The ‘obligate carnivore’ in your kitchen- why cats need meat in their diet.

Recently I have found myself ‘engaging’ in debates surrounding veganism. Some of these discussions have centred around pet nutrition, specifically the choice made by some pet owners to feed their cats a vegan diet. Whilst I can fully accept and appreciate another human beings choice to abstain from consuming meat, whether on ethical or health grounds, I cannot accept the practice of forcing a domesticated cat to become vegan. This blog post came about from these brief encounters with people who are feeding or want to feed their cats a meat free diet.

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Cats as obligate carnivores- what does this even mean.

”An obligate carnivore (or true carnivore) is an animal that must eat meat in order to thrive ” (Syufy 2008).

If you studied biology at school you may remember that animals are grouped according to shared characteristics (taxonomy). Cats fall into the ‘Carnivora’ , an order of animals that also includes dogs, bears and seals. Some of the animals in this order are ‘omnivores’, meaning they are able to meet their dietary needs by eating plant matter. Others, like the domestic cat, are obligate carnivores, meaning they must eat meat to survive and, more importantly, to thrive.

From the shape of their teeth  to the length of their intestines, feline bodies are not designed  for consuming a plant based diet. Millennia of evolution along the line of eating a meat rich diet has meant that cat’s bodies have become ‘streamlined’, shedding ‘unnecessary components’ and creating essential ones along the way.

Dentition

Teeth are an obvious clue as to what cats are designed to eat.

Blatantly obvious clue number 1: Cats  have 4 canine teeth ( the long fang like teeth at the front of their mouths).These are specifically designed for catching, killing and holding prey. Not vegetables.

Blatantly obvious tooth based clue number 2: If you have a cat that doesn’t mind being watched , check out how they eat. Cats tend to use their ‘carnassial teeth’ to chew, pre molar teeth that are specifically designed for meat consumption . They act like scissors , making the meat easier for a cat to swallow. Unlike dogs, cats tend to have fewer molars, meaning they lack surfaces that would enable them to efficiently break down plant matter. The occlusal surfaces of their remaining teeth aren’t efficient for chowing down on vegetables.

Digestive enzymes

Moving past teeth and on to other parts of the digestive process lends further evidence to  why cats shouldn’t be forced into a life of veganism. From the very beginning of the digestive tract, cats have lost out on the ability to digest plant matter. Salivary amylase, a digestive enzyme used to start the process of starch digestion, is missing from cats mouths. Further down the digestive route (in the intestine) amylase is present, but at a mere 5% of the amount found in a dog. Other digestive enzymes found in a cats intestine point to their need for a meat based diet, as does their lack of the enzymes needed for starch digestion.

Picky eaters

Cats, even those on ‘traditional’ diets, can be very fussy when it comes to food. This is one thing for healthy cats, but can be a real problem in cats that are poorly. It can become a vicious circle of a cat that is feeling sickly not eating which makes the cat feel worse so it doesn’t eat. In addition cats that are carrying too much weight can develop hepatic lipidosis, a potentially life threatening liver disorder, due to becoming inappetant. Cats may not find plant based diets very appetising and start refusing to eat. This can  result in them developing further problems.img_6517

Anatomy

Comparing a cat to an omnivorous or herbivorous species will also show anatomical differences that preclude feline veganism. The length of a cats small intestine is considerably shorter, they only have a ‘vestigial’ caecum, and their colon is  much shorter than herbivorous or omnivorous mammals. All of these again point to a meat based diet and an inadequacy in terms of digesting plant based starch and fibre.

So ,  dentition plus intestinal anatomy minus key digestive enzymes equals…well,  doesn’t take a genius to see why they aren’t meant to live on veggies alone.

Essential nutrients

If that wasn’t evidence enough, lets take a look at some of the health problems that cats presented with meat free meals could develop. These problems can arise due to vitamin and protein deficiencies. The domestic cat’s evolutionary journey  has  thrown up a few quirks in terms of vitamin and amino acid requirements .

Vitamin A is necessary for maintain healthy vision, bone and muscles. Most herbivorous or omnivorous mammals can meet their need for  it by converting beta carotene, a plant pigment, during the digestive process. Cats can’t. They lack the enzyme needed for this, meaning they really on ‘ready made’ , ‘pre packaged’ vitamin a. This is easily obtained through eating animal products.

Methionine is another essential amino acid for cats, and deficiency is also possible when they are fed a vegetable based diet. Skin problems, especially around the nose are seen in cats that are lacking this protein.

Taurine is another amino acid (protein) that is essential for a cats sight, nerve function, immune system and heart. Carnivorous diets supply plenty of taurine, whilst cereal or vegetable diets have inadequate or minimal amounts. Deficiency of taurine can result in a cat developing life threatening and (potentially) deadly conditions such as Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) and Feline Central Retinal Degeneration. In pregnant cats it can also cause the unborn kittens to be damaged.

During my recent conversations I have been told ‘ well, my cat is doing great on a vegan diet so far’, having only been on it for a few days, weeks or months. And the owners are probably right. The cats probably are coping. For now.  Switching  to a plant based diet isn’t likely to cause these diseases to develop immediately. In fact,  signs that something bad is happening to your cats health will only appear after a long period of your pet being taurine deficient (anywhere from 5 months to 2 years).

Synthetic forms of both vitamin A and Taurine are available, but relying on these to feed an obligate carnivore raises a separate set of ethical questions. In addition, the nutritional adequacy of ready made vegan feline diets has been questioned, with studies finding them to be lacking in essential elements.

Urination

Another health risk for cats, especially male cats, fed on a vegan diet is FLUTD (feline lower urinary tract disease). These cats can develop abnormally alkaline urine due to the plant based proteins in their diet. Meat based diets result in acidic urine, which is normal for cats. Alkaline wee provides the right environment for bladder crystals or stones to form in . These can cause irritation to the lining of the bladder , leading to  inflammation (cystitis) and infections,  pain and, more seiously , blockage of the urinary tract. Urinary blockage means a cat cannot pass urine, and without veterinary attention a cat will die .

Time to get off the soap box….

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At the end of the day,  I would advocate that any responsible cat owner…or human that  cares for a cat…or cat ‘guardian’ …  should seek to do the best for the cat. Informed choices regarding their care should be made, including what they are  fed . This should be done with the individual animals best interests at heart. If a pet owner still decides that this means feeding a vegan diet to their cat , the cat should have regular check ups scheduled with their vet, to ensure that the cat never suffers due to food source.

 

A different world

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Day 3 and we turned to the ‘ Random act of wildness’ app for inspiration, as Mummy was lacking any. Sometimes I love technology.

A couple of taps on the trusty iPhone later and we had our inspiration. ‘Lift up a log’ it told us…’Look under fallen logs to discover weird and wonderful creepy crawlies.

‘ Shall we go on a mini beast safari?’ I asked…

‘Yeah…boots..boots..boots…’ shout JoJo gleefully, and headed for the backdoor. C grabbed her wellies, put them on the wrong feet as per normal, and we headed off to check out the log pile.img_6911

At the back of the ‘wild patch’ lies the remains of an old chicken shed. The concrete base now houses our greenhouse, a dog kennel and a (currently empty and awaiting its owners) chicken coop, as well as a rather large log pile. We stacked the logs here a couple of years ago after some dead and dying trees were cleared around the farm. Untouched and undisturbed they have become a mini beast haven.

Turning over the first log sent several Brown centipedes scuttling off for cover. The millipedes were slower, with some not even bothering to uncurl themselves at all. Woodlice swarmed over each other, antennae twitching as they edged under neighbouring logs. The worms remained, wriggling in the leaf litter, along with two slugs that had been sheltering on the underside of the upturned log.

‘Put it back mummy, they are getting hot’ said C. Perfectly logical, as the sun was indeed blazing down over our little patch. I gingerly lowered the log, hoping I hadn’t squished any of the occupants in the process. After a quick check on the tadpoles that are living in our washing up bowl pond under the broken downpipe, we headed back inside as mummy was starting, ironically,  to burn.

Day 2 – Petrichor

TWT30DaysWild_countdown_02Torrential rain, memory loss and toddler tantrums. Not an auspicious start to the second day of our #30DaysWild, but as the saying goes, bad things come in threes. Once we had them behind us the day could only get better. With the mini farmers departing to spend time with relatives, the rain clouds rolling off into the distance and the garden beckoning I decided on a simple stroll around our ‘patch’; the wild, uncouth area that lies to the side of the farmhouse.

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Once upon a time it was a more formal affair, with carefully tended rose beds and well pruned shrubs. Nowadays, through years of benign neglect, it is a tangle of weeds. Until last June, I found it an eyesore, and started trying to tame it back into some semblance of a tidy space. But with the arrival of 30 days wild, I started to see it as something different. No longer was it a messy disgraceful space, but home to all manner of ‘mini beasts’ . It provides food for birds, bats and foxes. So this year I left it wild and let nature run its course. Today, with the scent of petrichor hanging over the patch I set off to see what creatures I could find.

I came across this Scorpion fly perched atop a bramble leaf . These curious insects earn their name from their long scorpion-like tail. They feed on dead insects, including those trapped in spiders webs. Like some spiders, the male needs to placate the female during mating with a ‘nuptial gift’, so she isn’t tempted to kill him.

Next up, some day flying moths. This male long horned, or Fairy, moth was sunning himself on a nettle leaf. This species has amazingly, bordering on ridiculously,  long ‘filiform’ antenna. In this chaps case they were at least 4 times the length of his body, with an apparent life force all of their own.

On a neighbouring clump of nettles I spotted a micro moth, which turned out to be the rather aptly named ‘Nettle Tap’ moth.img_6845

With all my crashing around in the path (even though I was desperately attempting to avoid being ungainly) I disturbed a Silver-ground carpet moth. This moth is nocturnal but easily disturbed from its daytime resting spots. The caterpillars of this species feed on Cleavers and Primroses, which are plentiful in the ‘patch’.
Not to be outdone, several species of butterfly were fluttering around the patch. Only this speckled wood alighted long enough for me to snap a quick photo.

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There were many, many more creatures flitting and skulking about the patch. I’m glad I bothered to let it stay wild. If we had mown the nettles, chopped all the brambles and pulled up the other assorted ‘weeds’ this little patch would be a whole lot poorer for it.

 

 

 

 

 

Day 1 – Etching and sketching

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June the first, a long awaited calendar date. The start of the new 30 days wild challenge. I couldn’t have felt less inclined to do anything ‘wild’ or ‘outdoorsy’ if I had tried. My head was reeling, buzzing with the electrical aftermath of one of my weird seizures. Any grandiose plans I had for that day had flown straight out of the window, and I resigned myself to a day of indoor R&R. With the mini farmers off visiting family, I did the only thing that helps following a seizure. Turn off all electronics apart from classic fm and reached for my pencils. A sudden light bulb moment- combine my ‘random act of wildness’ for the day with some art therapy. Pencils, paper and some inspiration gathered, I started to draw. I had an idea that perhaps, if days become too much and this is what I need to do to relax and recover, maybe I could work through sketching native British wildlife. First up, owls.

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There are five species of owls found in the Uk – Barn owl, Tawny, Little owl, Long and Short eared.

Barn owls (Tyto alba) are predominantly farmland birds.With their ghostly pale heart shaped faces and blood curdling call, it is easy to see how they earned their place in myth and folklore. They don’t hoot, rather hiss and screech, giving rise to their colloquial name of ‘Screech owl’. Small rodents form the bulk of their prey, with field voles being a favourite snack. It is easy to see how they became a ‘farmers friend’, helping to keep rodent numbers at bay.

Tawny owls (Strix aluco) are shy nocturnal birds. Their grey- buff- dappled plumage acts as perfect camouflage, blending seamlessly with tree bark.  During the summer months we frequently hear them call here on the farm; a single ‘kerwick’ acts as a contact call, followed by a ‘whooo- whoo’ if the bird is a male.

Last up for day 1- Long eared owl (Asio otus). Despite their name, these owls don’t actually have long ears. The tufts on top of their heads are merely decorative plumage, their ears being located on the side of their heads. Like all owls, one ear is placed slightly higher than the other. Combined with their round, flat faces this  helps them to accurately locate prey by sound alone.

So there we have it. My very own parliament of owls!

30 Days Wild 2017- Prologue

One day until our 30 Days Wild experience begins. Well, technically speaking there are only approximately 3 hours left of May, but I’m not planning on kicking off this years challenge with a dawn chorus walk or a spot of midnight moth trapping.

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It seems bizarre that an entire year has passed and we are planning on taking part again. Last year was my first year being involved in this month long challenge. It was a fantastic experience, spending a whole month immersing ourselves in nature. Looking back I’m not sure quite how I managed to squeeze in so many acts of wildness with the a 2 year old and a 7 month old in tow. We created a wormery to watched red kites soar above us, collected finds for a nature table, visited a bug farm, took part in a bioblitz, attempted to lure moths and even managed a beach clean with the baby ‘helping out’. The whole month passed by in a blur, and I can honestly say the experience left a lasting imprint on our lives. It helped me start along my road of recovery, away from depression ( a road with many potholes, dead ends and detours), which was one of my hopes in the run up to last years challenge. It reconnected me with writing, and my passion for the great outdoors which had somehow got lost under the everyday mantle of ‘being a mum’. As the challenge is self driven, I could dip in and out as much as I wanted. On ‘bad days’, when the ‘dementors’ were knocking on the door, we managed small nature based goals. On ‘good days’ anything goes. This year, the cloud of depression has lifted, only to be replaced by Partial Seizures. My newly acquired condition means I get tired easily and (worse still) can’t drive. I have done some ‘pre planning’, jotting down some ideas of things I would like to attempt, and I hope we can at least tick off a few.

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Participating in 30 Days wild also means you get to meet a lovely group of like minded individuals through the online 30 days wild community- on twitter and facebook. Seeing what others get up to daily, learning from each other, helping identify nature finds and sharing ideas on what to do next all adds to the fun.

I can’t wait to see what this years challenge brings. Reflecting on  the legacy left by last years experience was wonderful . It allowed me to see how much of a personal journey I had made over the month. If you feel like joining in this year there is still time to sign up here, and you can even nab yourself a free pack too (it has stickers, who doesn’t like free stickers?!).

 

 

 

Heatstroke in pets- tips on how to keep your pet safe.

The sun has been out for 2 days straight now which obviously means it is the beginning of summer in the UK. Rising temperatures might be nice for us but our four legged friends don’t always enjoy the heat, and in some cases it can have devastating effects. I’ve put my ‘day job’ veterinarian hat on to come up with some tips on how to keep your furry friends safe in hot weather.

What is Heatstroke?

Heatstroke is basically hyperthermia- a high body temperature- that has not been caused by a fever. It is a true emergency; if left untreated it can soon lead to the death of a pet. ‘Exertional heatstroke’ occurs during or after exercise on hot sunny days. Non exertional occurs when animals are exposed to high temperatures without ventilation or a water source.


Why are dogs and cats at risk?

Our pets have a hard time regulating their body temperature when it is warm outside. Unlike humans, they only have sweat glands on their paws and around their nose, so once overheated they really struggle to cool themselves down.  Fit and healthy dogs and cats can suffer from heatstroke, but some individuals are at a higher risk of developing symptoms. These include

  • Very old or young dogs or cats.
  • Pregnant or nursing animals
  • Overweight animals
  • Short nosed/flat faced breeds (aka ‘Brachycephalics) such as Pugs, Pekinese or boxer dogs, as well as Himalayan or Persian cats.
  • Thick coated breeds
  • animals with pre existing breathing or heart conditions.

What are the signs to look out for?

Common things to watch out for include

  • Drooling
  • Panting
  • Dark coloured (red or purple) tongue
  • Lethargy or acting sleepy
  • Wobbliness/ being uncoordinated
  • Collapse
  • Vomiting

These signs can be associated with other health problems, so if in doubt please call your veterinary surgery for advice. In some cases you may not see warning signs that your pet is in difficulty

How to help your pet – emergency first aid and prevention


If you think your pet has become overheated there are several ways that you can help:

  1. Don’t panic! Move your pet to a cool or shady area and ring  your local vet for advice.
  2. cool your pet- this needs to be done slowly to prevent doing more harm than good. In some cases you can start doing this whilst making your way to the veterinary surgery.

NEVER immerse your pet fully/ completely douse them in cold water as this could cause them to go into shock.

Ways to safely bring your dog’s temperature down include

  • Using small amounts of room temperature water to pour on their body, little and often.
  • Wrapping your pet in wet towels.
  • Standing your pet near a fan.
  • Allowing them to drink SMALL amounts of cool water.

Whilst it is important to cool your pet, make sure you don’t over do it. Cooling your pet for too long or too quickly will potentially cause them to go into shock.

Once your pets breathing rate becomes more normal and they start to seem less agitated then you can stop cooling your pet. In all instances it is a good idea to take your pet in to the vets for a check- up ASAP, even if they seem better.

Prevention

… is always better than cure, so here are some tips to stop your pet becoming too warm in the first place

Never ever be tempted to leave your pet in a car or caravan. Even with open windows and in the shade the temperature inside a parked vehicle can soar within minutes.

Avoid exercising your pet in the heat of the day ( 11-3pm in the UK ). Early morning or evening is better. Not only will this prevent heatstroke but it will also prevent burnt or damaged pads due to hot pavements/tarmac.


Provide plenty of fresh water for your pet to drink. Sometimes cats can be really fussy about what they drink from- they may prefer running water (ie water fountain or tap) or particular bowls.

Ice- a few cubes in a bowl of water can go down well on hot days. Filling a plastic bottle 3/4 full with water and freeze it overnight. Once frozen, wrap in a tea towel or other fabric cover and place under your pets bedding. Just be sure they can’t come into direct contact with the ice, and I would not leave them unattended with it!

What to do if you see a dog in a parked car?

For good advice, check out the RSPCAs suggestions. Calling the police (if you are in the UK ) can be a first port of call, as RSPCA

The RSPCA has good advice on what to do if you find a dog in a hot car. If you are worried about an animal left unattended , or it appears distressed the best thing to do is call the police.


How does your pet like to keep cool in the heat? How do you help them out? I’d love to hear! 

 

 

 

 

 

Lets hear about the boys- what really happens to male calves on a dairy farm?


At the end of March I wrote a blog piece in response to an article published by the Guardian  regarding dairy farming. It has been read by over 23,000 people from all over the world. I hope that it helped to set the record straight regarding what British Dairy farmers do for a living .

The torrent of abuse I received from a handful of angry vegans has died down, so I figured, in an effort to further enlighten people, it is time to publish a follow up. This post is an expansion of one of the paragraphs from my other blog, detailing what actually happens to male calves born on a UK dairy farm.

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Shot at dawn?

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In his ‘opinion piece’ written for the Guardian, Mr Newkey Burden stated that male calves born on a dairy farm are shot immediately after birth. I assume the author meant this to be a shocking revelation, ‘baby animals’ being shot in the name of food production. It was shocking, because it simply isn’t true.

I will not say that male dairy calves never die at an early age; neonatal calf deaths do occur for several reasons. Calves of both sexes die due to diseases, defects,  injuries and difficult births. Calves may have to be euthanized (put to sleep) due to any one of these, or they may die suddenly.  Some farms may have to euthanize calves, irrespective of sex, if they are prevented from moving them to other farms or rearing units due to Tuberculosis movement restrictions.

Neither will I say that the shooting of young male calves has never happened . However, in the vast majority of cases a male calf born today on a dairy unit will be raised until he is at least 10 to 12 months old ( for rose veal production).

Gender balance

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So why all the fuss about male calves anyway? Historically, dairy farms did not ‘need’ male calves. They did (and still do) need female calves for several reasons:

Replacing ‘lost’ cows- Each year, a number of adult cows will leave a dairy herd for various reasons. These include old age, disease and accidental deaths. Some herds also sell adult cows to other farms. Female calves (heifers) are needed each year to replace these lost members of the herd.

Heifers enter the dairy herd at (approx.) 2 years old. As such, heifer calves need to be born each year to ensure that there are enough cows in the milking herd at any one point in time.

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The ratio of male to female calves born on a dairy farm, either due to natural service (bull mating) or Artificial insemination, is approx. 60:40. Some farms, in an effort to swing the ratio in favour of females, use ‘sexed semen’ during artificial insemination. This changes the female to male ratio to 90:10.  As you can see, it is impossible to prevent males from being born, so what becomes of them?

Traditionally, male dairy calves (bulls) would be perceived as taking space and food away from the heifers. Nowadays this is no longer the case.

What happens to male calves?

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If you are a (close minded militant) vegan I suggest you stop reading now, as the next part deals with meat production. If you are open minded and would like to find out more please read on.

There are a few different farming systems that rely on male dairy calves.

  • Rose veal – Ok, you might have heard about ‘veal’ and remember the images of crated calves overfed on milk to produce white veal. Those days are long gone (thankfully). Rose veal refers to meat from male calves that have been reared on a cereal and straw diet for 8-12 months (average 10-12). The calves are housed indoors on straw, and are able to move about and interact with their pen mates. ours mix
  • Bull beef – Male calves in this farming system are raised to between 12 to 16 months. They are fed on a similar diet (cereal/straw) and housed in a similar fashion.
  • Beef – Male calves that go into this system tend to be castrated. Entire male dairy bulls are potentially dangerous, and may injure themselves, other bulls or humans. Bullocks are kept until they are 2 to 3 years of age, before going to slaughter.

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Some farms choose/have the facilities to raise their own male calves. Others will sell them on to farms that specifically raise bulls/bullocks.

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Recently I received an email from a vegan activist, asking me whether the dairy industry really does kill all male calves at birth. In the interests of transparency, I conducted a survey (via twitter) asking dairy farmers what they did with their calves. 87 votes were cast,  almost 60% sold their dairy bulls, almost 30% kept them and raised them, 5% bought in calves to rear, with the remainder ‘euthanizing’.  Bearing in mind this was essentially a ‘vox pop’, it does show that the vast majority of dairy bull calves will live much longer than Mr Newkey Burden alleged.

P.S All of the photos on this blog post come from farmers raising male dairy calves. They were sent to me by members of the Ladies and Livestock group on Facebook, in response to a request to show that dairy bull calves do live much longer than the morning they were born.

”We sell all ours through market at around 8weeks! But most definitely are not shot and binned!! 😡

May not be worth a great deal but they cover their costs and unless something was majorly wrong with them why would you kill them?….hate how we’re viewed as complete unemotional murderers 😡😡”

comment from a ‘Ladies and Livestock’ member and farmer in response to my request for information on dairy calves.

A long awaited arrival

It seems both a life time and no time at all since I wrote about the beginnings of ‘Project Goat milk’. The dream has finally become a reality this month with the arrival of the goat kids.

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For those of you who like numbers, the average gestation length of a goat is 150 days (might come in handy at a pub quiz, you never know). Counting forward from the date of mating gave us estimated due dates of the 17th and 18th of April for Amy and Bernadette respectively.

Thinking myself extra super organised and well prepared I booked some holiday off work covering these dates. Unfortunately, best laid plans never seem to work out. I should also know by now (2 human babies, assistance at many non human births) that due dates are merely a guide to be acknowledged and subsequently ignored.

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The first kids arrived on the evening of the 13th of April- I think it should have been a Friday. I had just spent several hours in A&E with Farmer F . For once it wasn’t him causing the problem, it was me. To cut a long story short I had had a couple of ‘funny turns’ and then taken her off to the land of A&E. After much poking, prodding and a series of tests that seemed to come straight from the ministry of silly walks handbook, I was discharged with a box of Aspirin and a diagnosis of ‘Query TIA’. Fortunately my ‘turns’ have since been demoted to the level of Migraine with Aura without headache (go figure) , or Temporal lobe epilepsy. I’m still a work in progress- the doctors haven’t quite worked out what to do with me yet.

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Anyway, back to the goats. After several hours in hospital on Thursday, we returned home tired and hungry. F went to check on the goats whilst I got something to eat. He quickly reappeared ‘Er, you might want to go and check the goats’. He might have well pointed at me, messiah-esque, and said ‘Lazurus, rise’ I was out of the kitchen like a rat up a drain pipe.

img_5178Amy had popped. Two gorgeous, gangly kids. One spotty, speckled coated nanny and one buckskin coated billy. These became Priya and Leonard . I was in love. Slightly disappointed at not being at the birth but relieved everything had gone well. Amy had two healthy kids who were up on their feet and feeding. Goat kids are a lot different to lambs- long, gangly legs remind me of foals, yet they are far more sure footed. Floppy oversized ears, the kind of ears you hope they grow into.

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Friday came and went, no more of my ‘episodes’ and no more kids. Saturday I went down to the goats first thing – Bernie didn’t get up to greet me. Here we go, I thought, she’s in labour. I left them be and came back an hour later. Still nothing. Bernadette was up but not acting like her usual self. Normally she is feisty, now she seemed subdued, although putting up a good show of being ‘normal’.  I got F to hold her whilst I checked her over. My suspicions were confirmed, she was almost fully dilated but her pelvic canal (the bit that the kid comes through) was empty. Time for me to retreat again. Another hour or so passed before i came to check on her. I peered through the window, hoping to see some little ones, but Bernie was lying quietly on her own. Time was ticking on- the risk of infection to both Bernie and her babies was increasing as the hours passed, and I was anxious in case the kids were in any difficulty. I gave her an injection of oxytocin to help her labour progress, and sat down in Amy’s pen to observe from a distance. Within minutes Bernie was up on her feet and contracting well. After 30 minutes of this, there was still no kid. Time to take a closer look. A gentle examination and i found the bag of fluid surrounding a kid, and ruptured the membranes. Inside were two big feet and a head and I relaxed a little. The kid was alive, moving and in the right position. Baby goats are born as if they are about to dive into a pool- front legs stretched out, nose and head next, slightly tucked in chin. Of course there are other ways to be born, but this is the easiest, textbook and straightforward.  A bit of gentle persuasion and soon Bernie had birthed her first kid, a very big buckskin boy (now known as Howard) .

img_5275The second kid was presenting awkwardly- his head was bent slightly back so he was almost looking over his shoulders. I helped to position him better and Bernie birthed him quickly. This was Rajesh, another beautifully marked boy. Bernadette started to clean and nuzzle him immediately. My work done, I stayed long enough to shake out a clean bed of straw before letting the little family get to know each other in peace.  img_5220

 

 

Lets get things straight….

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Have you read the  ‘Dairy is scary’ opinion piece from the Guardian? I have, and it has left an exceptionally bitter taste in my mouth. I can’t believe that such a poor piece of writing has been published under the Guardians name- albeit as an opinion piece.  The article  has come about after the publication of a video by the animal advocacy group ‘Animal Equality’. I won’t waste space by leaving a link to it here, if you want to read it , its easy to find. Let me save you the bother- in this blog post I’ve summarised the key points from the article and addressed each one with fact and the views/opinions of a real life dairy farmer. However, if you do enjoy reading  work that contains very little truth and a lot of sensationalism then by all means, go check out ‘Dairy is Scary’.

Some truth about calf rearing…..

The article is based on perceived issues associated with the accommodation of calves on a particular calf rearing unit. For those who don’t understand how the dairy industry works  this is a farm where calves are looked after by calf rearers . These are people whose sole job in life is to make sure that the young animals  are fed, watered and kept healthy and happy.  The calves pictured at this particular unit are housed in individual hutches. These are specifically designed for calves and are actually high welfare accommodation. They provide good shelter and excellent ventilation. Young calves are susceptible to lung infections and this style of housing helps to significantly reduce the risk of illness. Also it helps to prevent outbreaks of disease if one calf does become ill.

The author is correct in saying that calves over 8 weeks are not permitted to be housed individually. If you read the ‘code of welfare for cattle’ produced by the UK government you can see this is a legal requirement. However there is no proof that the calves shown are over this age limit, and in fact the photo showing a measurement of a calf being taken would suggest they are younger than the 6 months that Animal Equality have claimed them to be. Trading standards have found no issues on the farm.

A bit about the ‘birds and the bees’……

According to Mr Newkey -Burden , dairy cow reproduction is a brutal event.  This is really not the case. Artificial insemination does play a role in the dairy cow life cycle. However it does NOT happen in the way this article purports.

For A.I to occur, semen is collected from a bull but this is not done mechanically as the article suggests. I’m not going into the ins and outs of artificial breeding, but lets say no bulls are hurt in the making of a straw of semen. In fact most stud bulls live the life of riley, cosseted and cared for as befits an animal of their calibre. The average monetary worth of a young bull going to stud is £20,000. When you have this much financially invested in an animal would anybody not want to make sure they have the best care available

Insemination is not a brutal procedure. No farmer will attempt to ‘impregnate’ a cow before they are physiologically ready- it just doesn’t work. It is simple biology- a cow can only become pregnant for a short number of hours during a 21 day ‘reproductive cycle’. During this  period she will show natural behaviours that are a cue to her fertility. Farmers and vets refer to this behaviour as ‘bulling’. Once an animal shows this behaviour, an AI specialist  will inseminate the animal. This can be done without putting the cow into a handling system (Chas refers to this as a cruel ‘crush’) as she will naturally stand to allow the procedure to occur. Again I’m not going into the finer details of insemination.

Sometimes we do use ‘cattle crushes’. This is a colloquial or lay mans term for a cattle handling system. It does not hurt or harm the animal, as this would not help at all. We use them to safely restrain cows that need veterinary treatment or other procedures that require them to stand still. You have to remember cows are very heavy animals (500kg to 700kg for a dairy cow, 1 tonne plus for a bull). They are capable of doing serious damage to a human unintentionally just by moving their head or foot. Over friendly cows can easily knock an adult over going for a head rub!! As an aside a cows foot can accelerate at 10 metres per second squared. That will seriously hurt on contact. In fact it will break things- human bone shaped things.

Lets go milk a cow….. beginners 101.

Milking a cow is not easy. Any dairy farmer who gets up at stupid o clock in the morning every day of the year to do so will tell you this.  At the same time, no one steals milk from a cow, which Chas suggests. If a cow does not want to be milked, you wont get any. We put the cluster on, the cow doesn’t want to let down her milk, empty milk jar. Its a fact. Milk let down requires oxytocin. Oxytocin is a ‘happy’ hormone. Sad cow, mistreated cow; no oxytocin, no milk. Happy cow-content cow-oxytocin- milk let down. Cows come to be milked- each day on our farm, we call the cows to milk, they get up from their bed or come in from the field. No cattle dog, no sticks, they come voluntarily. In some dairy herds milking isn’t done by a human. They use robotic milking machines. These allow a cow to decide when she is milked. On average, a cow will go to the machines 2.8 times a day. Voluntarily. No pressure from a human involved.

Chas states that the Uk dairy farmer needs to rely on antibiotics and hormones to boost milk production. Uh oh, chas failed to get his facts right! This is not allowed. It is illegal! And just to make sure, milk is tested in milk factories to make sure it is drug free.

The article also refers to lameness being caused by large udders. Yet another inaccuracy. Lameness is usually due to poor food, bad conformation (animals anatomy), infection, trapped stones  or bad surfaces that the cow stands on. Lame cows don’t produce milk. In fact, when a cow is ill for any reason her milk production will decline, sometimes to the point of no milk at all.

The author also states that cows which produce large volumes of milk will get mastitis. Mastitis occurs in any mammal that is lactating.. Mastitis, or inflammation and infection of the udder, is caused due to bacteria, yeast or other environmental or infectious pathogens. In other words, bugs. Not milk volume.  Any cow with mastitis on our farm receives immediate attention, with veterinary care if needed.

Separating a calf and cow…

Yes, this happens. Modern domesticated dairy cows are not wild creatures. They produce far too much milk for a calf to take. If a calf were to be left on, the cow’s udder would never be drained sufficiently leaving her at risk of developing mastitis. Mastitis can kill a cow very quickly- in less than 12 hours from first infection.

The calf gets one on one attention when raised by a human, who makes sure all their needs are met. They are fed colostrum from their mums and follow on with milk.

Chas says calves and cows ‘bellow for days’ when separated. This is completely incorrect. Our cows usually return to their herdmates within 24 hours of giving birth. They don’t notice that the calf is gone. They often don’t understand what a calf is. Modern cows are not always cut out to be good mums. Some cows will actively try and hurt their calves if left with them, and can turn violent towards a human that tries to help the calf.

A question of gender…

Chas says, and it seems to be a popular belief amongst vegans and animal rights activists, that male calves are shot at birth and ‘binned’. This is not strictly true. Some farms may have to euthanize calves full stop if they are prevented from moving them to other farms or rearing units due to Tuberculosis movement restrictions. Other farms keep their bull calves, or sell them on to units that rear them on for bull beef or rose veal. Bull calves that go for rose veal go to abattoirs at 10 to 12 months of age. In fact Rose veal farming is backed by the RSPCA.

The death of a cow…

One phrase in the article really annoyed me, and I’m sure others will find it offensive too. Chas referred to cows being ‘dragged off by a tractor’ when they are too ill or old to be milked, or simply ‘collapsing under agony’. Wrong, wrong, wrong again!!! Any cow that is going to an abattoir must be able to walk soundly onto the lorry that is transporting it. It is not legal to transport a cow that is so poorly it cannot walk. If a cow has become very sick or has had an accident on the farm, a vet will be required to perform an emergency euthanasia (which requires a lot of paperwork!).  Chas also makes reference to abattoir slaughter in his piece, incorrectly. Unless an animal is being slaughtered for halal meat (something which I do not agree with) it will be stunned using a captive bullet. This renders the animal completely unconscious.

In conclusion….

One thing I do agree on with the author is consumer choice. Everyone in the first world has an ability to choose which food they eat. Organic, free range, vegetarian, vegan – choose as you will. But make sure it is an informed choice. One that is based on fact and not fiction. Listen to as many arguments as you need to in order to make the right choices. The argument I have made in support of the dairy industry is based on fact and personal experience. The facts have been checked with a dairy farmer who has over 40 years of experience with cows. Hands on, day to day experience of caring for them, reading their behaviour and making sure they are happy.  Farming and caring for dairy cows is in his blood. Quite literally. He is a 7th generation farmer, with his family farming the same area for 243 years. Safe to say he understands a bit about cows and calf rearing.

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Spring- blossoms and polygamy.

Spring has crept in under the cover of winter, kicking back the blanket of dark mornings and early dusks. Still, sunshine is a fickle beast; weak, and wan, glancing in and out of our days on the farm.  Yet, the garden is waking . Golden daffodils nod their heads in time to the trill of a blackbird perched on a hawthorn branch. A string  of pearl white snow drops trace along the side of the farmhouse , their delicate flower heads outlining long forgotten borders. Buds and new shoots burst up and out, ready for warmer days.

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Bird life on the patch is changing with the coming of Spring. The starlings have left, after a long winter vacation. Their absence is conspicuous. Peace reigns once more, and I do not miss the noisy, whirring, chattering din above our heads.

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The house sparrows have reappeared after their winter absence, and have set about tidying up last years nest sites. For the second year in a row a pair of sparrows have stolen the house martins nest. Calf hair from the sheds seems to be a popular choice of nesting material, and the females busily flit about gathering beakfulls of it.

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The bird feeders are a constant hive of activity, with blue tits, coal tits, chaffinches and robin being regulars at the ‘buffet’. Four or five blue tits on a feeder in one sitting is common, suggesting our garden provides for up to 20 of this species. A willow warbler has started to appear, shy and flighty, but his visits are infrequent. A pair of collared doves often come to perch side by side on the swing set, preening and cooing at each other. A dunnock, or Hedge sparrow, now comes to sift through the debris at the foot of the feeders. Last year a single pair frequented the garden, this year I have counted four on one occasion. They are busy, unassuming little birds, similar in size to the house sparrow but with a sleaker silhouette. The population expansion on our patch matches the general trend around the uk;  numbers are increasing, but the species remains on the Amber list. Their ‘plain jane’ appearance hides a rather quirky reproductive trait.  Dunnocks practice monogamy and polygamy. Depending on the territory available to them , their ‘mating’ relationships can be polygynous (one male, multiple females),  polyandrous (one female, multiple males) or even polygnandrous (multiples of both sexes). Quite a lot of nest hopping for such an unobtrusive bird.