September 1, 2015 | Rome, Italy | Clear 22°C

Balls away

By Lucy Brignall
Published: 2015-07-31

Our vet had the majestic, moody presence of an elderly Steve McQueen.
I

f proof was ever required that pig farming is not for the faint hearted then I certainly found it this morning because castrating four-month old male piglets is a brutal business indeed. There is a widely held belief that pork from un-castrated males carries boar taint that unpleasantly flavors the meat. There's also a general rule in livestock farming that unproductive males need to be castrated for the general wellbeing of all concerned. Having lived with a mature male goat I certainly subscribe to this view.

So, when our sow had a litter of four boys, their balls were always only ever going to be temporary fixture.

It's better to go through with this when they're younger, but circumstances conspired against this year. Our piglets were surely getting used to their growing maturity -- until they got a rude good morning call.

My husband (ever the optimist) had been ready to give it a go. He'd even purchased a sharp knife. But knowing he'd never done it before and a family-held conviction that a Youtube demonstration wasn't enough training, he tried recruiting an assistant. When that failed he called the vet.

Our vet is something of a character. The first time we met, long before castration day, he pulled into our yard with the majestic, moody presence of an elderly Steve McQueen, chewing on a licorice stick (he'd quit smoking) and looking gloomy. We all lined up as he extracted himself from the car. He grunted and I tossed my head in the direction he needed to go. He straightened up and set off limping — maybe to get into the spirit of the thing — across the yard. He stuck our pig with a huge hypodermic needle, limped back to car, grunted once more, and drove off. To lovers of war movies and Westerns it was a perfect scene-setting moment. We were hooked. We had similar experiences with him until one day, against character, he arrived smiling and smoking a cheroot, which was clearly more satisfying than the licorice stick. He greeted us like old friends. The friendly side was a little disappointing — we liked the movie version better — but made discussion a little less tortuous. He's been genial ever since, and while we'd all secretly look forward to the day he turns back into Steve McQueen we're prepared to put up with the happier version for now.

This morning he arrived promptly and we all made our way to the sty. We'd prepared for the event with plenty of straw to help the piglets sleep off their anesthesia in comfort. That's because we'd assumed he'd go in, put them to sleep, do the business, and leave.

We were wrong.

He instructed my husband to grab one of the piglets and present it upside down, testicles aloft. If you know pigs you know that this is more easily said than done. We had to recruit my eldest son, who is fortunately built like an ox. Then, one-by-one, the vet cut open their scrotums, wrenched out their testicles, sliced them off, and tossed them over his shoulder. The pigs were squealing, we were wincing, but the former Steve McQueen was cool, quick and efficient. As in the best Westerns, he even offered up an unexpected moment of comedic genius by offering to "operate" on my husband as well.

And the pigs? Well, they recovered remarkably well (as soon as they were the right way up). They enjoyed a hearty breakfast. It took me a little longer.

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