October 19, 2008

Daft Laddies – Braxy mutton

Daft Laddies. Farming Tales of North Tyne and Rede 50 years on.

By Clive Dalton and Donald Clegg

An extract from the book - Daft Laddies. Farming Tales of North Tyne and Rede 50 years on (2003) By Clive Dalton and Donald Clegg. If you would like a copy, contact donaldclegg@btopenworld.com

Daft laddies on North Tyne and Redesdale hill farms were trained to espouse the ethic of "waste not-want not". It made a lot of sense because in the days before cars and supermarkets, ootbye folk had to be self sufficient to feed family, workers and callers taking orders, like the draper with his monstrous suitcases from The Holm (Newcastelton), and Baden Thompson from Arthur Bell's the grocers in Bellingham.

The "waste nowt" principle extended to meat from sheep that died from causes that experience showed were no threat to human health. The diseases on the "eatable list" were braxy, scrapie, cappie, border orf, sturdy, loupin’ ill and staggers.

Now remember, these diseases had been part of sheep farming right through the 19th and early 20th Centuries, long before their causes were understood by veterinarians and before vaccines had been developed.

"The sickness” or “braxy" was the most common disease that struck young sheep, especially hoggs in those days, so heords could look forward to eating quite a bit of "sickness hogg" or "braxy mutton” as a welcome addition to the diet.

If ye want te git fancy, “Braxy is caused by Clostridium septicum producing a profound toxaemia by invasion of the abomasal wall”! The bugs are permanent residents in the gut but with a rapid diet change (eg moving hoggs on to the fresh green “fogs” when hay fields grew again, plus maybe a touch of frost) they multiply rapidly and kill the sheep. It was a heartbreak to see your top hoggs lyin’ deed on a frosty mornin’ and blaan up in nee time – the latter being a sure sign of the sickness.

So whaat cud a desperate heord dee aboot braxy? The following prevention was described by 84-year-old Willie Robson, who heorded sheep on leaving school on his family farm at Willowbog in the North Tyne. This recipe was used by his father and neighbours. Here’s Willie’s report:

"Aall heords hed a pig and durin’ braxy time (Autumn) the pig was fed only on fog grass and new milk for two weeks. The pighoose hed to be kept spotless clean. The pig's dung was collected using two bits of slate and put in a bucket. When we hed plenty, the dung was weighed oot intiv a muslin bag an mixed wi' milk. Two pints milk to one pund o' dung. It could tek two or three weeks to get plenty for the five farms that wanteed some. Each farm got a ration accordin’ to huw mony hoggs they hed and the hoggs were dosed just the once. Aa never knew what it tasteed like. It seemed to work. Aa divn’t think thor waas as mony deed as might ha’ been."

But it turned oot that the old bard who wrote the famous song "The dosin’ of the hoggs" expressed the correct conclusion in the lines "but Geordie o’ the Seven Sykes said he would bet his clogs, that it was just an owld wife's fancy, was the dosin’ of the hoggs".

With today's paranoia about public health, can you imagine the reaction today to the very idea of eating “fallen” stock which is a nice word for “deed”? And can you imagine the EU regulations that would approve such a thing when now you cannot even bury a deed yowe on your farm? Bu it was thanks to the high temperatures of the old coal-fired ovens that killed any threatening nasties that nobody ever suffered ill effects from their dinner. The practice was still current into the 1950s and however unappetising this may seem to modern palates, neebody died or developed any afflictions from eating braxy mutton or other fallen animals.

So from December to May ootbye heords were said to live on home-fed, home-cured, varry saalty bacon with a three inch layer of fat on it, pork sausage, black puddin’, grey puddin’, ham, potted meat, chops, etc. This would be varied by the occasional rabbit, hare or pheasant, mebee fish from the burn or pigeon from the wood. There were always nesting birds’ eggs, e.g. curlew’s or peewit’s, but folk were always a bit loathe to take them. On farms near a lough, gulls’ eggs were plentiful and made a nice change.

So by spring ootbye folk would be looking for something a bit different. Sheep and lambs, that had died from braxy and other natural causes, were quickly skinned, jointed and either popped strite inte the pot or the oven, or salted away to see the family through to the next pig-killin’ day. Similarly, lambs that had died from scrapie, cappie or staggers met the same fate, though loupin' ill victims were not so keenly sought after. If heords knew what we know now about scrapie and it's links with CJD - that would have been off the menu an aall!

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