I wasn't squeamish until I heard 'Farming Today'

I watched my stepfather castrating piglets with a razor blade and my mother de-gutting chickens

Sue Arnold
Monday 06 January 2014 05:06
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Early birds, if they're lucky, catch worms. If they're unlucky they catch the end of Farming Today, the Radio 4 programme that goes out at quarter to six every morning. From humble crofter to multi-million acre, estate-owning duke, everyone who lives in the country listens to Farming Today – and so do I when I'm awake, because as soon as my arthritic limbs are too feeble to carry me up the 82 stairs to this leaking, draughty rented flat above the traffic and pollution of the King's Road that we call home, I shall take myself up to Scotland and live off the land.

I have it all planned. I shall have half a dozen chickens and a goat. The chickens will be those big, heavy black jobs with bright red combs and yellow feet that scratch around the pages of nursery rhyme books. How does it go? "Higgledy piggledy my black hen, she lays eggs for gentlemen", though I don't suppose you're allowed to say that anymore. When I first came to work in Fleet Street we all used to meet at lunchtime in The Mermaid bar until a politically correct colleague made us call it The Merperson.

I shall grow my own veg, make my own bread, milk the goat and talk about crop rotation to the farmer next door. "How marvellous it must be to be self-sufficient,'' visitors will say enviously as they watch me wring the neck of a fat pullet for supper.

I'm not squeamish. I don't go all limp and weepy, like Lady Chatterley when she saw blood on her lover's jacket and a dead rabbit poking out of his gamekeeper's pouch. I grew up on a farm and helped Joe the pigman shovel up the afterbirth when the sows had farrowed. I watched my stepfather castrating piglets with a razor blade and my mother de-gutting chickens without washing-up gloves.

Well, I wasn't squeamish until I heard the tail end of Farming Today last Tuesday, an item about new artificial insemination regulations for cows. Yes, I wondered the same thing too. Why do cows need to be artificially inseminated? What's wrong with good, old-fashioned bulls? I'm sure cows ask themselves the same question.

"Well'', said the expert (you could almost hear his rubber apron squeaking), "bulls are unpredictable whereas scientifically tested pedigree semen isn't." To get the best result they buy it in from all over the world so, while a Jersey calf may know that its mother came from St Helier, its father could be French or Argentinian or Scottish, or even Ambridge born and bred.

At the moment, farmers practise their artificial insemination skills on cows which are about to be slaughtered and whose cervixes have been injected with a special dye. Afterwards, when the carcass is opened up and examined, the farmer can see if he has hit the jackpot. I almost said the bullseye.

If all this is making you feel queasy I apologise, but take heart. From now on the procedure is going to change. Animal-welfare campaigners have complained that practising artificial insemination on cows in abattoirs minutes before they are due to be slaughtered places unnecessary stress on them. Farmers are going to have to test-drive their sperm guns elsewhere. This, said the expert, was unreasonable. The cows were no more stressed than any animal about to get the chop.

Lying in bed listening to all this, I felt sad. When I think about dairy cows (the majority of cows used for artificial insemination practice are worn-out old milkers) I think of Angel Clare falling in love with Tess as she sits milking Buttercup, her head pressed against the warm flank, her fingers gently pulling on the udders. I know it's silly and romantic but that's the way I think about cows, with their great awkward bulk and gentle eyes.

Those D'Urberville cows led idyllic lives, chewing the Wessex cud, being milked twice a day by the beautiful Tess and in the twilight of their lives put out to grass in a big field near Casterbridge. How different to today's wretched animals, milked automatically in sterile parlours, denied the pleasure of natural sex and then, the final insult, being impregnated with dummy sperm minutes before death.

It's enough to make me seriously consider becoming a vegetarian. My restaurant-owning husband will not be much amused. He's just added 30-ounce fillet steaks to his menu and they're selling like hot cakes.

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