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One of the best things about my job is the variety. I really cannot predict what will walk, trot or limp through the door. Lately lots of fleas have come hopping into the consult room, hitching a ride. Perusing the list last week the number of ‘itchy dog/scratching cat’ presentations seemed a little repetitive: boring, even. And we have passed the autumn equinox when things traditionally cool off. At this time of year one was often safe to diagnose harvest mites before the furry patient was even standing on the table (see Happy Camping).

But this year the flea season has been long and itchy.

A combination of a mild winter and the lovely long hot summer has helped these wingless creatures keep on multiplying. A single female flea will shed 50 eggs a day. So 90% of the problem is not on your furry friend but in the carpet or car or, yes, in or under your bed. When the eggs fall from Fido’s coat they hatch into larvae, sort-of mini caterpillar-like creatures, and like gremlins they do not like the light and so head deeper into that lovely thick pile or down under the skirting boards or bed. There they feast on flea faeces and dead skin before pupating: something similar but less beautiful than the butterfly scenario. Unless you are a cabbage grower, in which case even butterflies lose their charm.

This stage is very difficult to kill. Even with household sprays and fumigation.

So we have to use our beloved pets as flea magnets: as they pad around the house their vibrating footfall and CO2 emissions encourage the pupae to hatch quickly into young adult fleas. Ready for a blood meal. They hop on board, and hopefully with a decent veterinary product used to protect our pets, the fleas die.

It can take a few weeks to rid the place of the pupated form which can survive two years or more – as you may have read about in Call the Vet when Cauli was so badly bitten.

Top tips:

No1) How to check if your pet has fleas:

Often you will not see the adult insect, especially on cats which can groom out most signs. So look for the flea dirts instead by wetting a piece of white kitchen roll or cotton wool and using a narrow comb (eg nit comb – are you scratching yet?) and combing out the coat and any debris onto the wetness. Any darker debris that dissolves a rust colour is flea faeces – stained from sucking your pet’s blood.

No 2) Don’t forget to treat the car if you have dogs.

No 3) Use a decent veterinary product.

Oh, and you will need to treat for tapeworm too as they can live in the flea.

That is another lovely topic for another time!

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50 Things

Rafting 001 (28)‘Number One: Climb a Tree’ pronounced Beth, aged 8 3/4. ‘But which child hasn’t done that?’ she asked incredulously. It did indeed seem slightly far-fetched that the National Trust could imagine that any self-respecting 11 3/4 year-old child might not have done this.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the National Trust is a great organisation. I love its ethos, its assets and now its ideas to get kids active.

As they say on their website: ‘There’s nothing quite like fresh air, exercise and family time. You can’t beat the fun you have in the Great Outdoors and creating memories that will last a lifetime.’

Recognising that sometimes it is a struggle to get kids outside, they have created ‘50 things to do before you’re 11¾‘. They want to encourage kids to get mucky, discover their wild side and most of all enjoy what Mother Nature has to offer!

Even if some of it seems rather basic. But teacher friends of mine, some working in challenging city schools, tell me that building a den (no 4), flying a kite (no 7) or eating an apple straight from a tree (no 9) may not be on the parental agenda. As for numbers 28, 48 and 42 – climbing a huge hill, abseiling or wild swimming, well they would be unthinkable and quite possibly unmanageable for many.

It has made me realise how fortunate the country child is, and in particular the off-spring of a farming family. True, we are quite tied to the farm and its calendar, and it can get a bit tricky celebrating birthdays in the middle of calving time. Two years ago Jack celebrated turning eight with a woodland themed party – a hashing trail with a den-building competition in the wood on the farm. All was fine until farmer Rob was caught up calving a heifer whilst I had to manage ten excited small boys toasting marshmallows on the open fire they had built. Yet on the other hand we have all this space. Camping out in the wild (no 3) and bug hunting (no 31) are basic summer amusements just beyond the backdoor.

By the time Jack was 10 3/4 he and Beth had ticked off all but three of the challenges. So this summer we took a fantastic family break in Wales and went rafting. No 43 was comprehensively tackled.

Having spent a good deal of this mostly sunny summer smelling like an old woodsman from having smoked myself over the campfire and supervising rather over-enthusiastic cooking (no 47), I am in no hurry to teach the children how to light a fire without matches (no 44). So that leaves just no 17: set up a snail race. We are saving that for a rainy day.

Is that cricket?

castrating crop circlesI thought summer was here to stay. Farmer Rob has been in shorts for weeks and the barn owls have just fledged. Both quite a sight!

But alas all that remains of that amazing unbroken warm weather is a circle of dead grass on the lawn where the paddling pool resided, and Rob’s sock line.

I know it is still summer though, from the amount of time I am spending scrubbing cricket trousers, in the vain hope of turning them back into cricket whites. (Autumn is heralded in our house by the change of a) leaves and b) the kit that needs scrubbing, as we move on from cricket to football. Oh why does Manchester United play in white shorts??)

Both our ten-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter play cricket. We have tried to avoid gender-specific games and toys and I thought we were fairly liberated and enlightened. Then I realised I have been guilty of tweeting ‘boystoys’ with reference to the enormous mowers and rakes used when we recently had silage made. Perhaps because we have, as yet, not had a female contractor make our forage. I don’t know why the job wouldn’t appeal: sitting down all day in a tractor cab eating chocolate and chatting on the mobile. Perhaps it hasn’t been marketed with enough pink.

There are plenty of women in farming and have been since the dawn of time. In modern times our involvement surely took off with the Women’s Land Army during the Second World War. It continues today with many women running the farm or its diversification. Minette Batters is the new NFU deputy and Helen Browning is the chief executive at the Soil Association.

And today I was a large part of the ‘manpower’ on our farm disbudding and castrating all this year’s calves. Despite the change in the weather it was hot work. So I was at a slight disadvantage when the alpha male took his top off for an all over tan. Is that cricket? There are some things I just will not do to overcome the gender gap!

Why did the chickens cross the road?

vet and chickensTo read the Call the Vet of course.

I also did a real book signing over the weekend, at Scribes in Sturminster – very exciting. Thanks Jane.

Cover girl

 

book and dog

Well, I never thought of myself as a cover girl but thanks to my new book, Call the Vet, I’ve made the front page of the Blackmore Vale Magazine. Thanks Dee and Jane for the fab write-up and beautiful pics. 

http://www.blackmorevale.co.uk/Vet-book-success-Marnhull-farmer-s-wife/story-21092785-detail/story.html

 

 

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What a blogging deficit: it may seem as if I have lost my laptop and finally turned away from all technology. It may appear that I have not put one finger on the computer keyboard. But this is far from the truth. I have at times over the last few months felt more shackled to the laptop than the farm or family.

My first book, Call the Vet, was released by Ebury at the end of April. It was a canter in the finishing and now a gallop in the promoting. It is my story – my first year as a vet in rural Dorset, all the adventures (and misadventures!), the farmers, dramas and the romance.

The reception from friends, family and colleagues has been heart-warming and the media reviews overwhelmingly positive. I made a Daily Mail journalist cry at the right bit! Read for yourself:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-2618172/Is-bird-Is-plane-Er-no-newborn-calf-CALL-THE-VET-BY-ANNA-BIRCH.html

This has all been set to the overtures of calving. We have cut the number of breeding cows down but it is still a lot of work especially when seven cows calve in 24 hours with two sets of twins! Joyfully the maternity clinic is finished for the year and the nursery is out at grass. We are just hoping for the wind to calm down – the trampoline will not survive another airborne mission after last October’s gales, nor will the beautiful blossom in the orchard. The sun is peeping through the clouds as I tap. There is much new life and excitement to look forward to.

Christmas On The Farm

Angry Water.

Angry Water. (Photo credit: Neil. Moralee)

 

There is certainly a Christmassy feel to the place:

 

1. Candlelight is our main source of lighting. The storms blew deluges of rain under a roof and into the electrics, shorting some of them out.  Most importantly, many of the sockets still work, so the kilos of meat in the freezers (enough to feed the neighbourhood for the next few festive seasons) are safe, and we cook by a wood-fired stove. Phew; the rib of beef for Christmas Day is still on.

 

2. We are inaccessible unless in a tractor, 4WD or a horse and trap. Sadly not because the snow is deep and crisp and even but because the flood water is half way up the drive.

 

3. There is new life: the last cow to calve (totally out of sync with the rest of the herd) did so in the middle of the night in the height of the storm. There was not a star or a wise man to be seen in that weather, but a gorgeous, bonny little Red Devon arrived unaided into the world. No prizes for guessing what the kids have called it!

 

4. An early Christmas present has arrived: I have a book deal. My first book ‘Call the Vet’ has been accepted and will be published by Ebury in April 2014. The fortunes and misfortunes of a newly-qualified vet. A semi-autobiography!

 

5. The cattle are lowing – they are all housed now. After a lovely dry December they are finally back in the barns. They do in fact beckon to be strawed down and fed, so I will sign off and wish you and all your four-legged friends a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy, Healthy New Year.

 

Spider woman

English: Dew on a spider's web in the morning....

English: Dew on a spider’s web in the morning. Français : Rosée sur une toile d’araignée au levé du soleil. Русский: Утренняя роса на паутине. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Yesterday I was a little depressed and disbelieving having spotted the first Christmas lights in a local town in the middle of November. The lights and tinsel, twinkling in their gaudy way, reminded me just how few days there are before I get to open a requisite gift from Mole Valley Farmers and over-cook (or even worse under-cook) the turkey.  I have managed both.

 

This morning I gazed – uplifted, yet almost equally disbelieving – at nature’s own magnificent display of glistening strands: spiders’ webs.  Everywhere.  The world seemed outlined in silk.  The hedges, pastures and gates were all delicately draped in metres and metres of spider spinning.  My guess is that it is always there but was this morning made visible by a damp night followed by a morning frost: the ‘pearls’ of water droplets had frozen along the gossamer threads.  I was in the usual school run haste but just had to stop and stare.  And breathe deeply and enjoy.

 

This wonderful display also led me to some fascinating arachnid fact-finding.  Apparently all spiders have spinning glands and make several kinds of silk, possibly the strongest of all natural and man-made fibres, but only half of all species actually catch prey in their webs.  Some will hunt their prey instead and one type actually makes a sticky bolus to catch a moth as it flies past!  My veterinary interest was piqued by reading that all males make a sperm-line to transfer their sperm from their genitals to the copulating organ. The octopodal world is certainly interesting.

 

So I do love spiders and their amazing creations. Without them the world would be both more fly-ridden and less beautiful.

 

The revenge of the daddy long legs

 

Project 365 #48: 170211 In A Bit Of A Jam

Project 365 #48: 170211 In A Bit Of A Jam (Photo credit: comedy_nose)

It has been a particularly busy few weeks of picking, peeling, freezing, squeezing and bottling.  I will shortly be putting away the preserving pan and my current best friend, an extendable apple-picking pole, and sighing with gentle pleasure as I assess the laden shelves and crammed freezer drawers.

The last batch of crab apple jelly is bubbling somewhat volcanically on the hob; I still bear the burn from the larval eruption of the previous over-heated session but the delicate taste is worth it.  The crane flies, or daddy long legs as we more evocatively know them, think so too.  This is the worst year for crane flies I can remember – another larval eruption! – and it has been impossible to leave the jelly uncovered as these lanky winged creatures have swarmed about the house.  I eventually resorted to sticky fly paper.

Some years ago we lived in a thatched National Trust property.  It was an interesting dwelling, especially as we had to open it to the public two days a week.  In the late summer when the leatherjackets, which are the thick-skinned larvae of the crane fly, were emerging from the fertile roof, the starlings and rooks came in swarms to feed on them.  It was both noisy and messy as the birds drummed on the thatch and threw old straw and moss around.

crane flies relaxing while two of them finds t...

crane flies relaxing while two of them finds time to mate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The children are fed-up with fungi.  Rob, their farmer dad, is a not an over-zealous forager but it has been such a productive year for mushrooms that he has at times appeared with a shirt full of field mushrooms or a football-sized puff ball.  Beth and Jack wont fall for the ‘they are special mushrooms, Chinese ones, try them’ line any longer.

Nine and ten year olds do however love the process of making apple juice.  First, tree-climbing to pick the apples (where, incidentally, and much to their giggling delight, we witnessed an awful lot of crane flies having sex.  Well, in their two weeks of adult life that is all they seem to usefully do since they don’t eat.)  Second, macerating and squeezing the flesh.  Then filling the bottles and finally drinking the oh-so-sweet product of their labours.

We will have to wait until Christmas to see if the runner bean chutney is up to much and if the grandmothers like their hand-crafted lavender dollies.  And it will be the Christmas after that before I can vouch for the sloe gin.

Despite the work involved there is something so satisfying about it – so earthy and nourishing of body and soul – that I just love harvest time. Despite the crane flies.  They did however have the last laugh when the smoke detector went off in the very early hours of the morning: a solitary daddy long legs had crawled inside and quietly died, somehow triggering the alarm.

 

Happy Camping

As the weather is about to radically change I am wistfully packing away the last of the camping gear. The old scout tent has seen three decades of happy campers and is stowed with my new best outdoors buddy: a cast iron griddle, perfect on an open fire and ideal for our mutton burgers or scotch pancakes.

The life cycle of a harvest mite from eggs (1)...

The life cycle of a harvest mite from eggs (1) through larva (2) and nymph (3) to adult imago (4) Français : Vie parasitaire d’aoûtat (Trombicula autumnalis): Eggs=Œufs Larva=Larve Nymph=Nymphe Adult=Imago (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We had a fantastic warm and dry last week of the holidays camping in the woods on the farm but actually could have camped almost any week this summer. After last year there are no complaints from this farmer despite little grass! Beth and Jack lived as Bear Grylls, whittling sticks, sleeping in a jungle hammock and wearing the same t-shirt most of the week whilst I was more of a Rachel Mears, popping home for a shower and concentrating on nourishing food! Is it an age or time thing: will I ever return to the rugged days of camping at minus twenty degrees centigrade in the Rockies, surviving on dehydrated packet meals and a one-inch roll mat?

Well, no complaints about the weather but I was a decidedly unhappy and itchy camper after just 24 hours. I looked like I had chicken pox with a livid concentration of pruritic red pustules around my waist, shoulders and armpits. The loathsome larvae of the trombiculidae. Or the more commonly termed harvest mites. Often called chiggers in N America, they are tiny orange-coloured creatures, less than 0.5mm in diameter, related to ticks. The larval stage of this mite is particularly active at the moment, living on tall grass or other vegetation but preferring damp areas like woodland, and therefore also those sweaty waistbands and armpits! They bite the host, which could be a deer, dog, cat, other insect or you and me and inject digestive enzymes that break down the skin cells that they then suck up as a sort of protein soup. Believe me, this can cause intense irritation and sleepless nights despite an airbed and duvet accompanying me on this alfresco trip. Fortunately there is no disease transmission in this country.

It was no surprise then to see dear Bertie the spaniel chewing his feet like mad and finding tell-tale orange harvest mite larvae lodged between his toes in consults. I readily gave the poor chap an appropriate spray, anti-histamines and cortisone to calm the situation down. Personally I found a good slug of brandy in my hot chocolate around the camp fire very therapeutic!