Farmers Weekly Interactive

Toilet humour

Guest blogger: Mick O’Hare

I’m slightly ashamed to admit it, but I know nothing about farming. Nothing. Zilch. Not unless you count the last three minutes of Farming Today on Radio 4 before the start of the Today programme at 6am: “I’m Anna Hill, the producer was Chris Impey”.

I live in the suburbs of London and I work in the centre of the city. I only visit the countryside on holiday. So to some extent I presume (indeed I worry), that I’m a rather eccentric choice of guest blogger…

I flicked through my latest pop-science book, How to Fossilise Your Hamster, for some inspiration – something that Field Day readers might relate to – but aside from explaining how you would need a big space in order to carry out an experiment measuring the speed of sound using a hammer and a large rock everything seemed very urban. Most of the experiments I described took place in the back garden or, even more likely, in the house… in the garage… even in the smallest room…

And then there it was. A formula devised by an attentive (retentive?) New Scientist reader: how to calculate the amount of faeces produced by a human over the course of a day.* They are a hardy bunch New Scientist readers, almost as down-to-earth as the readers of Farmers Weekly. Which just about brings me to the subject of this blog: Just how does one relieve oneself way out in the countryside, with nary a convenience in sight?

I ask because it’s a problem that has perplexed me directly. Way back in 1986 I spent six weeks mapping geologically a remote part of Gweebarra Bay in Donegal. I spent 14 hours a day in the field, far from the cottage I was renting, losing wellingtons as I waded around remote estuaries, trudging up sodden hills with only rain for company, and getting down with the mossies in foul-smelling bogs. You can’t (or well I couldn’t) hope to go 40-odd days dawn-to-dusk without the issue coming up.

Trouble is, I’m an urban type. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. Should I crouch behind a wall, wade out into the sea, fashion a nappy from discarded maps? I had no idea what would be considered disgusting, hilarious or de rigeur. I also had the risible townie’s fear of being approached by a sheep if I risked anything.


Twice I knocked on the doors of remote farmhouses (in one, incidentally, I was treated to a full-scale lunch of Bacchanalian proportions). None of the occupants looked surprised or said ‘What’s wrong with the back of the wall?’ so perhaps I did the decent thing. But I’d really like to know. I’d hazard a guess that a fair proportion of people reading this blog have had direct experience.

For all I know, it might already have been discussed in Farmers Weekly? Is it the kind of thing country people talk about in detail or is it one of the unmentionables? Let me know please, it’s all part of a townie’s education…

* For those who are interested (and why wouldn’t you be?) the range of faecal weights produced by a healthy individual ranges from 19 to 280 grams per day. The only way to increase faecal weight is to eat more fibre, because unfermented fibre can hold lots of water. In healthy people, the wet faecal weight is in the order of 3 to 5 grams per gram of fibre. From this knowledge we are able to extrapolate the following formula for the effect of fibre in the colon:

Faeces weight = Wf(1 + Hf) + Wb(1 + Hb) + Wm(1 + Hm)

where Wf, Wb and Wm are respectively the dry weights of fibre remaining after fermentation in the colon, bacteria present in the faeces, and osmotically active metabolites and other substances in the colon which could reduce the amount of free water absorbed, and Hf, Hb and Hm denote their respective water-holding capacities. So, now you know.

* Mick O’Hare is the editor of Does Anything Eat Wasps?, Why Don’t Penguins Feet Freeze? and How to Fossilise Your Hamster, all published by Profile in conjunction with New Scientist. His new book, Do Polar Bears Get Lonely?, is due to be published in October 2008.

Photo credit:

Tim Relf

3 Responses to Toilet humour

  1. Jamie Day April 7, 2013 at 9:41 pm #

    It is a long time since my tractor driving days, but I always thought that was the reason tractors had such large back wheels – to hide behind when taking a “break”.

    And when I did a stint on the praries in North Dakota, every tractor had a bog roll (usually very dusty)in the tool box. Not that there was anybody about to offend.

    Again, a very long time ago, but on my animal nutrition course at Reading in the 1970s, I can remember photos of sheep in a field, each harnessed to a little trolley behind them which collected their faecal output for measurement and analysis. So I guess this sort of information is available for several species, not just humans!

  2. Tripolis April 7, 2013 at 9:41 pm #

    As hikers or backpackers would tell you, the right way to do this is to dig a small hole away from any water source, squat over it, relieve yourself, then fill it back up (packing the TP out). Dunno if this protocol changes when you’re walking around someone’s farm.

  3. Isabel Davies April 7, 2013 at 9:41 pm #

    This is generating some discussion on the FWiSpace forums. Seems like people are more concerned with the male/female divide.

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