Working Lives

The Norfolk animal health officer (1954-1996)

Location: Bradwell Norfolk

Eddie’s childhood was spent in the Marshes. He was born during the war, in April 1941, at home in Bradwell. His father was in the fire service so he was often out and about and not at home much but Eddie had a happy childhood. Bradwell was a very rural area in those days compared to nowadays. It was so quiet that the children used to play football up on the main A143, which would be unheard of these days.

I’d always been interested in the countryside and things, even when I was a child. There was always lots of farming activities going on and I do remember spending many, many hours just walking up and down fields following tractors ploughing, cultivating, etc. which always was amusing to the tractor drivers. I was always interested in the machinery side of it in those days.

With regards to wildlife and all this sort of thing, the marshes were an excellent playground. When I was a child we didn’t have very much money so we used to have to make our own amusement. There was a lot more freedom in those days as well. I had some friends who lived down by the marshes at Bradwell and close to Burgh Castle. Three or four of us would often be down there roaming about the marshes and fishing. I never did catch a pike, but we used to go down there for sticklebacks and tadpoles and all this sort of thing. I think these days parents would shudder to think that we used to run about across the liggers, which are narrow planks of wood put across dykes just to get across. These were probably no more than a foot wide and some of the dykes were quite deep so you had to be a bit careful, but fortunately I never did fall in a deep dyke. I did fall into one or two shallower ones.

The 1953 East Coast floods

One of my things I’ll always remember about the marshes was the 1953 floods and huge areas of marshes were just totally underwater as was well known with the East coast floods in that time. I and my friends used to do a lot of cycling about. Shortly after the floodwater had gone down I’ll never forget the sight of hundreds and hundreds of dead fish all over the place; all on the side road and lying on the marshes. It was not a very nice sight really. But there you go, that’s what happens when you get salt water invading into freshwater areas.

I went to the old village school in Bradwell which is just down the road from here and has since been converted into a community centre. To give some idea of the size of the village, all the children from the village went to that school from the age of five up until they left at 15. There are currently three schools solely for primary age children. When I was 11 I took the 11-Plus exam and passed it, but in those days one needed to have an interview to go to the grammar school. So I had one at the grammar school at Lowestoft and was turned down because of my handwriting which seemed a bit odd, but that was how it was then. I then went to secondary school and took the 13-Plus exam and passed that and went to the new Gorleston Technical High School which is not very far from here.

Farm work from 13

While at school my main interest was still in farming matters. In 1954 I actually started working on my neighbouring farm here at the age of 13 during weekends and holidays. It was then a very old-fashioned type of farm where we still used a binder and so on, stacking the corn up and using a threshing drum to thresh it out during the winter. It was very hard work in those days, working on a farm. A lot of the sugar beet was done by hand, hoeing and the like – we used to do chopping out (thinning the plants) for one and tuppence a hundred yards and knocking the soil off and topping beet. I always remember that. You could earn good money in those days doing this at seven pounds an acre! You worked hard to earn your money.

I left school in 1957 and just continued working on the farm. It was a mixed farm. It was arable and they kept pigs and fat cattle, we had no breeding cows there, but I did get involved in working with livestock which helped me a great deal in later life. During this time I went to evening classes and day release to get extra O-Level exams and agricultural qualifications.

On the cutter

Change of career and into the Ministry of Agriculture

I met my wife Dahlia in 1960; we were married in 1963. Our first son Andrew was born in 1966. After that I thought I needed a better-paid job so in 1964 I changed careers completely and went to work at a company called Hartman Fibre Ltd. in Great Yarmouth. They made food trays out of wood pulp and egg trays out of waste paper, etc. I did this for about five years. The main problem was that it was shift work around the clock which did not fit in well with my family and social life.

I still had a desire to work in agriculture. One particular night I was on the night shift and having finished my work I went across to what we called the barn, which was the big store where the waste paper was stored and I picked up a copy of the Farmers’ Weekly. I used to look at that from time to time because I was interested in agriculture. I was looking through the job advertisements at the back of it and came across an advert from the Ministry of Agriculture – the Animal Health Division – and they were looking to recruit technical assistants. I thought that could be interesting and I had the right qualifications for the job. So I looked at the advert and found that the closing date was the day after tomorrow so I went home and filled this out before I went to bed after the night shift and got it off into the post and left it at that. Anyway, I eventually got an interview and went to London and the interview was obviously successful because I was offered a job. I didn’t know where in the country, but again I was lucky because just at that time one of the technical assistants at the Norwich office had decided to move on to, I think, the immigration department and that left a vacancy in Norwich.

I started this job in November 1969. Our second son Kevin was born in 1968 and our daughter Julie in 1970. Unfortunately I lost both my father-in-law in 1976 and my father in 1977 so it was a very a difficult time.

I carried on working for the Ministry from that time in various jobs right up until the office in Norwich was downgraded in 1995. I finished then in the November, but did go back again to work at Bury St Edmunds in the following year for about six months helping with the BSE eradication.

The Animal Health Division through the 1970s and 80s

The animal health division was set up mainly to deal with notifiable diseases such as foot and mouth, sheep scab, fowl pest and the like at the time, and also for various eradication schemes like TB and brucellosis which was a big priority at the time as was salmonella in poultry; salmonella pullorum in particular. The work was based largely around these, with some aspects of animal welfare work as well: keeping an eye on the welfare of livestock and reporting anything that you saw which appeared to be amiss. But generally it was to do with notifiable diseases, their prevention and the other schemes which I’ve spoken about.

When I first started, a lot of the work involved the blood testing of poultry flocks for salmonella pullorum disease. I always had to remember to have my aluminium testing case and kit with me which I had to use to carry out the testing. This involved taking a blood sample from every bird and doing an instant test to identify any positive cases. Working conditions were not particularly pleasant in some poultry houses. There was the continual smell of ammonia and often lots of dust so I used to wear a dust mask for most of the time. You were expected to test at least 1,000 birds in a day and the work tended to be a bit boring, especially in large flocks of 10,000 plus, but if you worked with two or three other people and good farm staff, you had a bit of banter and so on, so it wasn’t quite so bad.

When I first started with the Ministry, the TB eradication programme had been underway for some time and is still obviously ongoing now. Brucellosis was the up and coming thing for eradication and there was a lot of work involved with that such as milk sampling and helping the veterinary officers with blood testing the cattle and so on. In the 1970s.it was initially a voluntary scheme for brucellosis and a lot of work involved trying to persuade cattle farmers to join the voluntary scheme at that time. Farmers would voluntarily have the milk tested by the process of what we used to call the milk ring test which we used to do at milking times – we’d take the milk – and also by virtue of taking blood samples. If they passed all these tests it became what was called an accredited herd and then they would need to keep their cattle separate from other herds of non-accredited cattle which were cattle that were not in the scheme at all or had brucellosis positive animals in their herd. One of the ways we did that was to make sure that any grazings and boundaries of accredited herds did not have direct contact over gates or fences etc. with these non-accredited cattle. So part of my job at that time was to inspect the boundaries to make sure they were double fenced or there was a wide dyke, or similar. I did a lot of this, especially over on the Halvergate and Acle areas of marshes. I remember at the time I had these large six inch Ordnance Survey maps which I used to fill out and colour code with the various categories of cattle on them. For example, I’d do solid green for accredited cattle, striped green for non-accredited cattle and I used to have another category if they were steers only because they were not considered to be a risk and also for certain areas of the marshes which were arable. I built up quite a library of these old maps.

In my mind, there were far more dairy herds about at that time than there are now. You still had churn collections when I first joined the Ministry. When the Milk Marketing Board went onto all bulk tanker collections it virtually did away most of the small herds.

In 1970, when I had only been in the job a few weeks, we had an outbreak of fowl pest in East Anglia and I was sent at two days’ notice down to Chelmsford to work with the fowl pest centre there. In those days it was understood that working for the Ministry of Agriculture, although you were based in a particular County office, you could be sent to any part of the country at very, very short notice for an indefinite period. I have my original instructions from the divisional veterinary officer at the time to go to Chelmsford and there were no ifs and buts about it; you were just told to go. So I was down there and only came back when we had an outbreak of fowl pest in Norfolk to deal with as well.

I went to Wales in 1972 to help out there with the eradication scheme for brucellosis. It was a bit of a difficult time at times because in those days some the Welsh nationalists used to have a sort of thing where they’d turn the sign posts round quite often – so you had to be good at map-reading.

Getting on towards the 80s I had a spell working down in Poole. Head office needed someone to go down there and just have a look and see how the meat importation system worked there. I did that for a spell and found the change quite interesting.

In 1973 we had a first case of swine vesicular disease in Norfolk which I got involved with on the very first infected premises site up there just north of Norwich. It was here that I experienced my first mass slaughter of livestock. It was certainly not the last!

One of the things I liked about the job was that we got about all over Norfolk, meeting and working with all types of interesting people.

I never regretted making the decision to apply for this job. In 1975 I went for a promotion which meant I had to go on a promotion board in London which I did and was fortunately successful. I carried on with the same work, but this time the promotion meant that I was also involved with a lot of the ports, dealing with any meat imports or any animal products which had to be checked to make sure that the certification was correct to prevent the introduction of diseases which could be passed on to animals. In the 70s we were involved with a lot of livestock exports through Great Yarmouth port where the work was mainly for welfare reasons.

Marshes and marshmen

The thing I remember about the marshes is they’re completely flat, level areas and with very few landmarks apart from the odd old drainage mill that you can see and you had to remember where these crossing points were for the dykes. Sometimes there’d be a gate between them, but you would also have to rely on the liggers. I think in today’s parlance you’d have to do an instant health and safety assessment on them to check and judge whether they’d take your weight or not. I just used to mark on my maps where these liggers were.

It was quite interesting to see the different areas of the marshes and build up this picture of how they were at that time. We’re talking about a large area. There’s the Acle marshes, Halvergate, Berney Arms, Upton, Tunstall – this is along the Acle new road – then Haddiscoe, Norton Subcourse, Burgh St Peter, Wheatacre, Limpenhoe, Buckenham, South Walsham, Hardley, Loddon, Potter Heigham and Stokesby were just some of the marshes I actually did work on.

Marshmen were individuals who quite often had their own livestock, but were generally contracted out to some of the bigger farmers who had their cattle down at the marshes for grazing purposes and they would be in charge of all these cattle. They were real characters.

The first one that comes to mind is Billy Lacey. I’ve known Billy for many, many years, almost from the time I first joined the Ministry. He looked after mainly the Halvergate area of marshes and was really a very knowledgeable, very pleasant chap to work with. He was experienced in looking after cattle and sheep down there and if you wanted to know anything about the marshes or any of the people who had cattle on marshes etc. he was the man to see. I got on very well with Billy and his wife Betty. They lived just outside Halvergate village and I often used to call in there for a bit of information and have a cup of coffee with Billy and have a piece of Betty’s cake. Unfortunately Betty died a few years ago, but I did go to Billy’s 90th birthday party earlier this year so he’s keeping quite well.

The other one that I remember seeing quite a lot of was Bob Mace. Now Bob lived in a bungalow down on the Haddiscoe Island marshes, which is just up the New Cut concrete road adjacent to Haddiscoe bridge. He looked after all the – or most of the – Haddiscoe Island part which is off the A143 on the right between the St Olaves bridge and the Haddiscoe bridge and they extend quite a long way, right across to the river. The thing I’ll always remember about Bob is – he was always at Norwich market as well – come winter or summer Bob always had an open-neck shirt on almost down to his belly button. Unfortunately he died earlier this year, but I think his son Brian is still a marshman and looking after that area now.

Another marshman I remember who I got on very well with was Stan Hewitt. He lived in the house over at Berney Arms. It’s fairly isolated and generally the most reliable way of getting there would be get the train from Great Yarmouth to the stop at Berney Arms on the way through to Reedham and Norwich. Because he did keep a few cattle and I used to have to go across to him from time to time, I used to drive out across the Haddiscoe Island marshes, past Bob Mace’s house and right up to the top end and then I would meet Stan or his wife there with their boat – I used to transfer all my testing gear and equipment into the boat and set off across the river to the Berney Arms and do my work and then come back again. As with the liggers, this was a bit dodgy for me because I’m not a swimmer and were I to fall in that would be my lot, I think. Unfortunately both Stan and his wife have passed away so they’re another source of information that has gone really, but they were a lovely couple.

Most of these marshmen were very nice people to work with and I had no trouble with them at all in respect of assistance. Their knowledge was the thing, what was there, and when they’re passing I think it a great shame because that knowledge they had which is mostly lost.

Talking about Haddiscoe Island, there was another family there which I didn’t have a great deal to do with, but I did have reason to go there from time to time: the Pettingalls. They lived out at another part of the Haddiscoe marshes. The main thing I remember there is you’d drive up beside the gate and get out and the first thing that met you was a gaggle of geese that would come running up towards you. This was fine because they were always in front, no problem at all. When you went to leave, however, these geese would be behind you and I found that they’d forever try and peck at your legs so it was one of the very few places that I’d walk out of the gate and the driveway backwards – which was another thing I’ll always remember.

Another character I would regularly see was Percy ‘Jim’ Hewitt also now sadly deceased. Percy had a very lonely job operating a dragline dredging the dykes all year round. Sometimes he could be seen alongside the A47 Acle New Road and at others a dot in the distance way out on a different marsh. He was also a good source of information regarding the marshes and also knew most of the local marshmen. Despite the nature of his work Percy was a very sociable person and as a great friend of my father-in-law. I also knew him personally for many years.

The marshmen would deal with a lot of things on the marshes, but you would occasionally meet directly with the farmers themselves. They would drive down there and you would see them and they would organise whatever you had to do, such as the blood testing on the cattle. There would be times when it was not very pleasant working out on the marshes with the weather. Obviously with complete open space and no shelters there or anything – you just had to get on with it best you could whatever the weather. We were always issued with plenty of protective clothing. A great favourite of mine was thigh wellington boots which I used to put on and if you had a waterproof coat over the top of that you didn’t very often get wet. The trouble with that was if you got hot weather you used to sweat and the insides of the boots used to get wet and if you didn’t have a chance to dry them out you’d go somewhere the next day and they’d still be all damp inside form the condensation from the sweat the day before.

Another part of the job was sheep dipping. Most of the sheep dipping was actually done on the farms themselves where the farmers had proper sheep dipping facilities for doing them. There were some sheep dipping done on the marshes. I know Billy Lacey had a sheep dip facility on his area which I used to go to. There’s another one in particular I used to go to where that was very much a temporary dip – a tin bath, if I remember – because there weren’t that many sheep. The sheep dipping was done to prevent sheep scab, but the job of the technical staff (of which I was one) would be to purely go along and supervise that the sheep dipping was done correctly and the sheep were kept in the dipping bath for the correct length of time. At the time the dips used organophosphates, but they were bringing others in. I remember one time we were using a dip which had to be mixed up slightly differently. It consisted of the main sheep dipping ingredient plus a detergent which would help it to get into the fleece of the sheep. They were a couple of characters, the farmer and his son. I won’t mention any names, but I do remember helping them and I worked out what the correct proportions were for the dip and detergent for the water and I got the son to put in them in the water and I remember him coming up saying, ‘Steady on. We don’t want to use all that detergent up because father uses that in his bath’ which amused me. There were a lot of amusing things like that.

Things went on and it was much the same with the jobs. It was imports, exports, carrying on with the brucellosis scheme. As technical officers we were trained to take blood samples from cattle, sheep, pigs, goats etc. After this we then did a lot of that on our own which involved getting around farms and organising these blood tests. A lot of the markets had to be inspected so we had our presence there. During the brucellosis scheme we had to go to the markets to issue movement licences and check animal identities.

Veterinary and health investigations – 1980s and 90s

Later on in my time with the Ministry, in the late 80s and early 90s I got involved with some of my colleagues working with the veterinary investigation centre at the time to do with some cases of salt poisoning of cattle on the marshes down towards Great Yarmouth. This would occur if salt water from Breydon Water got into the freshwater dykes which was more prevalent in dry weather and high tides. With dry weather the dykes were not getting flushed out as they should be with lots of rain. Our job was to visit the marshes and take salinity meter readings. We had this gadget with a long probe connected to a meter box and were able to take readings as a result of the varying electrical resistance between fresh and salt water. If we found a reading which was not as it should be then we would warn the farmers concerned so that they could take fresh water down to help with the cattle. Following on from doing this work in liaison with the Veterinary Investigation Centre I don’t think we had any more fatal cases of salt poisoning.

In the late 80s and 90s and we had the salmonella in eggs scare which meant working at one of the local hatcheries, often working unsocial hours, collecting dead chicks for testing.

In 1990 I contracted Lyme disease which is caused by ticks and I do remember seeing my consultant who got really quite excited because at that time he said I was only about one of about 100 people or so in the country who got it each year at a time. I think it is actually a bit more prevalent now. Fortunately it was caught and a course of strong antibiotics knocked that on the head. It also created quite a bit of interest at the Veterinary Investigation Centre because of the zoonosis aspect.

A lot of the other work we did was dealing with what we called swill plants. These were food plants where farmers were licensed to boil up waste food for feeding to pigs. There needed to be a lot of monitoring on these premises for hygiene reasons to check that the correct temperature of the swill was reached in the cooking process.

I carried on with a lot of the Port work at the time: looking at meat and other animal products imports, working with the Port health officers and animal health inspectors from the local authority at the time.

Following the cessation of the roll on roll off ferry services at Great Yarmouth the port work dried up to a certain extent. I was doing more and more office based work at the time. The latter part of my time was spent mainly in a management role, overseeing the work in the office at Norwich. I took early retirement in 1996. I could have taken a transfer to another part of the country. I had that offer, but as I only had about six or seven years to go before normal retirement age, I took the early retirement package and finished.


Retirement and memories of the marshes

I’ve been interested for many years in bowls and I have been chairman of the local bowls club for the past 24 years now. I do propose to give that up next year, but I’ve always been a member of Bradwell parish council so I took a more active role in both those. After I retired I took on the role of groundsman at the bowls club because I’ve always been active. So I’ve always been kept busy, plus there’s plenty of work here, a big garden – and socialising.

Because of the animal welfare and disease prevention and eradication aspect I felt my work was worthwhile. Generally I actually enjoyed the marshes. The main reason being the sense of isolation, if you like, which was lovely. It was the silence. You’d be out in the middle of the marshes on a lovely summer’s day, by yourself, just there and all you can hear are the birds singing. A really lovely experience.

Eddie Macdonald

Eddie Macdonald  (b. 1941) talking to WISEArchive on 30th October 2017 at Bradwell.

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