Letters from a Conservative Farmer: My Days as a Hedge Vet
The word "hedge" before the name of an occupation, as hedge carpenter, hedge mechanic, means that the practitioner, while he may be able, is outside professional lines; he has no official status, and in these dreadfully officious times, the name is disparaging. Not so in the past, especially in the countryside. In the Cape Breton countryside, for instance, where there were no vets at all until well after the war, the doctoring of animals, such as it was, was done by amateurs, men who had some knowledge of and affinity with animals, men who were known over a wide area for their skills. They performed a useful service in a time of need.
My career as a hedge vet was not cast in the heroic mould of the recent past, because, for one thing, there was a regular vet who could be called upon. In the first dozen years, while there were still farms and animals in the area, my usual role was the follow-up to the vet when he gave instructions for further treatment which the local people were reluctant to do - because, as I explained in a piece on plowing in these pages, Cape Bretoners were reluctant farmers, uncomfortable with animals. Tell such a man that he has to stick a large needle in the rump of his 1300-pound horse everyday for a week, and you can be sure it will be Jigs Gardner who does it. I was also in demand for castrating calves and piglets. It was not that I was especially gifted or courageous, but I had naturally learned how, within limits, to take care of our animals. You can't be calling the vet every time there's a problem. I had a vet book, and I had medicines, I had implements. We called on the vet now and then, and he would drop in for a cup of tea when he was in the area, so over the years we had become friends. I don't think money ever changed hands; he would take his fee in bacon or smoked fish, especially mackerel. He had worked on the island since the 1950s, and he had some rare stories.
By the late '80s the countryside had finally emptied out, and there was only one farm left, besides ours, in the whole of the Backlands, and that place was a source of tribulations for the vet. Into the early '80s it had been a typical subsistence farm of the area where the family lived, sparely, off the land and the sea: salt cod and herring, potatoes and turnips and cabbage, milk and butter and curds from a herd of animals that looked as unlike cows as possible and could still be cows, rough, fierce, horned beasts. But when the grandfather died, the family fell apart, and only one son, Alex, was left with his mother, Mary. He had been crippled in a bad accident, and I think there was some brain damage, too. With great fortitude he had taught himself to walk again, and he was determined to keep the farm running, to milk the cows and mow the hay and keep up with the plowing.
Admirable, even courageous, and you may be sure we helped him when we could, but I warn you: do not sentimentalize Alex. His cattle, half wild at best, were always getting into desperate straits from which the vet would have to extract them, but since Mary begrudged money spent on the vet, Alex would put off calling him until the last extremity. Then Alex always failed to follow the vet's instructions about continuing care, so the animal would relapse, the vet would be called again, Mary would scream and yell, and the vet would wish he'd gone into dentistry.
All this was going on three miles away beyond my ken, but at last I was drawn in simply because Mary put her foot down and refused to pay for follow-up calls. Our first mutual case seemed unremarkable but it established a pattern. Browncow (Alex called all his animals by their color) had foot rot, easily treated: cut away rotted tissue on the bottom of the hoof, scrub with a wire brush dipped in disinfectant like hydrogen peroxide, smear on sulfa ointment, bandage. After a couple of days, remove bandage, put her out to pasture, and keep her away from muck or manure. The vet had done his job; all Alex had to do was keep Browncow in the stable. Now the cow had had a relapse - would I come and give her a treatment?
As he drove me to his farm, I questioned him closely, and it was as I had feared: he had turned Browncow out in the barnyard for water. Picture the barnyard scene: junked cars, old tires, manure heaps, stagnant pools, broken glass. So I treated the cow - not easy, because the animals weren't handled much, which makes for wildness - and told Alex to pick me up in the morning so I could check on Browncow. I did that for two days, thus making sure Alex didn't turn her into the barnyard. Then we turned her out into a dry pasture. I retired, patting myself on the back.
That was in June. One morning in August Alex came barreling up the drive. Quick! An emergency! Whitecow this time. According to him, a few days ago Whitecow had turned up at the barn with a dead branch sticking through her brisket. But, as the vet later told me, it wasn't that straightforward. Quite evidently the stick had been in there for a few days before Alex had noticed it, and the wound was badly infected. How it had happened, the Lord only knows, but the vet had extracted the sharp stub, cleaned the wound, and told Alex how to care for it: he was to run a thin rod, wrapped 'round with gauze soaked in iodine, through the hole twice a day until the wound stopped discharging and began to dry up. He administered a large shot of antibiotics. Of course, Alex was too frightened to do as he was told, and now the wound was a suppurating mess. I did the job all right and gave Whitecow my last shot of antibiotics. I went back for three days until the wound healed.
The vet came by a week later for some bacon, and I asked for antibiotics and iodine. He raised his eyebrows. "What are you doing with the stuff? You use more medicine than farmers with barnsful of cows!" "Ah, but they don't have Alex to take care of," and I told him what I had been doing.
"Look: I'm doing your work, saving you the trouble and annoyance of dealing with his troubles. If you don't want to put me on the payroll, the least you could do is give me some medicine."
Next May, Alex came rushing up the lane with another emergency: his two-year-old bull, not quite as big as a cow, could no longer be contained in his stall and was rampaging around in the cow stable - would I come and deal with it? He had neither a collar nor a halter on it, and he didn't know what to do. He was quite frantic, and I didn't blame him - a bull running around loose in a cow stable! Thinking carefully about what might be required, I brought along a number of tools.
Let me set the scene: the stable is dirty and dark with a low ceiling and no windows, only shutters. The first thing I did was hit my head on a roof beam on my way to open the shutters, which disclosed the bull closely wedged between Browncow and Whitecow. I asked Alex for the halter. Nothing. I turned around to see him huddled in a corner with his arms wrapped around his head. I went out to the truck, got my halter, and by reaching around a cow, managed to get the halter on the bull and by a steady pull, with much cajolery, backed out the bull and got him into his narrow stall at the end of the stable. Standing there in the corner with the bull, I had to talk Alex up on his feet and out the door, around to the feed hatch in front of the bull. When he opened the hatch, I gave him the halter rope: "Don't let it go!"
Fitting a light chain around the bull's neck, I closed it with one of those chain repair links that screws together. With a brace and bit I drilled a hole though the corner post, shoved through a ringbolt, and screwed the nut tight. Securing snaps to another, larger piece of light chain, I snapped it to the bull's collar and then to the ringbolt. Before I removed the halter rope I showed Alex the chain collar and told him that as the bull grew, the chain would tighten and bite into his neck - I had seen that happen with one of our steers - so I had left enough extra length on the chain so he could move the repair link, thus expanding the collar. I emphasized this point several times. And I gave him the halter, which had a long lead rope; I had seen his with its foot-long lead. You can imagine the leverage he had with that.
Knowing Alex by how, you know what happened: he forgot to lengthen the chain and by September it was thoroughly embedded in the poor bull's neck. Of course, that's when he came to me. We managed to get it off, but it took much care with iodine and a wide soft bandage and lots of antibiotics before we could get a leather halter on him.
My last job for Alex wasn't exactly in the vet line. I had a Jersey bull, and he wanted to breed it to Redcow (by then he had sold his bull). He was afraid to take her in his pickup, fearing (probably correctly) that she'd manage to jump out, so he devised this scheme: his mother would walk Redcow the first mile, Alex would walk it the second mile, and I would take over for the home stretch. Sure, I said, anytime. You think I was out of my mind, but you must understand that Alex was always coming up with cockamamie schemes that never amounted to anything. He kept muttering about it all summer, but I paid no attention.
One September day a friend, Willie, drove in with a cattle box on his pickup, bringing with him a heifer for my bull to breed. We went to the barn, did the job, and were about to load the heifer back on the truck when Alex drove in, excited: the day had arrived! Mary was all ready to start walking Redcow as soon as I gave the word. I looked at Willie. It was Providential. We put the heifer in the stable, loaded the bull in the truck, and set off.
We parked about ten yards from Alex's stable and unloaded the bull. Meanwhile, Alex went in the stable. Long silence. Then banging and crashing. More silence. Then I made a big mistake: I asked Willie if he'd go in and give Alex a hand. Knowing Alex's ways, I should have gone; I never would have let him pass off that short halter on me. Willie disappeared in the stable. More noises. Suddenly the door flew open and Redcow shot out with Willie beside her holding, not my halter with the long lead rope, but that wretched thing of Alex's. Redcow charged around the lovely barnyard, dragging Willie through muck heaps and around junked cars before he had to let go. Redcow crashed through a fence, flew across a field and headed for the woods, tail in the air. Alex was in dogged pursuit.
It was the last time I saw him. The snows were heavy that year, and our lane was blocked until May tenth, when we moved back to the States, where, incidentally, I'm still a hedge vet. *