Pastimes – Bill Wiggin
Bill Wiggin was once thrown into the dirt by one of his cows.
The MP for North Herefordshire, who has a herd of Hereford cattle, was displaying the animal at the Monmouthshire agricultural show in Wales when she gave him a nudge. “I glided through the air, and the BBC [which was filming there] rushed up and said: ‘Could you do that again please?’ because they hadn’t managed to record it,” he recalls. “Everyone likes to see a politician end up in the muck.”
Wiggin, 56, a former shadow minister for agriculture and fisheries, enjoys getting his hands dirty, spending much of his spare time with his 26 cows. It has made him an evangelist for Herefords, which he calls the “greatest breed of cattle in the world” and says their virtues range from health and environmental benefits to their parenting nous, usually placid nature and relative ease to manage.
The last trait is what has made it possible for Wiggin to combine cow care with long hours in the Commons, alongside help with the animals from his wife, Milly, and their three children. “Beef cattle are easier than dairy because dairy cows need to be milked every day,” he explains. “What you need as an MP is an easy calving breed in case you’re in Westminster when they go into labour, so you want the mother to take care of it, feed it milk and not wander off and leave it in the hedge. Herefords are usually brilliant at caring for their calves.”
Wiggin doesn’t have favourites among the herd – “I don’t have favourites among my children, either!” – but notes the differences in their characters. “Some are more nervous; some are very inquisitive,” he says. “They all have their own personalities. And they mature like people, so personalities alter.” However, he emphasises the need not to anthropomorphise: “You have to eat them! It can be upsetting... when you take them to the abattoir, but it’s a crucial element of farming. If we didn’t eat them, we wouldn’t keep them. It’s a cycle and a circle.”
When it struggles to its feet and starts to suck, you know it’s going to be fine. It’s just a wonderful feeling, a miraculous thing. I think that’s why I love it. It’s just so very special.
Owning the beef cattle, Wiggin adds, has enabled him to understand better the struggles of his farmer constituents, ranging from those who’ve had their herds wiped out by bovine tuberculosis to the bureaucracy that can often bog them down “when they set out to farm to avoid spending time in an office”.
He feels welcomed into the farming community, he adds: “The more you want to be a part of it, the more committed you are, the more they’ll tell you... I’m on the journey with them, rather than peering over the fence.”
He thinks his fellow Hereford breeders particularly deserve to be celebrated, as they are “doing what agriculture ought to be doing, which is to turn grass into protein”. Herefords can do well without grain and soya, unlike other breeds, he explains, meaning that they are better for the environment. Wiggin, who once chaired the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association, says that pasture-fed beef is healthier, as it is higher in omega-3 fatty acids. As such, one of Wiggin’s campaigns is to improve food labelling so that consumers can be sure they are buying proper pasture-fed beef and lamb.
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