BY JIM WEBSTER
The thing about farming and agriculture is that it isn’t just an industry, it isn’t just a way of life, it’s a world. All sorts of people come into this world and they might pass through, going about their lawful occasions. They might enter it and flee gibbering unable to cope with the proclivities of the natives. Some will arrive, breathe deeply and realise that they’ve finally come home. They go native.
All sorts of people go native. I remember one morning our postman pushing a small calf down the drive towards me. It was probably a couple of days old and had somehow managed to get out onto the road. As he drove along to deliver letters it stood there in the middle of the road bawling at him. So he just got out and walked it home, then walked back to collect his van and the post.
Then our dairy and milking parlour were next to the calving boxes. This was handy, not only could I keep an eye on a calving cow during milking, but as cows about to calve walked down through to the collecting yard with the rest of the herd, I’ve known them stand by a calving pen gate, waiting to be let in. It also meant that more than one milk tanker driver ended up giving me a hand with a difficult calving when all he’d really intended to do was to collect the milk. But it’s the world we lived in and they were just part of it.
There again, others can be part of our world if they want to be. I remember one lady who worked for the Rural Payments Agency, The RPA. Back when they were keen on doing ear tag inspections she came to check our cattle ear tags. We had over two hundred young stirks and similar on the farm at the time, as I was out of dairy and was buying calves and selling stores. Two hundred head of cattle take some looking at, and we put a lot through the crush. But she took a look at one of the buildings, and commented that rather than put that batch of cattle through the crush, if I fed them at the trough, she would be able to walk down the length of the trough and just read the tags as she went along. That could well have saved us an hour.
At the end of the day we had the right number of cattle but one ear number was missing. We could not find the missing one anywhere, and she just left us her mobile number with the comment, “Have a think over the weekend and I bet you’ll find it.” She was right, the extra one had been wrongly tagged. When you looked at the big tag from the front it read 600123, and when you read it from the back it read 700124. When they’d tagged calves they had put the wrong male part in the wrong female part of the tag. Nobody had noticed at auction because whoever was jotting it down was ‘behind’ the animal. It was the same with us, as the animal had gone through the crush, I’d looked at the back of the tag because, working the crush, I was behind him.
So I phoned our RPA lady that night and told her. Her comment? “I’ll mark it down as a passed inspection and you get the little beggar retagged.”
As an aside, you might remember that we used to have a lot higher level of inspection for ear tags. These inspections could be a nightmare. Checking a bull beef unit could lead to people and animals getting seriously hurt. The problem was that the EU regulations were explicit. If, nationally, you had more than a certain percentage failure rate, you had to increase the percentage of farms tested. Because the RPA had defined failure very strictly. From memory, a herd with more than a couple of missing tags had failed, even if the animals, being double tagged, were still fully identified. This meant that an awful lot of herds failed even through there was no problem with animal ID. The big, high visibility tags that the EU insisted that we use tear out a lot more easily than the little metal ketchum tags we’d always stuck with. Of course the more herds failed, the more inspections you had to do, and as more herds failed, then the level of inspection increased further meaning more herds were inspected and more failed…….. but I’m sure you get the picture.
The problem for government was they had to pay for all the inspections because under EU regulations they couldn’t pass the cost onto farmers. Anyway the cost to farmers of the inspections was high enough anyway. Finally, after a lot of lobbying the RPA saw sense, and redefined failure, so suddenly the failure rate plummeted and we no longer had anything like the number of inspections.
But as it was, our inspection was a few months before foot and mouth broke out. Anyway as some might remember, in the first few weeks there was a lot of confusion as to what was really going on. It broke out on the 19 February 2001. The Blair government at the time wanted to hold a general election and was accused in some quarters of playing down the outbreak rather than having to delay the general election as they eventually did.
So who could I ask who might tell me what was really going on? So I rang the lady from the RPA. After all, I still had her number. She answered the phone, she was in the middle of a field with a vet. (Who I knew and who said ‘Hi’). They were inspecting a flock of sheep, and in her words, “They are rotten with it.” At that point I knew that the outbreak was totally out of control. She, lord love her, was part of our world, and was doing her best to make sure our world continued. She was absolutely straight with the farmers she dealt with. She had gone native.
And of course, the other group who are prone to going native are the vets. Many of them will marry into the farming community where their practice is located. Indeed one lady vet I knew commented that the only disapproval she met was from farmers’ daughters who felt that having a female vet removed a potentially eligible male from the market. Many large animal vets also have a farming background to start off with.
Some vets fit right in immediately but others take a little while to adjust. In some cases they even have to learn a foreign language, as the English the vet might have learned at his mother’s knee in the Home Counties is very much not the English he’ll hear spoken on a farm in Cumbria.
I remember one who did rather seem to struggle with it, until one morning he was examining a stirk with a sore eye. He would have to inject antibiotic under the eye lid, with is a tricky enough procedure. The stirk wasn’t helping and I was desperately trying to hold the head still whilst somebody else was trying to keep the rest of the stirk in place. In exasperation the vet shouted, “For God’s sake, hod the bluidy thing still.”
At the point we knew he was home.
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.