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Reporter faces animal fears at Aldenham Country Park, Elstree
4:52pm Wednesday 23rd January 2013 in News
Dentists? Piece of cake. Needles? Easy peasy. Not even clowns faze me. I was a fearless child, always on the hunt for danger – but there has always been one thing that sends chills down my spine: animals.
They have scared me for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is going to meet my aunt’s new dog, a gorgeous brown Leonburger called Alfie.
I was around five and the puppy – eager to play – leapt up at my feet but the excitement was all too much for me. I screamed the place down and demanded to be taken home.
Everyone said I would grow out of it, but over the years it got worse.
Nowadays, the park is a no-go zone and last week a playful cat nearly gave me a heart attack.
But this week, I was invited to face my fears at Aldenham Country Park, in Dagger Lane, Elstree.
Feeling reckless, I swapped my pumps for a pair of Asda Price wellies and told manager Olivier Behzadi and park ranger Eamon Younge I wanted to get my hands dirty.
I expected to be scooping poo, laying out hay and at a stretch, watching baby chicks hatch – but I had been so naive.
We trudged through the snowy mud towards the pig pen, where a dozen black-haired pigs were anxiously awaiting their dinner.
They are only two months old, and will spend another six weeks at Aldenham before being sent to live on a finishing farm.
I was happy coo-ing and aww-ing at their little faces from afar, but the panic set in when Eamon handed me a bucket of special nuts and motioned me into the pen.
The look of sheer dread on my face must have been obvious, because he tried to reassure me by saying: “You are more likely to be the one eating them for dinner!”
So two minutes and about ten pep-talks later, I finally managed to open the door to the pen – but I was not quick enough and one little rascal managed to escape.
Enjoying his newfound freedom, the little piglet ran riot around the park for a couple of minutes and even I had to muster an ‘oh, that’s quite cute’, before he was led to safety.
Eamon – who was unbelievably patient with me – ushered me back into the pen and I managed to close the door just in time. The animals squealed in delight at the prospect of dinner finally arriving - but hoping they realised I was not it - I bravely moved towards the trough to pour the food in.
The colour must have drained from my face because Eamon offered me a few more words of encouragement: “These pigs have a great temperament. They won’t hurt you.”
Pigs are actually one of the cleanest animals and apparently, make ideal pets because they are almost as clever as humans.
Suddenly, the tiniest pig of the bunch sprung past his brothers and sisters to brush up against my leg, leaving a snout shaped mark on my jeans. After I got over the initial shock, even I had to admit it was rather sweet.
Next up, Eamon handed me another bucket of nuts and led me to the cows. Aldenham are lucky to house two rare breeds – red poles and longhorns.
Still a bit wary, but feeling empowered after surviving my ordeal with with the pigs, I rose to the challenge and scattered the food in the trays at the bottom of their pens.
Although I have the co-ordination of a fly and accidently poured the food bucket into a heap in the corner, the cows did not seem to mind and guzzled it all down before you could say ‘moo’. Err, bon appétit, then!
Blowing caution to the wind, I asked Olivier and Eamon if they would show me how to milk a cow – but as I should have guessed – they had something much bigger up their sleeve.
Having seen Little House on the Prairie, I was not exactly too thrilled about the prospect of spending an afternoon elbow-deep in a cow's private parts.
Eamon handed me a stick – which is only used to guide the cows and never to hurt them – and I led Sidehorn towards the milking step.
Seconds after Eamon warned me the cow will probably poo on me because I am a stranger and make her nervous, it missed my boots by just an inch. Classy, Sidehorn.
Luckily, technology has advanced since Little House on the Prairie, and nowadays you can use a mini four-pronged hoover to suck the milk into containers.
I was surprised to learn Sidehorn is milked twice a day, producing around 24 litres a time – which is around 25,000 a year.
The milk comes out much creamier than how it is bought in shops – and EU regulations ban humans from drinking it pure before it has been processed.
Before sending her back to her pen, I had to squirt out extra droplets of milk from her udders to avoid her chances of catching a deadly infection.
And even though I feel I bonded with Sidehorn, I could not mask my relief when she was back in the safety of her pen.
Over the years, people have asked me what it is that frightens me the most about animals. I thought about the answer a lot, and the truth is I am not really sure. I know coming face to face with a killer pig on the streets of Borehamwood is completely improbable (despite Olivier’s joke!) but it still does not stop me from being scared.
Volunteering at the park was baby steps, but I have now realised there is very little to be afraid of. Having said that, you won’t catch me getting a dog as a pet anytime soon. Or a killer pig, for that matter.