Up until now, I’ve been the only person in the world to know that I cheated, not once but twice.  Quite a thought that: approximately seven billion people on the planet and I’m the only one to know. My guilty secret.  It’s almost a shame to spoil it by coming clean about what happened.  But what the hell, it was a few years ago and no one got hurt.  Well, I say ‘no one’ but who does that include?  Are animals no ones?

Where to start?

At the time, more or less on a whim, I’d bought my uncle’s farm.  He wanted to retire and I, just turned forty, had made a packet from selling my recruitment agency.  We had a number of lucrative contracts hiring overseas workers for the NHS, but the press were increasingly hostile.  Too much hassle, I wanted out.  So, virtually overnight, I became a multi-millionaire and the owner of a 500 acre farm with a limestone farmhouse, numerous rundown barns and outhouses, five farm workers and an award winning herd of 100 Jersey cattle, with doleful eyes and long eyelashes.

I’ve always had a soft spot for animals.  When I was a kid we had cats and dogs, rabbits and gerbils too.  I can still remember all their names and the elaborate burial ceremonies in the garden when they died.  My sister was crazy about horses so we had a pony too.  All quite innocent and soppy so you’ll understand that suddenly owning a commercial farm raised the bar considerably.  But, being a conscientious sort of bloke and, if I’m honest, not wanting to make a fool of myself (oh, the naivety!), I enrolled on a City & Guilds course run by the local Agricultural College.  

I was, of course, a complete misfit: middle-aged, wealthy and over-confident.  By contrast, my fellow students, all young apprentices on day-release from farms in the College’s catchment area, were spotty, penniless and bolshie.  We attended lectures in the mornings — bad ones, disorganized and boring — and donned wellies and undertook practicals in the afternoons.  Predictably, the apprentice’s struggled in the mornings while I excelled and our roles were dramatically reversed in the afternoons, when they were in their element and I was a ham-fisted novice. 

At various stages throughout the course we had to takeproficiency tests.  External examiners would appear, looking suitably stern, dressed incongruously in white overalls, clutching clip-boards.

The first proficiency test was disbudding — removing the horn buds on six-week old calves using a hot-iron.  The need to do this was, for me, a revelation.  I had never given a moment’s thought to cows horns and the damage they could inflict if they were allowed to grow.  For the apprentices, however, not only was the need to disbud common knowledge, but they were already well practised in the procedure.  For them it was a doddle. 

We’d had a few practice runs before the day of the test and I, cocky bugger, was sure I’d got the hang of it.  First, catch the calf and restrain it.  Second, run your thumb along the channel that runs diagonally from the calf’s eye to its ear.  Third, locate the junction about half way between the two.  Fourth, keep your thumb on the spot and, using a syringe, inject the anaesthetic.  Fifth, do the same on the other side.  Sixth, wait five minutes.  Seventh, stick a pin into each bud to check the anaesthetic has taken effect.  Eighth, if the calf doesn’t flinch, burn off each bud.  Job done.  Easy-peasy.

In the light of what I’m about to confess, I should perhaps quote a relevant passage from the handout we’d been given: The whole process to remove both buds should take no longer than 10 minutes and the calf should not struggle at any stage during the procedure.  A stressed calf means a stressed worker, which is self-perpetuating.  The use of a local anaesthetic is a legal requirement when hot-iron disbudding.

The day came for us to take the proficiency test with an unsmiling external examiner in attendance.  As I waited for the opportunity to demonstrate my newfound prowess, I was surprised to find myself feeling apprehensive.  This was of course absurd since passing the test didn’t really matter to me and throughout my previous life I’d always taken exams in my stride.  When my turn came, feigning calm competence, I restrained a hapless calf, used my thumb to locate the correct place for the anaesthetic, inserted the needle and squeezed the plunger on the syringe.

I’d administered about half the dose when I realised I’d inserted the needle into the end of my own thumb!  Fortunately the examiner was busy noting something on his clipboard so I surreptitiously withdrew the needle, moved my thumb aside and put what remained of the anaesthetic into the calf.  Meanwhile, my thumb went numb and a strange fizziness spread rapidly up my left arm.  I remember wondering if the anaesthetic might reach my heart but, not wanting to do anything that might jeopardise my first proficiency test, I remained stoical.  I refilled the syringe and injected aesthetic into the other side of the calf’s head without mishap.  When I stuck the pin into the left horn, the poor calf jumped.  The examiner looked puzzled but told me to carry on regardless. 

Quite undeservedly, I passed the test and wasn’t asked to explain why my calf was the only one to put up such a heroic struggle.  It took the rest of the day for the effects of the anaesthetic to wear off and for my arm to feel normal.

Castration brought about my second misadventure.  Our lecturer had demonstrated the procedure and I’ll spare you the gory details but suffice to say that testicles are slippery things with a strong sense of self-preservation.  Once exposed by cutting through the scrotum, they quickly take fright and ascend, like a high speed elevator, into the body cavity.  Once there, tantalisingly just out of reach, they stubbornly refuse to come back down.  Our lecturer had warned us about this and emphasized the importance of blocking the escape route by using your fingers in a swift scissor movement.

When I first attempted castration, we happened to be visiting a farm where the farmer, quite understandably, was worried we might make a hash of things.  He insisted that all the testicles, once removed, should be placed in a large kidney dish.  At intervals throughout the afternoon, the farmer would suddenly appear and check that the dish contained an even number of testicles.   

Fortunately, when it was my turn to wield the knife, the farmer wasn’t in attendance.  Neither was our lecturer who, I think, had gone behind a wall for a quick pee.  Undaunted, I cut open the scrotum and grabbed one slippery testicle but failed to catch the other one.  To my horror, it made a rapid ascent and stopped, quivering, within sight but just out of reach.  Fearing the farmer’s imminent return, I made a quick decision: I severed one testicle, stuffed it into my pocket and released the calf with the other testicle still intact. 

The lecturer returned, doing up his zip, and was surprised to find how swiftly I’d completed the procedure.  When the farmer next appeared to do a spot-check, he found an even number of testicles in the kidney dish.  Fortunately, it didn’t seem to occur to him to count the calves in the ‘done’ pen, multiply by two and see if the answer tallied with the testicles in the dish.    

Later, cruising along the motorway in my Bentley, I tossed my guilty secret out of the window onto the central reservation.  In my rear view mirror, I watched a red kite swoop down and carry the unexpected delicacy away.

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