Don's Diary

February 5, 1999


The week starts with a strange need - where to find a stuffed fox. We want to investigate maternal responsiveness in sows and need to acquire a predator. One phone call to a contact in the antiques trade produces a result and by lunchtime, a snarling Volpes volpes stares down from the top of the filing cabinet. By the end of the day we have secured a recording of vocalisations and some scent gland secretions to give the full effect.


A bright sunny morning brings the frequent roar of aircraft. Our campus lies a few miles from RAF Cranwell, now home to the Red Arrows. Outdoor pigs are renowned for breaking through fences when a hot air balloon fires up its burners overhead. But a low fly-past of the Red Arrows excites humans more than the animals on site. I spend the afternoon on the pig unit installing camera mounts in the farrowing house and assuring the staff that I am not conducting a "time and motion" study. Not that I need to: Richard and Beate are responsible for looking after the 230 indoor and outdoor sows, and they do it with enthusiasm and affection for the animals.


A visit to the Leicester campus for a meeting of the food forum, a new initiative to bring together researchers from other faculties with a common interest in "food" - anything from welfare-friendly production systems at one end to taste panels and consumer perception at the other.


The experiment starts today. The sows are moved to the farrowing house and the video-recording and heart-rate monitoring equipment is set up. I will be visiting the farm three times a day for the next week to retrieve and replace the monitors, download data and change video tapes. Once the piglets have been born, the fox will make its debut.


In at 0730 and a quick half-hour at the pig unit. No piglets born yet so it is back to the office. I will need to be back there again at 1600 and at 2100 so the rest of the day is fairly clear for a visit up to our other farm just north of Lincoln. Here we have dairy cattle, red deer and a fish farm. So far, I have worked only with pigs, but the opportunity to study other species was a major incentive for me to take my current post.


Again in at 0730. Still no piglets. My fiancee, Ruth, who is here researching heart-rate variability in pigs, has kindly volunteered to do the late shift for me so that I will be wide awake tomorrow.


Hooray! The first two litters of piglets have arrived overnight. Time for the fox to make an appearance.

Jeremy N. Marchant. Senior research fellow at De Montfort University's school of agriculture, Caythorpe, Lincolnshire.

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