An interview with Julian Earl, by Jacqui Broderick

If it hadn’t been for a life changing cycling accident Julian Earl may never have got around to writing his brilliant, witty and thought provoking memoir, Cows in Trees.

Cows in Trees

The book was written less than four years after a road race crash on 8th August 2012 which almost claimed his life and is filled with veterinary anecdotes from his working life, which included, of course, attending a cow up a tree. He is usually asked how a cow finished up in a tall upright tree and rather than give the proper answer, [that is in the book] has resorted to explaining about the special breed in Lancashire that likes to build nests in trees, or else it was just very lucky when its parachute didn't open and happened to land in a tree. For some reason, people don't believe these explanations!

Now a Para-cyclist the book has been a therapeutic exercise for Julian, a highly experienced cyclist who sustained life-threatening injuries during a local road race. Julian cannot remember anything about the accident which occurred during the final Lincolnshire Road Race League event of the 2012 season, in a field of about 85 riders. As he says, “The crash was doubly annoying because I'd had my best racing-result for ten years two weeks previously. Now every single ride becomes a new achievement and a personal best!”

However he knows it occurred on a straight section of road, where the cyclists would have been travelling at about 30 mph. He touched a wheel and was thrown off the bike onto a kerbstone at a farm entrance, another few feet and he would have landed on grass and may not have received such life changing injuries. It literally turned his life upside down! Julian explains, "Touching a wheel is where the front wheel rubs against the back wheel of the rider in front, quite  common in big bunches of riders but usually without any such drastic consequences.”

As it was the accident left him with skull fractures, multiple brain haemorrhages, a fractured shoulder, five broken ribs and a punctured lung.  Julian’s helmet probably saved his life. He was placed into an induced coma and underwent multiple operations.  At the hospital, Annika, Julian’s wife was told that he was not expected to survive, but Julian recalls, wryly, “The surgeon said being stubborn can be useful so here I still am!” Annika was a district nurse and was at her leaving do when she was told of the crash. She spent her first year of retirement nursing her husband at home.

Julian would like to compliment the lovely Irish consultant neurosurgeon who saved his life, Mr Gerry O' Reilly. Clearly he has great technical skill but was pleasantly surprised by how he was regarded as an individual and not just a ‘body occupying a hospital bed!’ Mr  O'Reilly at Hull went to speak to Julian on the ward soon after Julian was taken out of his induced coma and Gerry asked him, "What are you like as a person and what do you want to do in the future?"  Julian replied in all seriousness, “I am stubborn and all I want to do is get back on my bike!" Mr O'Reilly's wonderful response was, "Okay, I'll get you there.  Being stubborn can help with head injuries!” Julian is now happy to admit that nothing irritates him more than people commenting he must be mad to cycle again and ought to give up.  Giving up is not what he does and suggests that he still has unfinished business in cycling competitions; races to do, challenges to complete and so strives to get fit and strong again. Mr O' Reilly has supported this endeavour the entire time and Julian is possibly one of Mr O'Reilly's real  success stories. Julian never expected to be told that being so pig-headed was such a good thing! On meeting Mr O'Reilly at a charity event in 2015, Mr O'Reilly greeted Julian and his wife like long-lost friends and Julian accepts he is forever in Mr O'Reilly's debt.

Julian comments that he will forever be grateful to his family and friends. In fact he admits that he never realised he had so many good friends he had both in the cycling-world and in the veterinary world. He advises treasuring friends because you never know when you might need them!

Not only did he pull through but completed both a 60-mile and a 98.5-mile cycle race little more than six months after his discharge from hospital. This is even more remarkable considering, as he was unable to stand unaided after four months hospitalisation in the specialist neurosurgical unit at Hull Royal Infirmary, but  fought back to ride again the following September.


As Julian recalls “I received an award from my fabulous Alford Wheelers club-mates after completing those rides for the most outstanding performance of the year by a member. My neurosurgery consultant, the wonderful Mr Gerry O’Reilly at Hull, was as pleased as I was with the trophy!” In fact he said, "Next year I want you to win a bigger trophy!"

Unfortunately the accident left Julian unable to work as a veterinary surgeon, but as one door closes another opens, as this has given him the time to write and find a publisher for his book.

Julian, was born and bred in the countryside at the edge of Leeds and wanted to be a vet from the age of eight and  despite his physics teacher telling him he wasn't clever enough. He went onto achieve his childhood dream, qualifying in 1981. He first worked in Preston, then went on to Burnley for eight years before moving to Horncastle where he still lives.

Although the road race incident brought an end to his clinical work, in 2015 he was awarded the status of Advanced Veterinary Practitioner in Sheep and Animal Welfare, a flattering award by his professional peers. What do you think of that Mr Physics teacher? But Julian promises that he hasn't really held a grudge for forty years!

One area of interest for Julian is herd- and flock-wide problems.  In recent years he has actively promoted herd and flock-health programmes for sheep and cattle respectively. Although domestic pets are easier to diagnose scientifically Julian says, “In all cases it is nice to build up good relationships with regular clients and their animals.”

Suffering with PSTD following his accident and having been told to focus on looking forward at what he could achieve rather than mourning and regretting what he could no longer do, the book was written initially as form of therapy. Julian had notes from the forty or fifty talks given to Young Farmers and Womens' Institutes entitled ‘Cows in Trees and Other Stories.’

Julian expanded the tales into chapters and began to write. The process took just over six months and then it took another six months to find a Publisher, “The nice people at Quiller,” he comments.

It has been very difficult for Julian to reconcile himself with not working as a vet any more. He finds himself, “Needing a different mind-set and has focussed on setting new targets, specifically a return to cycling competition, by training daily.”  His daily routine now consists of training on his bike indoor or outside as the case may be and keeping up to date with veterinary matters just on principle. Plus he explains “Planning my racing programme for the future and spending far too much time on the computer as well!”  As a para-cyclist he has adaptations on his bicycle to help with bike-control: braking/steering and gear-changing.

He continues, “Writing my book has been therapeutic. I have been told to find new targets, forget old personal bests, and now I have a new venture – para-cycling competition. I thought I was indestructible, so it was a genuine shock to be told that I had not been expected to survive.  I have to focus on what I have achieved since leaving hospital rather than fretting about what I've lost – job, career, fitness – and set new targets to aim for.”

Julian is, it seems as tough as the patients he once cared for, talking with great affection about sheep, “Tests show they learn as quickly as dogs do, but just like people, their instinct to do what their companions do and it  can overwhelm good sense! The flocking- instinct in sheep is all-powerful! In the wild when being hunted, this helps them but in a domestic situation they do what seem to be daft things. On the bright side this can have amusing consequences in my experience!”

Having dealt this winter with a number of sheep who just seem to give up the ghost I asked Julian if sheep do have a death wish as it seems sometimes, “Contrary to popular farming belief, their intention in life is not to die as quickly as possible! They are a timid animal and evolved as a vulnerable prey species so do not show weakness such as ill-health unless they ‘have to’. This means symptoms can often be well-hidden until disease is advanced; then they are close to death if and when the symptoms are eventually spotted. A good shepherd knows this and sheep husbandry is critically important for the animal's welfare for this reason. Therefore in a real sense sheep are actually tough and don't die easily until disease is well advanced. Many apparent sudden-deaths are actually the end-result of a longer illness and death is then the first symptom! Cattle are also very tough in that I've seen a young heifer try and walk with two broken legs! Most people wouldn't be able to even stand up in that situation that due to the pain of course!”

And in answer to a question I hear very often:- how does an owner know when it is time to put a pet, dog, cat, or horse, to sleep? Julian replies, “This is a complicated question – to know when is the time to put them down:  but I used to say to owners that when you feel sorry for the pet every day, it is probably time. There is no simple objective answer I'm afraid. Pain is terrible so must be minimised.”

Julian’s favourite story from his book is one of the last in the book, which recalls a rather exciting encounter with a bullock, although a close encounter with a lamb’s scrotum involving a surgical stapler rates a close second.

While Julian has no plans to continue writing as he no longer has access to the hilarious animal based situations, however there are a few tales not included in the book that are being saved for any live presentation Julian  might do in the future.

And of course in the current situation no article would be complete without a Brexit question, Julian says, “I don't know about how Brexit would affect the vets world but it could affect employment as many European vets work in the UK. The British Veterinary Association are currently discussing BREXIT and potential effects on vets with the government. More importantly: disease control needs international co-operation.  If this fails it could be catastrophic!”

Julian continues, “Considering my wife was told that I was not expected to survive my injuries, I’ve done OK for a ‘dead’ man, so to speak! Anyway, writing my book shows that not all of my memories fell out of the hole in my head.”

Julian & Annika Julian in 2014 with his beloved wife Annika, who helped nurse him back to health