Julian Norton’s long day of pregnancy checks

It can be a tough life for hill cows out on the moors. Picture by Julian Norton.
It can be a tough life for hill cows out on the moors. Picture by Julian Norton.
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It is a stretch to consider travelling along the twisting and undulating road that leads to the middle of Snilesworth Moor as work.

Yet this was exactly what it was as, on Monday morning, I left the flat of the Vale of York and headed for the rugged wilds of the Hambleton Hills.

Read Julian Norton's weekly column first, in Country Week every Saturday, only in your weekend edition of The Yorkshire Post. Picture by James Hardisty.

Read Julian Norton's weekly column first, in Country Week every Saturday, only in your weekend edition of The Yorkshire Post. Picture by James Hardisty.

The rest of my day would most certainly be work – there were sixty or seventy wild suckler cows to pregnancy test and I knew it would be hard.

Pregnancy testing suckler cows, as they are housed at the onset of winter, is a perennial job for any large animal vet.

It is crucial to check each cow, to make sure that she is pregnant. For hill cows like those I was going to see today, who eke out an existence on the rough food of the moors, life is tough.

They do not go into winter with an excess of fat, like cattle grazed on lusher lowland pastures. For the farmer, it is equally tough, and if a cow is not pregnant, it is not economical to feed her during the long winter months. My job was to feel inside the rectum of each cow and palpate its uterus, hopefully to feel a tiny calf bobbing around inside.

If I vacillated, it usually meant that I could not feel a pregnancy. Any ‘empty’ or ‘geld’ cow would be heading to Thirsk fat market as soon as her current calf was weaned.

I love this sort of visit, although it is not one that every vet would rush to put their initials next to in the daybook. As well as having to avoid the kicking feet of semi-wild, barely handled cattle, Monday was a wild day and the cold wind was laden with sleet.

At least we were under the cover of the Dutch barn, albeit with its open sides.

The cows had been gathered off the moor just that morning, so it had been an early start for Mike and his two sons. For all it was cold, wet and windy outside, the cows, along with their strong, six-month-old calves, did not really want to be inside the farm buildings and they charged around, looking for means of escape back to the moor that was their home.

Persuading them that it was a good idea to go into the cattle crush, which was at the end of a long race, was an even bigger challenge. Once a cow was standing still and safe in the crush, I could get in behind, to do my thing.

All eyes were on my facial expressions, as I rummaged around inside each cow. A quick pronouncement usually meant a positive diagnosis and everyone’s mood lifted.

If I vacillated, it usually meant that I could not feel a pregnancy. Any ‘empty’ or ‘geld’ cow would be heading to Thirsk fat market as soon as her current calf was weaned. It seems harsh, but this type of farming is a harsh life, and there is little room for sentimentality.

Everything was going well. The final stubborn few cows were corralled into the collecting area. The long, dirty and at times dangerous job seemed to be nearing its end.

“That’s good,” said Mike, happy with the result of my testing. “Forty-four out of forty-eight pregnant. Better than last year.”

I began to think of my warm car. “Now we just have the next batch to do. They’re at the other farm, at the other side of the hill.

“We’d better crack on, ’cos they’re not used to being handled either. That batch will take just as long as all these!”

As I set off, following Mike in his pick-up to the next venue, I knew it would be some time before my hands regained any warmth and several more hours before I would be having my lunch.

Julian Norton is the author of A Yorkshire Vet Through the Seasons, published by Michael O’Mara, out now priced £14.99 hardback.

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