September 30, 2008

Death and destruction on a Tyneside farm

By Dr Deric Charlton

Killing is part and parcel of life when you live on a farm! After all, we tend the stock for feeding people so it never pays to be too sensitive when you're a farmer. We were obviously sad when people like Grandpa passed on, but had to return to running the farm and attending to the daily chores, including slaughter. Naturally the livestock were familiar friends – after all, we had all the cows identified with names on their stalls!

After we moved to the farm my mother even had names for the poultry that roamed under free-range conditions and ate what they liked. One day a mate and I watched a hen as she pecked away in the straw that littered the stackyard, and we stirred it up a little and then counted all the worms that she tucked into. We were gob-smacked when we counted around 60 worms in only five minutes! We reckoned she was an Italian Leghorn by descent and liked spaghetti! And you worry about GE food, and what goes into your sausages!

One of the fragrant farmyard memories that still tingles my nasal passages is the smell of burnt feather remains after we had plucked "chickens" (layers that fell behind schedule!) just before Christmas. The villagers used to pester my parents for Christmas dinners so we soon realised that this was an excellent to cull the flock of layers, and the days before Christmas were a frenzy of pulling hen necks and then quickly plucking all the feathers before they cooled off, as they were much harder to remove then.

We would sit in a dingy outhouse, sneezing away as the poultry dandruff drifted around the place, and sit plucking feathers from hens that still jerked, in an activity that reminded me of the sheep shearing competitions down in New Zealand! But that wasn't the worst part. While hens were easily sent onto "Hen Heaven", the geese were another matter. You couldn't end their leisurely lives in the same way, and some experienced person had to cut their throats with a knife instead.

It wasn't a rare sight to see geese still running around the farmyard without their heads, until life ended for them and their culinary responsibility took over. We never reared turkeys as in our part of the planet the daft creatures were too naïve to stay out of the weather when it turned nasty, so they died well before they were needed at Christmas.

Another regular ritual was killing and preparing a pig for farm fare. This only happened a few times a year and the village butcher came along to despatch the unfortunate resident when its time had arrived. He did this with a "humane killer" – a stainless steel gun that fired a spike into the animal's brain, powered by a 0.22 calibre cartridge. Over the years the village butchers became familiar faces, and they may have been good at their jobs, but no one is perfect.

The assistant was despatching a sheep one day while I watched, and he held its head between his knees while doing the dirty deed. Suddenly the sheep turned its head when it wasn't meant to, and the butcher sent the spike into his knee! Well, the air quickly became blue with colourful phrases at that point, and the poor sheep was sent to its resting place just before the butcher was taken to a place where painkiller could be administered. But let's get back to the pig…

Once it was dead, the butcher cut it into the required traditional parts and left us to process these in the traditional way. The blood was poured into the cleaned intestines to make a long chain of black pudding, and we rubbed salt petre into the sides and left them to hang in cool conditions, allowing them to develop into delicious home-cured bacon cured the sides, and some of the rest went into sausages…

Being really civilised people we didn't eat the head, as happens in some parts of the British Isles, and haggis was a legend that existed north of the border! I'd always wondered when I was a youngster, as to why there were a series of hooks in the farm kitchen ceiling, and was relieved to know eventually that they weren't to hang up mischievous grandsons, but were for the pig remains, to be weathered by the conversations and smoke that inevitably rose in the kitchen.

Yet another lethal experience was despatching farm cats and dogs once they had reached their "use by date". These animals were useful additions to the farming staff, yet they inevitably developed problems after many years of duty and had to follow the stock on occasions, and the job usually fell to the male family members to undertake. Sometimes the males knew better when the pet's time had come to an end than the women of the enterprise, and I still remember one weekend – and the weeks of silence that followed it – when my grandpa realised that their very old, and very obese Labrador, had to be put to sleep.

Poor Dulcy had rather poor house manners and also added to the farmhouse aromas, so he waited until Grandma went off for a weekend Women's Institute convention and then took the unfortunate hound over the home field, tied it to a tree, and with both barrels of his shotgun, ended the long life of the dog. When Grandma returned from her excursion and discovered an empty space in the hearth (and a definite aroma missing) she soon discovered what had occurred, and sent poor Grandpa to Coventry for a spell. Eventually everyone realised that he had done them all a favour, but it took a while before he received daily favours….

Later on I became familiar with having to put ailing farm cats to sleep. We had a cat gang to keep vermin at bay, and some came into the house to curry favour with the family, but sooner or later they lost condition (usually as a result of old age) and as the oldest son, I was usually the one asked to put the animal out of its misery, to minimise vet bills. So I learned that animals can be friends, but we have to be cruel to be kind to them on occasion as well. Some of the cats were real characters – just like the people around them!

One farm moggy was always wild, and could never be persuaded to come indoors – until one Sunday, when my father was sitting reading the Sunday newspaper, at the head of the long well worn kitchen table that had been there for about 150 years, when in walked the "wild one". The rest of the family noticed its entrance, and yet we stayed quiet, awaiting a comment from our father once he had spotted the prodigal cat. The said intruder moved around and rubbed his head against various objects within reach, and then spotted part of the newspaper that had fallen from the table, and proceeded to "do its business" right by my father's feet! It didn't take long for his nose to detect the strong aroma rising from below, and when he glanced down and saw the source of the intrusion, and the intruder, the Sunday peace suddenly ended – and the wild one quickly returned to familiar surroundings, hotly pursued by a sustained outburst of rather un-Sabbatical phrases. However, that was one cat that I didn't have to despatch – it vanished of its own accord.

One of my own encounters involved an emotional afternoon getting rid of the Greek Consul's hens. I should explain that he resided in a splendid home over a small field beyond our stackyard, on the beautiful Westfield Lane that divided the farm from the Tyneside Golf Club, which ran parallel to the main farm block. That afternoon I was "doon the yard" when I heard a crack and a whistle that reminded me of my shooting practice in the cadet force, and when it happened again I quickly discerned the direction it was coming from – only this time there was a familiar ricochet. I carefully crossed the small field and spotted the Greek Consul taking a pot shot at something and then letting go with his 0.22 rifle, so I called out and asked what on earth he was doing.

He explained that he had been recalled to his home land and that he had to leave his pets – about two dozen hens behind in Ryton. Being Greek, he couldn't bear to wring their necks, so he had phoned the village butcher and asked him to do the dirty deed, but alas, the butcher was too busy to oblige. Well being a daft lad with a sensitive heart, I offered to do the job for him, having explained that the method he was using – letting the hens out one at a time and then trying to end their days Annie Oakley style – was also lethal to people within a three-mile radius.

So he kindly accepted my offer but insisted that, instead of wringing their necks in the pre-Christmas style, that I place their heads on the ground, put a broom handle over the slender neck and keeping it in place with my feet, give the hen's torso a lethal yank to suddenly send it to "Greek Heaven". Well, it took a while to achieve my objective but I managed and then asked if I could pluck the fowl and use them as good meat, envisaging this as payment for my time and effort. However, he insisted, emotional person that he was, that they all be buried in a communal grave in his garden – and then after I had done that, sent me on my way without any remuneration! Since then, I have always treated Greek males with some caution….

One of the hazards of living on the farm and having a mother who hadn't a farming background was that we often had to share our meals in the farm kitchen with cheeps and juvenile quacks from ducklings. The poultry was my mother's part of the farm and she soon became a dab hand at rearing all sorts of hens, ducks and even bantams, and the kitchen cupboard was a great hospital for those that didn't get up and walk as soon as they emerged from their egg. She employed a range of her own remedies to ensure their survival, some of which worked a treat. One such remedy was a teaspoonful of whisky – much to the disgust of her husband, and there were quite a few feathered layers that owed their lives to this particular reviver.

One hen that we all could easily identify and who owed her existence to a "wee drap" was Droopy. She was one of many who used to hang around the concrete yard at the farmhouse back door, which was the daily feeding area of the free-ranging poultry looked after by my mother. One day, when my mother went out with her bucket of grain to feed her charges, she saw this forlorn creature standing but drooping and obviously suffering from some fowl ailment. So she took the hen indoors and gave it her "special medication" from a teaspoon. The next morning the hen was miraculously back to normal so was returned to her mates to forage around the farmyard.

But this hen had a memory. Every time we went out the back door, there she was, standing on the concrete area waiting, and you would swear that as soon as she saw whoever was emerging, she would go into her "droopy mode" and appear to be a suffering fowl. And who could blame her?

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