signs of rebellion in my brother and I. He once hauled a colleague to the window of the master’s common room and, glowing with proprietorial, that’s-my-boy pride pointed out a scene in the quad below, where a member of staff who ran like the original Minister for Silly Walks was sprinting across the grass followed by my brother doing a near perfect impression of the man’s ridiculous run a few yards behind. Another time, I remember Dad carrying a copy of the unofficial school newspaper round one speech day and, when he met the right parent or colleague, he would whip it out of his inside jacket pocket, like some war time black-marketeer selling stockings, to show them a slightly scurrilous cartoon I’d drawn of the Bursar.

Life with Dad was never dull. He was always cheerful and sociable. He enjoyed entertaining friends and relations during the holidays and would wear his bedroom slippers ‘to make it more relaxing’ often prank phone calls would be made to other, absent, members of staff, or those who’d moved on to better things at other schools. Sometimes he would invite people round and forget so Mum would be surprised and delighted to see them arrive but have to pretend that she knew they were coming. She, and we, usually pulled this off, except for the time my uncle and aunt turned up and found the four of us sitting down to a grilled trout each.

Dad was, as he would have put it, ‘a good trencherman’. On holiday France Dad demonstrated that, were he ever to go on Mastermind, his special subject would be not classics but instead, Guide Michelin, Normandy edition


to read on click on this link

This week, I am mostly, cheating!



Culture clash

Amongst sheep farmers in this country you’ll find a medical condition called, ‘dipping flu.’ Basically it’s organophosphate poisoning from the chemicals in sheep dip.
So obviously farmers have stopped using them.
Except for the fact that the use was compulsory up until 1992, and that government knew that they were dangerous.

The reason farmers use them is to treat sheep scab. To quote from one website, “Sheep scab is an acute or chronic form of allergic dermatitis caused by the faeces of sheep scab mites (Psoroptes ovis). The mites are just about visible to the naked eye and can only remain viable off the host (sheep) for 15-17 days. The sheep is the only host where the mites can complete their lifecycle, though there is evidence that they can remain viable on cattle. The lifecycle takes 14 days and the population of mites can double every six days.”

The problem is that Sheep scab is a serious threat to sheep welfare. Infestations can be very debilitating with significant loss of condition, secondary infections, hypothermia and eventually death. The top picture is of a sheep with scab.

Another reason for using organophosphate dip is to prevent ‘fly strike’. This is a condition where parasitic flies lay eggs on dirty wool or open wounds. After hatching, the maggots bury themselves in the sheep’s wool and eventually under the sheep’s skin, feeding off their flesh. It’s one reason why it is so vitally important to shear sheep. Even if the wool is worthless, you’ve got to get it off because otherwise it gets dirty and sweaty and just attracts these flies.
Now both sheep scab and fly strike are perfectly natural. Natural is regarded as a good thing by people who live in major cities with electricity and plumbing and spend their time on their mobile phones, but actually, natural is not an unalloyed blessing and it can be pretty damned cruel and painful at times. So we have to do something to temper the natural. Here are some of the maggots in place.


And the farmer’s dilemma is that organophosphate sheep dips genuinely do protect the sheep, saving them from a lot of pain and distress. Nothing else works as well. Not only that, but there are considerable precautions in place to ensure that the dip doesn’t enter the food chain or the environment. So the important people are in point of fact protected. But some of us are more susceptible to organophosphate poisoning that others. So some farmers have worked with dip all their lives and have suffered very little whilst others have been left crippled by the effects. Still, they’re only self-employed enemies of the people and it’s not as if they’re important. All three main political parties have been in the governments who’ve ignored their plight. To be fair, in another forty years or so, they’ll all be dead and that’ll be an end of it.

But I was chatting to a farmer a bit back. He’d got dipping flu, had it for years. And he was on pretty strong painkillers for the joint pain. Then he’d got another long term chronic condition as well and that put him on even more medication. He’d stepped away from managing the farm, letting his son take over, but he carried on working on the farm and did the paperwork. Small family farms need the labour and there isn’t the money in food production to enable them to pay anybody.

The problem there was an error in the paperwork and that particular government body fines farmers if they make errors. So the family pointed out that the error came about because nobody had realised just how much the medication was effecting him. In the letter explaining this the family had pointed out that he’s now so bad, when he goes out to work, his grandchild accompanies him to keep an eye on him and make sure he’s safe.

Well not unreasonably the government body asked why the Grandchild couldn’t do the paperwork. If they were old enough to be responsible for his safety surely they were old enough to do the paperwork.

At the heart of this issue was the clash of cultures. The civil servants were struggling to cope with the idea that a person so ill they needed this much medication was still working. Can you imagine the shock it was for them when they discovered that the Grandchild who watched over grandfather working, all the while keeping their mobile phone close at hand, was aged about five.


There again, what do I know? Speak to the expert.

As a reviewer commented, “This is a selection of anecdotes about life as a farmer in Cumbria. The writer grew up on his farm, and generations of his family before him farmed the land. You develop a real feeling for the land you are hefted to and this comes across in these stories. We hear of the cattle, the sheep, his succession of working dogs, the weather and the neighbours, in an amusing and chatty style as the snippets of Jim Webster’s countryman’s wisdom fall gently. I love this collection.”