The Changeling

By Alison Dawson

On reflection it could never happen now. These days, thanks to Foot and Mouth and BSE, every cattle beast has its own cattle passport from birth. Its breeding, distinguishing markings and date of birth are duly entered on the national database and its every movement on or off the farm is recorded on an official movement form. Total traceability is the government mantra.

As a girl I had spent weekends and school holidays helping at a local dairy farm. Jean and Harry were childless, and while Harry was a rather dour, hard character, Jean and I were inseparable. I can still see her now, stirring pails of hen feed in her wraparound pinny and lyle stockings. Our province was mainly the hens and the dairy, and I could strip down a milking machine in jig time for the steriliser. Jean in particular had been delighted when I became engaged to a farmer and we were bidden to come and inspect the calf from their renowned dairy herd, which was to be their very generous wedding present. She was adorable. Pure white apart from a black patch on her left side with melting brown eyes and film star eyelashes, she was what a stockman would call a 'sappy' heifer. Fiancé Bill had a white collie with a black patch on her left side and on the way home we remarked on this coincidence.

Six months later, newly returned from our honeymoon, we went to pick up our present. Tea, scones and wedding photos later we backed the trailer up to the calf shed. The dairyman opened the pen and ushered out our calf. Bill and I exchanged dismayed glances. We didn't need the confirmation of the missing black patch on her side to know that this scrawny creature was not the same calf. I looked at Jean. She knew I knew, she knew I knew that she knew, and she knew that I knew it was not of her doing. Gracious acceptance was the order of the day.We made the right noises and drove off.

She was such an ugly specimen that I felt that the least we could do was to give her a pretty name. As Anastasia she was introduced to our herd of hardy hill cows. She never really fitted in. With her pale colour and cadaverous frame she might have been more acceptable in a back street in Mumbai. She was so lean that I spent her first winter dreading a knock on the door from the SSPCA man suspecting neglect; I soaked a stock pot of barley in the bottom of the Aga every night in an attempt to put some flesh on her bones. She survived, eventually matured and produced her first calf. In spite of her unprepossessing appearance it did indeed seem that she came from a dairy background as she had an impressive milk yield. So much so that I was able to tuck my head into her flank and milk a foaming pail from her each morning. She was a good mother, and as her calf grew and got hungrier she would eventually grudge my share of her largesse. There would come the morning when she kicked the bucket and refused to stand. Message received and understood – we were back to the Co-op for our milk till the next calving.

The years passed and Anastasia certainly earned her keep. I even grew fond of her long, lugubrious face with the permanent ‘what can't be cured must be endured’ expression.

Hill farming in the West of Scotland has always been a marginal enterprise and subject to the vagaries of the market. In the mid-seventies the bottom fell out of the cattle market and calf prices crashed. In an attempt to help the more remote farmers the auction market in Stirling introduced a scheme which involved taking a group of buyers round individual farms to look at the year's calf crop in situ and save the farmer wasted transport costs. The buyers got the chance to look at the dams and the general terrain where the stock was reared.

Thus we found ourselves on a crisp autumn morning strolling through our stock with five or six interested dealers and the head auctioneer from the market. Mr Scott, the auctioneer, suddenly stopped, took off his tweed cap and scratched his head.

"Bill, would you mind if I asked you where you got the white cow?"
"Actually she was a wedding present," replied Bill, "but I don't know for sure where she came from."
"The mean old bugger," mused the auctioneer, a smile beginning to spread across his face. "You got her from Harry at Woodside on the Fife border, didn't you?"
"How on earth could you know that?" replied an astonished Bill. "It was years ago."
"That it was," said the auctioneer, "and I have often wondered since what he was up to but the secret's out now. He was a client of the mart, mean as dirt and a great one for dodgy deals. I remember the day he came in. I couldn't work out what he was up to and he wasn't telling. All he said was that I had to find him a heifer calf. He didn't care what she looked like or where she came from, she just had to be pure white and cheap! I managed to find one that filled the bill and never expected to see her again, but I am sure that's her there. Would stake my reputation on it."

By this time the auctioneer was in fits of laughter and regaling the buyers with his tale. Bill and I were nonplussed but of course it explained everything. The odds against that particular auctioneer being in our field looking at our stock would be hard to calculate and Harry could never have foreseen it. Ironic justice of a sort, but in retrospect we wouldn't have been without our Anastasia.