The Yorkshire Vet: Julian Norton helps to deliver a calf from a chairlift on Alpine mountain biking holiday

As regular readers of this column will know, I am a keen mountain biker. Whizzing downhill at high speed (sometimes), trying to pick the best line through rocks, steep drops and tight turns is the perfect way to take your mind off the stresses and strains of work. When faced with split second decisions over whether to go left or right, jump or roll, you can’t be worrying about the latest practice predicament. I’m not as good as I think I am- or at least as I’d like to be- but (as always in my life) enthusiasm gets me a long way.

I’m not as good as I think I am – or at least as I’d like to be – but (as always in my life) enthusiasm gets me a long way.

When the mountains call, it’s hard to ignore them; so, last week I headed out to Les Gets with some friends, to watch the pros in action in the mountain biking world cup. It was also a good opportunity to get one final short trip to the Alps before the end of the summer season. On Saturday, we watched the downhill racing. The racers went incredibly quickly, spurred on by cheering from the crowd, some of whom were clanging huge cow bells too. Sunday was the XC racing, which was just as exciting, even without the presence of my hero, local Yorkshire legend and world champion Tom Pidcock.

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The next day, we went out to do some proper riding ourselves. Under a warm sun and on dry, dusty and very quiet trails, it was wonderful. I had regular pangs of guilt about leaving my colleagues back in Yorkshire, but I felt sure they’d be coping perfectly well without me for a couple of days. With my mind free of work, I would be a better, stronger and more efficient work colleague after this short break with my mates. At least, that’s what I kept telling myself. As I sat on a chair lift, breathing in the alpine air and surveying the pastures below, I suddenly noticed an animal in peril. One of the cows, with a bell around its neck as large as those carried by the supporters the day before, was in trouble. The farmer had driven his pickup with trailer attached up the mountain and was trying to round up the cow. I didn’t think it was quite time for the animals to be brought off the hills and down for winter. As she stood up and headed towards a wooded area, it became evident that this particular vache was trying to calve. There was a distinctive string of slime hanging from her back end; and was that a hoof emerging? From my vantage point, metres above on the chairlift, it was hard to tell for sure. But it was clear the farmer was struggling to persuade her into the trailer. Especially once she’d trotted into the trees. I explained to my biking friends that I would need to take a detour on the next run as I had resolved to go and offer my help. I knew how hard it could be to herd cattle without enough hands. Once, much earlier in my career, I turned up at a farm to undertake a TB test, only to find the herd comprising sixteen cows was still in the field. Two hours later, we were still chasing the cows around the field. I think, eventually, we abandoned.

Julian NortonJulian Norton
Julian Norton

On the way down, I practised what I would need to say. I approached le fermier and offered my help. “Puis-je vous aider avec la vache? Je suis un veterinaire en Angleterre.” The farmer smiled widely and started talking quickly. Of course, I had no chance of understanding his reply, but I gathered that he’d now managed to catch the cow and didn’t need my help. This was good news, but secretly I was quite disappointed. I wanted to help. And it was a long time since I’d calved a cow. And I’ve never calved a French one!