BY JIM WEBSTER
I know a lot of farmers’ sons have played rugby in their time. Certainly working with livestock gives you a lot of transferable skills as well as a higher than usual pain threshold and the ability to soak up damage. But then I was shown a video of Indonesian Cow Racing which does seem to take this to a whole new level
We once had a Belgian Blue heifer break out of the pen when we were TB testing them. She’d had her first measurements and jabs and then broke down a gate and made a run for it. She went through five hedges and at one point was only one hedge from the sea before she landed up with a bunch of dry cows belonging to a (distant) neighbour. I left her there and next day the neighbour brought his dry cows in and she came with them. She travelled home in a cattle trailer and was unloaded into the empty bull pen. (The bull was out working). She had the second half of her TB test when the vet read the lumps and decided she didn’t have TB. She stayed in the bull pen until we sold her, fat.
Had I known that there was a market for cattle with her abilities I could have sold her into a new profession, but frankly I think they’d have struggled to find another to make the pair.
On the other hand I started out along the road to being able to cope with handling cattle young. One very popular game at our junior school was ‘Barbadore.’ There were two playgrounds, the one used by infants and junior girls, whilst the other was the junior boys’ playground. This was probably health and safety, it meant that a five year old didn’t find themselves in the middle of an impromptu no holds barred football game.
But in the boys’ playground the game was Barbadore. It was the game we just defaulted to. It’s a version of ‘British Bulldogs’ and the name may come from the phrase. ‘Bar the door.’ Or it may not, who knows?
British Bulldogs is played pretty much everywhere the British settled, although America may play a German version.
The rules are simple. You have one child who is the catcher. The rest of the children line up against one wall of the playground. On a signal (the catcher might shout ‘Barbadore’ for example) all the children run across the playground to the opposite wall. Touch the wall and you’re ‘safe’. In between, the catcher has to catch another child and in our version of the game, hold them off the ground long enough to shout ‘Barbadore.’ The child becomes a catcher and you now have two catchers. Each time the children run backwards and forwards across the playground more and more of them become catchers and finally the last child to be caught becomes the first catcher for the next game.
It’s pretty much an entirely egalitarian game. There are no teams as such but every child can take part and feel useful. Even the little one can still jump onto the back of the great lumbering lout and be part of pulling him down and then throwing him into the air shouting Barbadore. It teaches useful life skills and played on tarmac, it’s character building. Indeed my daughter commented that when she was at junior school, it was mixed with girls playing it as well as boys, to the same rules.
Because she’s involved in schools she has watched as over the years schools have banned the game, only to see it come drifting quietly back in again. Some schools have given up and produced a ‘tag’ version of it.
When I was at junior school our headmaster did manage to stop us playing it without banning it. He just kicked a football out into the yard and did nothing else. Immediately we formed two ‘teams’ which comprised all those boys present. The usual rules of football were followed, without bothering about details such as the off side rule, number of player per side etc. It wasn’t quite as rough as Barbadore, but there were more accidental collisions. One issue was that occasionally the ball would go over the wall into the garden of the house next door. Given the wall was six feet high and the fence on top of it a further six or more feet, climbing over to get the ball back demanded agility.
The owner of the house got fed up, not so much over the ball, but over the boy who would inevitably follow it. (I don’t think it occurred to anybody to knock on the door and ask for permission.) So they confiscated the ball and gave it back to the head master who was very stern and told us we couldn’t have the ball.
So next playtime we just went back to Barbadore again. After a week he relented and the ball reappeared, until next time.
Once I got to ‘Big School’, Barbadore was out of the question. Given the disparity in sizes I think pupils decided that for themselves. There wasn’t the same ‘communal game’ except occasionally somebody would kick a ball vertically into the air. Immediately everybody (or at least two or three hundred of the lads present) would pile in and we had a game which involved aspects of football and rugby. There weren’t any rules as such, there was no goal, no team, no formal aim. For younger boys merely touching the ball and surviving was enough, for older boys the better rugby players would take the ball and run with it. At least they did for a while until they disappeared under a heap of their peers.
There were ‘issues’ in that the girls’ school playground was next to ours, separated by a narrow turf strip, which had four or five trees growing in it. Somebody kicked the ball high, the wind took it and it was coming down over the girls’ playground. Two or three of us ran for it and I managed to be the one who caught it on the first bounce. Then we suddenly twigged where we were and scattered. I tucked the ball under one arm, put my head down and ran parallel to the grass strip, avoiding the School Mistress who was shouting at me. (I’ve not got a clue what she was shouting because I didn’t stop to listen), swerved to avoid one tackle, sold the dummy to another of the girls’ prefects who was trying to stop me, accelerated through a gap in the line, through the trees, in to school by one door, along the corridor, out by another door, kicked the ball into the air and faded into the crowd, just another nondescript fourteen year old, anonymous in school uniform.
So let’s be honest here, when bullocks start getting fractious, I’ve been dealing with this sort of stuff since I was seven.
These skills never leave you. I was feeding some suckler cows in a field that slopes pretty steeply in places. Not only that due to the nature of the soil, the turf has a habit of just shearing from the soil below it. It means you’ve got to be careful coming down with a tractor. Don’t brake too sharply or you won’t stop, you’ll just start sliding.
The same is true for cattle who come running down to meet you when you’ve got a bag of feed. The obvious thing to do when ten or eleven hundredweight of suckler cow comes sliding down towards you, totally out of control, is just to sidestep her. Then if, as she goes past, you slam into her, you push her sideways a bit and her feet will start to grip. This sounds a bit technical but you can end up doing it instinctively whilst doing something else, like counting who’s there, and seeing if that lame calf looks any better for the injection it got yesterday. I was doing this and a red shape was sliding towards me. So still trying to see the calf I sidestepped and then slammed back into the out of control bovine.
I realised at this point that I’d just body-checked the bull. To be fair he looked sheepish and a little grateful. After all I’d put him first in the queue for the feed which has to be worth a little humiliation.
Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quad-bikes and dogs) It’s available here.