Farm Ireland

Sunday 19 November 2017

Castrating bulls tougher in the past, involving hallowed out elder sticks filled with Bluestone

Joe Barry

Joe Barry

My thanks to all those who responded to my query as to what was "Butter of St Anthony", popular in years gone by for treating footrot in sheep. It was in fact Butter of Antimony or antimony chloride which is a form of hydrochloric acid.

One man said he remembered his father applying it with a feather to the affected hooves whereupon they smoked.

Strong stuff but it did the job.

I find it fascinating to recall these old medicines and the tasks that formerly were all part of the farming year.

One major event we undertook with some apprehension each autumn was castrating the bull weanlings. First the cows and calves were assembled and driven into a chute.

The bulls then had leather shackles with a ring attached strapped on each of their four legs. Not an easy task with hooves flying in all directions.


They were then moved to the front of the chute whereupon a chain was run through the rings and as each weanling ran out, the chain was pulled tight and he fell to the ground with all four legs tightly bound.

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There was a strong element of a rodeo about all of this and it required strength and athleticism on all our parts to hold him firm.

No wonder so many elderly farmers like me have aches, pains, bruises and bad backs.

The Aberdeen Angus were the hardest to handle. They must have known what was about to happen.

The herd, a very important man in those days, produced his implements which consisted of a sharp penknife for cutting the scrotum and a number of elder sticks along with some bluestone and grease.

The elder sticks had been cut from the hedgerows into short lengths and split in half with the soft centre removed. The grooves were filled with the bluestone mix and the sticks then clamped on the cord above the testicles and tied tight with twine. The weanling was then released but removing the leather straps required great caution.

Having separated the calves, the cows then had a mix of creosote and archangel tar rubbed on their udders with the aid of a long stick with a rag tied to the end to reduce the risk of mastitis.

It must have stung like hell and certainly produced a lot of kicking. Horses were vital for carrying out those tasks for which we now use tractors and their health was of paramount importance.

I well recall how many livestock farmers kept a cob for pulling a trap and transporting hay to outwintered cattle as well as an occasional outing with the local hunt.

Any horse that appeared out of sorts was given a dose of the wonderfully named 'Cupiss's Balls'. These were about the size and shape of a handball and in order to get a horse to swallow one, a wooden tube with a plunger was used, a bit like a bicycle pump. The tube was inserted down the animal's throat and on compressing the plunger, the ball was then delivered.

This was a two-man job and proved quite exciting when attempting to administer to less amenable thoroughbreds. These famous balls were available up until relatively recently in Ireland and I recall purchasing some in Leonards Hardware in Trim in the 1970s.

Cupiss's powders can be still purchased from Horse Requisites Ltd in Newmarket, a shop I often visited when attending Tattersall's sales.

The original inventor, Francis Cupiss, was born in London in 1798. Having served his apprenticeship as a chemist, he later became a member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.

He then moved to Norfolk where he practiced as a vet and chemist and received a silver medal from the Royal Veterinary Society for his work.


It is amazing to think that his potions are still available two centuries later. One advertisement for the balls read "Cupiss's constitution balls, the best and most effective medicine for preserving in good health and prime condition that noble animal the horse".

Testimonials published in the mid-1800s were even better.

"I bought a bullock in Doncaster Market sometime since and after I got him home, I found he was constantly being blown and very much out of sorts.

"The veterinary did him no good and I couldn't give him a little bit of turnip without his being blown. My man then began to use your balls and after three doses he became alright and has not looked back since."

Another stated: "I find your constitution balls to be an excellent medicine for horses at hard work, particularly for Grease, Cracked Heels, Surfeit, Hidebound and Loss of Appetite. After trying a great many medicines, all of which failed, I succeeded with your constitution balls in bringing a colt I had entered in the Derby into prime condition, after a very obstinate case of surfeit and hidebound; he is now fresh as a star and as fine as a fawn."

Surfeit and hidebound certainly sound worrying, whatever they were.

Irish Independent