Day 2 – Scones, Smurfs and Slurry

Day 2 gave us our first chance to wear our wellie boots and start the day the farmer’s way – with a scone and a good cuppa! The truth is, by the time we were starting, many farmers have half a day’s work done already – often getting up at 6am or earlier. We were at Greenmount today, for a talk on health and safety on farms, and then a tour of the farm there. I learnt a lot about the kinds of accidents that can occur on farms, broadly categorised under the Health and Safety Executive’s SAFE acronym – Slurry, Animals, Falls/falling objects and Equipment. We were told that on average 7-8 people die in farm related accidents each year in Northern Ireland, with 102 children dying in the last 50 years, a fact that really affected me. With the close knit rural community and jungle telegraph, everyone knows someone who has been affected by such a tragedy, and recent high profile deaths have put the spotlight on farm safety.

A lot of ohhing and aaahing followed as we explored the farm, having first donned our very fashionable Smurf suits (white hats were not provided) and boot covers. We all took a turn getting into the cab of the tractor, where I was shocked by the poor visability – perhaps exacerbated by the fact I’m a 5 foot not many inches girl!

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All kitted up and ready to explore!

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Upgrading my little car to something more powerful…

The stereotypical girl in each of us came out, as we saw a calf with a broken leg, set in a cast, followed by a calf that had been born just this morning – still fresh faced (or perhaps slightly terrified by 5 blue animals on two legs approaching it) and more than a little wobbly on its feet! Our attention was drawn to the fact it has already been tagged, so it can be traced throughout its lifespan, and a requirement for the release of the single farm payment. We had a helpful discussion on the merits of including requirements for farm safety in this funding mechanism, but as with all legislation the path is a long and winding one, mixed with compromise to reach agreement.

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The terrified yet terribly endearing calf…

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First steps – maybe these people aren’t so scary after all…?

Malcolm said something at this point that we have already heard numerous times, even though it is only day 2 – that many farmers prioritise the health of their livestock above their own health. While the calf with the broken leg had received good veterinary care, with a plaster cast applied and being given a coat to keep it warm, it is not uncommon for farmers to delay seeking treatment following them suffering an injury themselves, many saying they do not have time or cannot afford to be told they must take time off from the farm. While I can see that farming is clearly a vocation and source of pride for many farmers, it seems sad to me that the pressures on farmers at the present time mean they don’t prioritise their own health over that of their animals.

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The injured calf which received lots of sympathy from us!

Finally, we were shown around the various mechanisms that they have for storing and mixing slurry, and chatted about some of the innovations that can help negate the effects of the harmful gases, but as with so many things money is a huge barrier to these being more widely installed and utilised.

After writing the majority of this post I decided to take my dog a walk, only to see a calf had just been born about 0.01 miles from my house! The chat with the farmer turned to our (continuing!) lack of broadband – and while this may just be an inconvenience for me, it causes problems for him, given that he needs to log the birth of his calves or face questions from DAERA (Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs). Then followed a general bemoaning, where the farmer said he felt if we lived in an urban area we would be more of a priority and issues would be fixed more promptly!

On only our first day out of the classroom, I have already seen some of the issues facing Northern Ireland’s rural dwellers first hand, and am gaining an appreciation of the hardships and difficulties involved. I’m looking forward to hearing and seeing more in the next few days, although perhaps the distinctive smells are less appealing!

Day 1 – Moo beginnings

Picture the scene: eager, fresh faced and raring to go third year medical student jumps into her car and begins the first trip of the module (74 miles and counting!), only to be stopped 300 yards down the road while the neighbouring farmer moves his herd of cattle. An appropriate start, perhaps, to this module in rural health! After a short delay where my little car was surrounded by various Fresians, none of whom were in any rush to go anywhere, I was on my way to the Ulster Hospital, to meet the other students on the module and our module coordinator.

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Traffic jam!

None of us studying the module are ‘townies’, and so we reflect the population of Northern Ireland as a whole – where we were told a staggering 86% of the population are classed as ‘rural dwellers’. This really struck me – the implications are clear, including access to education, healthcare and general services. We were given an introduction to the topic of rural health (defined as the interdisciplinary study of health and health care delivery in rural environments), and considered in brief some of the issues we’ll be faced with over the next three weeks. A representative from the Ulster Farmers Union then came to tell us a little background information on farming in Northern Ireland.

I’m already feeling a lot of sympathy and empathy with farmers and their challenging lifestyle, not least the fact that deep rural areas often have poor mobile phone coverage and broadband, given that my own land line and therefore broadband at home haven’t been working for three days! I’m really excited to see what the rest of the module has in store – the opportunity to spend time on working farms, with a GP and at a veterinary practice to see what the provision of healthcare for rural dwellers is really like. I’m keen to find out if our society really is ‘rural proof’, which from what I know so far I suspect not, and to hearing the opinions of those living in rural areas. Or put simply, I want to get a sense of the ‘mooo-d’!