It’s been a long week down on the farm. Heat slows everything down and the countryside looks like one of those slow-motion scenes in Elvira Madigan. Fields of barley the colour of Farrow & Ball Straw barely ripple. The sugar beet, green as a spinach salad a week ago, now looks limp and weary. We’d like to give it a drink, but even the machinery is complaining. Everything mechanical in the pump house has succumbed to heat stroke, causing the irrigation to shudder to a halt.
But it’s the animals who really suffer from the heat. Otis has gone off his food and won’t budge from a patch in the kitchen where the overhead fan and two open windows resemble a breeze. Minou, a semi-wild barn cat, has decamped to a shady glade by the horse pond. And in the middle of a field that looks as hot as Texas, Norah, matriarch of my small herd of Red Polls, has given birth to a calf.
It’s not like we weren’t expecting it. For months, she’s looked like she was delivering a Pontiac, and last week, she wandered off on her own. What we didn’t expect was that her calf, a beautiful girl, would arrive on the hottest day of the year. Despite a low birth weight, she seemed sprightly enough and we figured that all was well. In fact, nothing was well. Age Norah is 17 and heat 91˚F had robbed Norah of her milk. The crucial eight hours when the calf most needs the colostrum had passed, and she never got a drop, surviving entirely on nutrients supplied before she entered
this hot world.
It’s one of those mysteries in life that, as bombs go off round the world, jobs and homes are lost, and all hell is breaking loose, when an animal’s life is at stake, everything suddenly stops. Will, who runs the farm, and Ollie, his right-hand man, fully stretched to repair the irrigation, bale the hay, and gear up the combines for harvest, stop everything to give me a hand in the attempt to save the calf’s life. While I caress Norah and hold her still, Ollie gets what milk he can from her, filling the baby bottle from the lambing shed.
The calf drinks it and our spirits soar. The difference between life and death is in the sucking. But attempts to get more milk reveal how serious the situation is: Norah’s as dry as a bone. But this is the age of the mobile phone. In minutes, Will and Ollie have called around and found frozen colostrum, prepared for emergencies by Jane Capon, who has a herd of Jerseys. An hour later, she arrives with it, and two gallons of fresh organic milk and a vial of Rescue Remedy. We’re on the way.
But by 6am the next morning, our optimism seemed far-fetched. A farmer basing decisions on economics wouldn’t have called the vet, but by now, we’d entered more emotional terrain. At 6:30am, I made the call, and half an hour later, the ‘cattle’ vet arrived. Nigel Swayne looks more like Gary Cooper’s sidekick in High Noon, always in jeans and a freshly ironed Ralph Lauren shirt, grey-haired, calm, lucid, direct.
Farmers all over Suffolk think he’s a miracle-worker and I’ve witnessed one myself but Nigel doesn’t believe in miracles. He prefers science, although he’s always grateful for luck. One look at the listless calf, and he tells us she ‘isn’t really a runner’, but he gives her a couple of injections, begins rehydrating her and shows us how to get the tube inside her mouth, all 12in of it.
And so I move between hope and hope abandoned. Just when I think we should let the patient die quietly, she shows her survivor’s spirit. Meanwhile, I’m trying hard not to let the calf’s suffering become the embodiment of all the wretchedness on Earth. I don’t know if Norah’s sad eyes are telling me she’s grateful or begging me to leave them in peace. The temperature is rising and life is put on hold.