Friday night at 5 o’clock the phone rings. It was the ministry vet from Shrewsbury. They had picked up a substance in one of my cows that had been sent to the abattoir in March.
“Was it meat?” I asked sarcastically.
“No, it was in the meat” Came the reply from the Polish vet, completely missing my satire.
“Oh no, what did you find?” I ventured.
“I can’t tell you that.” he replied
“Well, which cow was it then?”
“I cant tell you that either.”
“Oh. You’re not painting much of a picture for me. Can you tell me what you want me to do about it then?”
“Yes, I need to come and have a look at your medicine records on Monday, if that if okay?”
“Well I don’t suppose I have much choice do I?” I replied
“So yes then.”
We agreed a time and I was left to ponder my potential sins in peace.
I put the phone back in my pocket and began to think. This did not bode well. What on earth had they found in the meat for goodness sakes? What had gone wrong this time? A dozen calamitous scenarios passed through my brain but none of them held up to much scrutiny. It was Friday evening and I couldn’t resolve anything until Monday but that wouldn’t stop me worrying about it over the weekend.
The situation reminded me of the ominous ‘Come and see me on Monday,’ I used to get when I was in School, leaving me the whole weekend to wait for my sentence. It was almost a pleasure when I got back to school on the monday to learn my fate. Such was the relief when I knew what was in store for me, I actually felt grateful for the punishment, although I never did thank them. I don’t think it would have done me any favours.
“I’m going to give you three stripes across your backside with the cane, Wigley”
“Oh, thank you Sir, I’d be delighted” would not have brought anything other than extra pain.
Nope, better to say nothing at all.
Anyway, I digress. The point is, I was sure there was nothing wrong with the cows that went to the abattoir, but I was still feeling like the naughty schoolboy who had left the drawing pin on the teacher’s chair.
If you ever doubted that disasters come in threes, then here is proof if needed. Nine o’clock on Sunday morning my Dad rang up to tell me that one of my incalf heifers has died. I was shocked. Its not the sort of news you want on any day, let alone a Sunday.
We set out to the field and found the heifer on her side, underneath a tree in the middle of the paddock. The ground around her had been trampled where the group had sheltered from the heavy rain over the weekend and by her posture, she looked as though she had died lying down. There were certainly no signs of her being struck by lightning which can happen when cows shelter under the tree canopy during a storm.
She was a pretty sorry sight, lying flat out in the mud and I felt the usual sense of guilt come over me as I looked at her lifeless body even though there was nothing that I could have done. The last time I saw the group, they were charging around the field making high speed passes at me as I walked through them.
The heifer was certainly okay on Friday, when I last saw them, so she must have gone downhill pretty quickly. She couldn’t have suffered for long, but what was beginning to concern me now, was why she had died. Maybe she had eaten something poisonous which meant the rest of the group could be ill too. There were another 55 animals in the field so this was a major worry. I scanned the field for other potential casualties quickly but they all looked healthy. One of the heifers looked a bit muddy as she had been for a dip in the lake by the looks of her but other than that, they looked very well.
Been for a swim.
When it comes to poisons there were two obvious choices. Ragwort, the yellow flowered poisonous plant, that the local council had failed to control on the road verges and Yew, both of which can kill. There were two Yew trees overhanging the perimeter fence of the field. We walked over to them but the poisonous, evergreen spikey bristles looked out of reach for the heifers but more to the point why would they eat them? They were stood ankle deep in grass. It was not as if they had been hungry.
However, Vick had spotted a Yew tree hedge by a cottage, bordering the field. It had been trimmed at some point, a while back perhaps, but there were no hedge cuttings to be seen. Had they eaten the green vegetation from the hedge or some dead trimmings off the floor? If they had, they surely would have been poisoned.
It certainly looked dodgy but hardly conclusive. I didn’t fancy leaving them grazing by the Yew hedge so we set up an electric fence to keep them away from the danger area. It wasn’t until the next day we realised that it was unlikely to be poisoning when the landlady told us that there had been sheep grazing there all winter. As she pointed out, if there was going to be deaths, surely the sheep would have been the victims, especially as the hedge was last trimmed in the summer. Bearing in mind that sheep are so outrageously talented at self termination, I had to concede to her logic.
Sunday evening completed my triple misery when I walked across the calving paddock to see the calving cows. The alarm bells rang when I opened the gate. There, underneath the hedge was a fourth lactation cow, her four legs pointing sideways and her body motionless. I hurried over to her fearing the worst. As I got closer I was half expecting her to pick her head up but she didn’t. I was expecting to see her shallow breathing but her ribs remained still. I looked at her eyes but they were staring straight through me. They were cloudy and empty…. She was dead.
It’s difficult to describe how I feel as such times. There are many different emotions that go through my head but the most overwhelming one is guilt. They are my animals, in my care and I am responsible for their welfare. Ultimately if something goes wrong, it is me that is accountable.
It was a bloody awful end to a bloody awful weekend.