I was upstairs when my phone rang, my elder son’s name, Leo, showing on its screen. A short pause.
“We’ve got two for the price of one here” his slightly breathless voice called across the crackling line.
“What are you on about?” I asked, laughing.
Leo was driving home from Agriculture College and stopped to check on our in-calf cows in one of our fields. One of our rare breed White Parks had just calved, a bonny heifer calf already up on shaky legs and tottering towards Mum’s teats to suckle the all-important colostrum. Colostrum is the first milk, thick, golden in colour and full of the antibodies without which the new-born would be left exposed to many otherwise harmless illnesses. As he walked quietly up to the old cow Leo saw a movement in the long grass a few feet away. Puzzled he altered his course towards the movement to find a second calf. At first Leo looked around thinking that another cow had calved, but he quickly realised that this was the last White Park due.
“We have a set of White Park twins”, Leo answered, “a boy and a girl” both seem to be doing really well, as is Mum”.
I don’t know the statistics, but twins are very rare in cattle. Our rare breed British Lop pigs frequently have litters of ten to fifteen piglets. Our ewes commonly have twins, and even triplets every now and then. I have been breeding cattle for over twenty years. Twenty Years! I barely feel old enough for that to be possible. This is only our third set of twins in all that time. Even then the last twin was a calf we found wandering around the barn early one morning, disowned by its Mum, so we never actually managed to find out who produced her. She was hand reared largely by Dom, my youngest. For many years we used a more than life size photo of him bottle feeding her in our marketing. Dom hated this photo as it apparently did nothing for his considerable street cred.
A couple of days later, I went to check on the cattle outside. Rain drove down from the hill above the farm and raced across the land under glowering skies as the evening light faded early. I drove my old Land Rover up the lane to view the cattle. They were all there, oblivious to the elements, except that one of the twins was nowhere to be seen. Calves are funny sometimes. They like to sleep a lot, and often will search out the tallest grass, or a thick clump of nettles or thistles, as if by instinct, like Brer Rabbit, they understand these to be the safest places to snooze. So, almost certainly, the missing calf was nearby, but any stockman worth his salt would want to know for sure, as did I. No matter how well you know your cows, it really is not a great idea to walk among them newly calved. We’d had so much rain recently that while my trusty Land Rover was unlikely to get stuck, it would certainly make a mess of the long lush grass. The light was failing fast so I drove quickly back to the farm and took our quad out of its secure hiding place and gunned it up the lane. I didn’t have time to dress for the weather, and the sharp needles of the rain pierced through my clothes to my skin within seconds. Once in the field I rode across and up to where the cattle were huddled, not far from an old hedge, backs turned into the howling wind and biting, cold rain. The cattle called to me in unison and trotted over to where I had come to a halt, no doubt hoping that I might have some food for them. The mother of the twins held back, watching over the same calf that I had seen earlier which lay curled up asleep nearby. She called to me again, but this time she also clearly looked all around as if searching for her other calf, which no doubt she was. I could barely see as my spectacles lacked windscreen wipers, but the cattle settled down once it was clear that I bore neither food nor harm. I moved the quad as close as I dared to the White Park cow. Its calf woke up, raised its head and looked at me for all the world as if it saw wet farmers on quad looking down upon it with great regularity.
I spent the next hour searching the field from the quad, going over and over the same ground again and again. Part of the field is very steep and leads down to a brook which normally babbles innocently along. The innocent babble had turned into a furious torrent which, in a few places, had broken its banks. There are ancient hawthorns, bent and twisted, shrouding hobbit-like refuges dug out over the years by sheep and cattle sheltering from the elements. Old trees and bushes grow in thickets, probably dating back centuries to when the whole of this area was covered in forest, and only populated by truly wild animals.
I was really cold, by now soaked to my skin, tired and having been quite jolly about the adventure initially, now very down it the mouth and increasingly certain that disaster had struck in some shape or form. It was almost dark and visibility sorely lacking. I have heard tales over the years of people snatching young animals from fields and barns. There is an increasing amount of poaching and butchery happening in fields. Reports of farmers finding mutilated lambs and ewes in their fields abound. With these tales in mind, I took one more slow turn around the field, searching the fence line. Down a steep slope in wet corner, furthest away from where the herd was still standing in the relentless rain, I thought I saw a flash of white. I stopped and looked again, but it was gone. I turned the quad carefully around to look again, and there, barely visible through the long grass, and only visible from that one specific point and at that one specific angle was something white. Hopeful that it was the missing calf, half certain that it was probably not, I inched the quad bike slowly forward. Whatever it was, lay on the far side of the fence, just at the top of where the river bank dropped steeply down to the swollen torrential water flow. I stopped alongside the fence, stood up on the bike and leaned over towards the white thing. Sure enough, it was the missing calf. It lay very very still. It noise, ears and feet tipped in black, the rest of its body brilliant luxurious white with flecks of black randomly splashed over its body. I dismounted from the quad and clambered over the fence. Still the calf stayed curled up tightly in a ball, either dead or asleep. I bent down and gently caressed its head and moved my hand down the length of its body. To my relief, the velvety coat was warm to my touch. First one eye, sheltered by long 1950’s movie star lashes, opened, so slowly and then the other. Seemingly oblivious to the Lear-like weather conditions and the loud thrumming of the bike a couple of feet away, the missing person looked me straight in the eye calmly and slowly blinked a couple of times.
I rubbed its body more vigorously to get the blood flowing and helped it to its feet. I lifted it up and lowered it gently over the fence into the field. The calf shook himself like a dog in the rain and then took off like a race horse, along the line of the fence, found a hole in the wire and tried to return to the safety of the long grass. I grabbed his back legs as he tried to disappear through the wire fence again. He was too skittish for me to be able to herd back to the family group, so I carried him over to the quad and held him in my arms while I sat astride the big machine. The calf, actually not so little when he’s slung across your lap, struggled at first and then settled down. I pointed the quad at the hill, lent forward over the great hairy lump on my lap, one hand on his back and used the other to open up the throttle and head up the steep hill. Once at the top, I could see the rest of the cattle still stoically resisting the rain at the far end of the field. I felt like a cowboy in an old western film, bringing back the lost calf to camp and to the adoring eyes of some tightly clothed Hollywood bombshell. In my case, no bombshell, and the only eyes on me were distinctly bovine. The calf, surprisingly strong, tried to leap to the ground a couple of times during our journey, but otherwise behaved very calmly. I pulled up as closely to his Mum as I dared and called to her, making my best impersonation of a calling calf. As she began to come towards me, I let the calf slide gently off my lap onto the ground. With no look back, its tail high in the air, the little thing raced over to Mum, immediately searching for the milk bar. I stayed watching for a couple of minutes, savouring the moment. I drove happily back to the farm and a hot shower.
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