Saturday 18 November 2017

Of plant-loving princes, mad kings and calves

The Prince of Wales. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire
The Prince of Wales. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

Fiona O'Connell

This country town recently got a makeover. The lines on the road were repainted and the traffic cones that were dumped in the river were finally removed (though, naturally, not by those who put them there).

All in honour of Prince Charles paying a brief visit.

There were jokes about what to do if he fancied a 99 and whether it might be best not to boast that the ice-cream was fit for a king. The fact that our own chieftain - President Higgins - recently partook of a local pub's pleasures prompted a debate as to whether a presidential visit trumps a royal one, before it was decided that it might be best to keep the American ayatollah out of it.

The ready ribbing of this particular royal arguably stems from his reputation as a crackpot who likes to talk to plants. Which does seem comical, now that talking to animals - except pets - is increasingly considered insane. For long gone are the days when farmers were so fondly familiar with their four-legged charges that they nicknamed them. All such terms of endearment have been wiped out by vast herd numbers in service to the Goliath that is the modern dairy industry.

The thousands of male bovine babies resulting from it are deemed surplus to requirements. Which is why our minister for agriculture recently speeded up the profitable process of getting rid of them by shipping them halfway around the world and reducing the cost of veterinarian inspection fees beforehand.

Some in the farming community privately express unease about live exports but they claim it is their only option, as abattoirs won't pay a fair price for beef.

No wonder then that it seems longer than a few years since a piece in a local newspaper about a farmer who sang to his cows. He believed this was why he was able to milk them when they were, in his words, old and grey. The image of those mature mothers coaxed into giving milk by his gentle interaction reminded me of slaves - but under a kind master.

Significantly, that farmer had retired because the industry had become too industrialised for his humane pace. And though the fields are still full of cattle, up close everything has changed. As I was reminded when I stopped by one where a calf was peering through the gate.

He had that 'new to the world' question mark hovering over his head, as if he had just woken and didn't know where he was. For that field only held other calves - all looking just as lost.

I wondered if anyone had ever spoken to that withdrawn little soul, beyond curt commands or less than gentle prods. And when he had been robbed of his mother's nurturing care. But one thing I knew was that he would likely be gone from that field the next time I passed.

So maybe I have something in common with the plant-loving prince. Though believing we should have compassionate contact with farm animals probably makes me madder than even the mad King George.

Sunday Independent

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