Evil dragon

How to find an A dead cow mys­tery is go­ing to take some de­tec­tive work.

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Tales Of A Country Vet -

June can be grim in the wild west. End­less grey days of a coastal win­ter, when early cloud clears to per­sis­tent rain, when un­der­foot is greasy and the clay coats your boots in a weight like a death sen­tence.

It’s not the grey skies that get the peo­ple down, but the mud. The Far North’s good orange clay is said to have stuck on the bare feet of Kupe and so the leg­end was born, that those who get the clay of the Hokianga on their feet will re­turn some­day, as Kupe did.

Leg­endary or not, clay in win­ter is like glue. If live­stock have to walk in it, they can get stuck up to their bel­lies. It is smelly and slip­pery. It is cold. The grass that might thrive on it in spring just will not grow un­til the tem­per­a­ture warms, but the clay – with its su­per fine par­ti­cles – is al­ways the last soil type to re­spond to any sun.


Peggy was a wi­dow in her late 60s and mak­ing a good go of keep­ing her fam­ily farm op­er­at­ing un­til one of her off­spring was old enough or in­clined to take it over. She was a big, no-non­sense woman with the work ethics of some­one who started with noth­ing and built up a busi­ness the hard way. Af­ter her hus­band died, she just kept go­ing, pick­ing up his work­load along with her own.

When she re­tired from milk­ing her own herd she took in graz­ing an­i­mals. The money was good and the work was eas­ier. She was still in charge of daily shift­ing of the mob, but free from the dra­mas of calv­ing and milk­ing.

Peggy liked to give her cows a break from the mud, stand­ing them off the pad­docks for some of the day, mak­ing the most of a con­crete yard area and the met­alled tracks, be­fore let­ting them loose on the pas­ture for a few hours.

One morn­ing she called the Vet in a right old flap. A cow had died. Re­mem­ber, these were no longer her own an­i­mals but Peggy was re­spon­si­ble for them. Worse, two more an­i­mals were look­ing sick.

This wasn’t just about the eco­nom­ics of los­ing a cow. Peggy loved farm­ing, she liked work­ing with dogs and cat­tle, and even though these weren’t her own cows, to lose one was a se­ri­ous blow. The pos­si­bil­ity of los­ing two more had her re­ally pan­ick­ing.

The Vet headed straight out. The dead an­i­mal was re­ally quite dead and al­ready bloated. The two crook ones were nearby, one stretched out on its side, groan­ing and sali­vat­ing, the sec­ond sit­ting up, but star­ing at noth­ing.

“Well, we can’t do any­thing for that one,” the Vet said, point­ing to the dead

one. “But this one… it’s not long for this world. It’s in a huge amount of pain and it’s best to eu­thanase it on wel­fare grounds. I can do a post mortem straight away.”

Re­luc­tantly, Peggy agreed. A ri­fle put the cow out of her mis­ery, then the Vet went to work with a sharp knife. It was im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous the gut was raw and in­flamed and there was blood through­out the in­testi­nal tract. The lungs and heart were fine.

“If I didn’t know how clean your pad­docks are, I would swear it was a case of plant poi­son­ing,” he said. “But there aren’t any weeds left on your place, are there?” Peggy shook her head. “No, we’re on top of the gorse, the black­berry has gone, a bit of sedge, but not where these girls are graz­ing.”

“Can I go and have a look around?” asked the Vet. “Some­times they get into stuff they aren’t meant to. I know of some calves that drank a heap of old en­gine oil, no telling for taste!”

The Vet walked up and down the pad­docks, then around the shed, the race­ways, even the drains down ei­ther side of the tracks. Noth­ing.

He dosed the crook cow with an an­ti­in­flam­ma­tory and pain relief, but he came away un­happy and very puz­zled. Some­thing se­ri­ous was go­ing on and more an­i­mals could be af­fected.

In the mid­dle of the night the phone went, a shrill war­ble that never means good news. It was 3am. It was Peggy. “Sorry, but I had to ring you.” “Is the cow worse?” “No. I mean, I don’t know. But it sud­denly oc­curred to me… these cows… they did get into some­thing. I had them on the tanker loop, the road up to the shed. I had pret­tied the place up a bit and planted the is­land in the cen­tre of the loop with all sorts of stuff from cut­tings. It had been look­ing good.” “I never no­ticed…” “No, you wouldn’t, it’s not there any­more. These girls are a pushy lot and they got into the shrub­bery and an­ni­hi­lated it, ev­ery­thing chewed down to the ground.”

The Vet went back out first thing, this time armed with a book of poi­sonous plants.

The hebes and manuka Peggy had planted weren’t a prob­lem, but there was a long skinny trunk that had been blown over in a re­cent storm. It looked a bit like a cab­bage tree, but dif­fer­ent, and all that was left of the ones Peggy had planted were a few stringy, tassled, flax–like leaves at one end and signs of chewed shoots along its length. “What was this?” “It’s a bit of a dragon tree. I was given a cut­ting.” “Dra­caena draco?” he asked. “No idea, just know it as dragon tree. It had been do­ing quite well but it copped it in the last blow and fell over… but it came away with heaps of new shoots.”

“Well, it’s a dragon all right, full of saponin toxin, es­pe­cially in the fresh new growth – right there is your prob­lem. Usu­ally it’s only an is­sue with cats and dogs… not many cows get a chance to graze on it.”

“Oh damn,” said Peggy. “And I was just try­ing to make the place look nice. But at least it looks like it’s all gone now.” ■

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