Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Happy Old Sheep Day

It’s more than twelve years since we moved here, and nearly twelve years since we took on the Soay sheep. The number of original members of the flock is diminishing and the oldest is a black sheep called Cilla. And today is her birthday – seventeen. This time next year she could vote, if she weren’t a sheep.
The birthday breakfast today

Ten years ago, our then-oldest sheep called Oakapple was taken ill and couldn’t stand. The vet was quite amazed – she so rarely heard such serious heart murmurs in sheep because they don’t usually live that long. Despite everything the vet could do, Oakapple died later that day, and she was a mere youngster compared to her grand-daughter, Cilla.

Not only is she our oldest ewe and oldest ever ewe, but also one of the most laid back. After our first lambing – eleven years ago – we called her Aunty Cilla, because she was the principal lamb-minder. The other ewes could go off grazing and Cilla would potter along at her own pace, with the lambs, until the big reunion and frantic scramble to match eager noses to the right udder.

Cilla with her lambs in 2008

Sometimes having lambs gets on top of ewe

Cilla has stared in one of my earlier blogs, because even an ageing and laid-back sheep can make trouble when she really puts her mind to it. At least two years running, at lambing time, the great lamb-minder has decided that some of the new crop must be hers.
A few year ago - Are you sure this one isn't mine?

Cilla also has the dubious honour of being the last of the Ladies Wot Lurch – a group of four older ewes who took things at their own pace and walked with a bit of a wobble. When we were down to two, we renamed them the Baggages.

Catching a few rays

Cilla now lives with three other ewes who are just easing into middle-age because the rough and tumble of the main flock is too much for her, and it’s the only way to be sure she gets enough food. This time last year, we didn’t think she would make it through the Summer, but now, perhaps she will be up for voting next year.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Let It Snow?

No. Forget cheery Christmas songs, this is March. It’s supposed to be Spring. Please make it stop snowing.
I know this imported Siberian weather has been around for less than a week, but it feels like forever, and the snow just makes it worse. A whole four days back I took advantage of the sudden cold and moved hay bales, ten to the trailer-load, because the mud was solid and I could get traction. So, there’s an upside. Just the one, mind you.

Earl enjoying his frozen food

The downsides...
The animals need water, the liquid stuff, not the crunchy version that has suddenly become the default. The water troughs froze, taps on the water tanks froze, the hoses to get water from place to place froze. At least the sun was out. For two days, we laid hoses out in the sun, lined up down the slope so that any ice inside would melt and drain. Then the sun stopped coming out.

By Thursday, a bucket of water would start to freeze over within an hour. We now have an ice-cube graveyard, although they’re not cubes but bucket-shaped cylinders of ice because it was easiest to tip out the frozen and refill, adding a kettle-full of boiling water to each and then carrying out across the fields. The outside tap had to be defrosted by carefully dribbling hot water from a kettle. The re-freeze time was five to ten minutes.
The start of the ice-mould graveyard

Thursday afternoon, the snow arrived. Just as the first scattering of flakes were coming down we drove over to the nearby reservoir as we had been told the water was freezing on the shore. By the time we got there it was frozen all the way across. We lasted less than five minutes, taking photos, before the wind chill forced us back into the car. The wind was driving fine dry snow over the top of the spillway at the reservoir, and creating swirling fake-mist along the road.
The reservoir, viewing along the spillway

Not a lot of snow settled at first – this was horizontal snow, carried on the wind, keeping clear of the ground and really just passing through as fast as it could. To look at, it was barely snowing at all, but in those quiet corners where the wind couldn’t scour it out, drifts built up quickly. At the end of the greenhouse, where the hen Leopard Neck has her chicks, the snow was up to knee height by the end of the day, and as fast as I could clear it, the heap re-formed. I didn’t tell my partner I was taking a shovel to feed the chicks.

Friday was better – still bitterly cold with a howling easterly, but obviously warmer, because the outside tap remained unfrozen for more than an hour. Even so, most of the day went on carrying water out to the animals, and bringing back iced buckets to empty out and refill, and maintained a supply of warmed feed for our small group of elderly sheep.
The most striking thing about those two days was the near-continuous commitment to feeding and watering the animals. The second most striking thing was scraping the ice out of my beard after every trip outside.
Piper thinking about going out - you gotta be kidding me.
This morning (Saturday) when I first stepped out the air felt still and warm. By the time I had done the first basic round of checking on the animals the breeze was picking up. When I stepped out again after breakfast, there was light rain falling. The big freeze is over, the mud is emerging from under the snow as if it has been in hibernation, and tufts of grass are poking up.

The normal Cornish winter has returned – warm, wet and muddy. I’m sure I’ll be complaining about it in a day or two, but for now let it rain.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Chick Lit

There are reasons to write about chicks right now. Firstly, we had five hatched a fortnight back and they are cute. Secondly, I have to get in quick and write fast. Chicks don’t hang around long. Thirdly, we now have a sixth called Twiglet, a surprise hatching that has not gone so well.

Twiglet - chicken doesn't come much fresher than that

There is a special quality to chicks that I somehow forget, and have to relearn every year – everything about them goes from zero to fast in an eye-blink. Somewhere, in the small-print of their DNA, is the need to do everything exponentially.

The Fast Food Five

Newly hatched, they toddle about and cheep frantically if the enveloping warmth of Mum is gone for more than a few seconds. At that time, it’s easy to pick them up, look them in the beak and go Ahhhh. Cute.

Now blink. They’re a few days old. They still cheep, but toddle has become zoom. Catching them is still possible, but it takes two, and a corner to herd them into, because all that speed is delivered in three dimension. And zoom itself is exponential – stationary to zipping between your fingers in an eye-blink...

For the first day or two, they hardly eat anything. Then Mum introduces them to feed pellets, and they swallow a few. Now blink. A few days old, and pellets are sucked down, a whole can-full in a day. And then a can-and-a-half... and then, before you know it, the ongoing zoom demands a continual stoking. The only thing that stops them is a sudden collision with adulthood.

Wait for me...

I now have a routine established, get them up in the morning, provide breakfast, then lunch, supper and put them to bed. Over the next week or two, the number of meals will increase, but the general routine stays the same. Except for yesterday morning when there was a surprise waiting for me under a hopeless hen we call Carnival.
Last year, she gave us the Brooding Look, aggressively sat some eggs and failed to hatch anything. In January, she did the same, and then refused to stop being broody and took over a pair of stray eggs. (It’s amazing how eggs can run off like that.) Much to my surprise, when she came off the nest to eat yesterday morning, there was a chick poking its beak out of a hole in one egg and going cheep very loudly.
I picked it up, as you might, and realised that it was in trouble. The whole hatching cycle had got hung up and the inner membrane on the egg had dried out, making it too tough for the chick to tear. I did the necessary, peeling off enough shell to get it going and then had to hang around whilst Carnival ate breakfast. That ought to have been a serious red flag – hatching, cheeping chicks normally mean that the broody absolutely refuses to leave the nest.
I went back after breakfast, just for a quick look, and Twiglet had been ejected from the nest. I thought it was dead, but when I picked it up there was a hint of movement in the legs, which can just be a post-mortem spasm, but might just mean it was still alive. On the off-chance, I cupped the chick in my hands and went to tell my partner.
Twiglet, an hour old and in trouble

There is a routine for this as well. When we used to raise geese, the goslings were hell-bent on suicide from the moment they hatched, escaping from under the goose, wandering from the nest and then getting cold until they died. However, just like all those crime dramas with a frozen body, they’re not dead until they’re warm and dead. With goslings, which are chunky and robust, we used to sit on the sofa and stuff them down inside our jumpers; for the chick it was time for a box with a hot-water bottle wrapped in a towel.

Mummy, what small feathers you have

By the time the kettle was hot and a suitable box picked out, Twiglet was already warmed up enough just by my hands to be kicking. After half an hour nestled down in the box, there was indignant cheeping, and after another half hour, silence – the sound effects sequence for the transition from almost-dead to alive-but-it’s-chilly-here to warm-and-cosy.

That’s the easy bit. Now we have a box set up in the bathroom (showers will be tricky for the next week or two) with a heat lamp to keep Twiglet warm. There’s no guarantees, but it's alive, and it’s kicking, so there is a fair chance. If only we could trust Carnival to look after it.
There. I’ve written about chicks. Now it’s time to feed them again.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Cheep And Cheerful

I took a final round of the chicken shed on Tuesday evening. 17:45 Cornish Foggy Time. Strictly, it might not have been fog – we get a certain amount of meteorological identity theft here. Big, lazy clouds that have hung around over the moor drift our way and can’t be bothered to keep above eight hundred feet. It doesn’t matter – fog or cloud, after dark the chickens are all quiet. The perfect time to lift the lid on Leopard Neck’s nest box and just listen.
Leopard Neck is a spotty hen, and the second to be given the name. Unlike many of our hen names, it still makes sense, because she has mottled neck feathers. We have another hen called Dark Penguin who looks nothing like a penguin, except for the first couple weeks when she was a black bundle of fluff with a white bib. Now she’s a mottled brown hen with attitude. So Leopard Neck, in the box, doing the low growling rattle that says go away, I’m broody.
On Tuesday morning, Leopard Neck came out and did the usual broody hen routine, grab whatever food she could, make loud clucking noises, and drop a breath-stopping pile of poo, before rushing back to sit on her eggs. A mere nine hours later, in the evening, in the dark, I heard cheeping. There was no way to tell how many voices, but this was perfect timing, spot on the notional twenty-one days for hen’s eggs to hatch.

On Wednesday morning, we went to take a proper look. Hatching time is a bit of a balancing act – the hen and chicks know what they’re doing, so it’s best not to interfere. On the other hand, things do go wrong – an egg in the wrong position, or caught up inside the empty shell from an early-starter. So, I reached under and pulled out each egg for inspection, and disposed of the empties.
As of 09:30 Cornish Rainy Time we knew that at least two had hatched, that another had made the first break in the shell, and that one of the chicks was pale yellow. Then it was time to walk away and leave them to it.

It's too early in the morning for a photo-call

Mid-afternoon, we went back to check progress once more and Leopard Neck grumbled something which loosely translates as go away. Instead, I had another reach under and removed more empties. It turns out that as of 16:00 Cornish Hail Time, we had five out of eight hatched, and they were cute.
Is anyone else still under there?

OK, that’s not really news. Chicks are always cute. Just like lambs, goslings... in fact pretty much anything newly born around the farm is cute. So it’s not news – just enjoy the cute, the sense of the new year really getting started.

In the dim and distant past – at least four years ago – we would open the nest box and let Leopard Neck get on with the business of leading her chicks out to explore the world. These days we have young, vigorous hunting cats always on the look-out for a bite-sized chicken nugget. So, rather than the outside world, they get the greenhouse and a fresh nest box, just until the chicks know how to keep up with Mum.
It’s easy enough to do. Catch the chicks one by one and put them in a big flower pot. (Give it another day or two and they would be too fast.) Then pick up a very grumpy broody hen and carry the whole set round to the greenhouse to decant into the new nest box.

It's going to be so much easier if we all go round the same way.

Job done. Hen and chicks in their new home. Stand back and enjoy the cuteness.

Yes, fine, but where is the en-suite?

What could be better? It’s February today, the days are getting longer, and our first chicks are hatched and doing well. It’s enough to make anyone cheerful.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Let It Slide

It’s January, the sheep are eating hay, and the supply of bales out in the field shelter is getting low – still a few days reserve, but I am about to be away for a couple of days and re-stocking first would be a good idea. This is not a difficult task – I just have to move ten bales from the main barn, one at a time, onto the trailer, drive out to the field shelter, stack the bales there and repeat. Easy. Then make a cup of tea, sit down and exclaim the magic words, Oh, my back.

We will call when we've done with the first course.

Easy stuff, apart from the mud. We have plenty of mud at this time of year and the only thing that makes it manageable is having the temperature drop below freezing and stay there. This year, we are having a warm winter.
So, there’s a bit of mud at the open end of the barn, not enough to cause trouble, unless I’m carrying a bale of hay. Just step carefully. It’s a bit like Dancing on Ice, just a different style, for different weather, and a totally different impact if I get it wrong.
Between the barn and the field shelter... the ground looks like grass. However, appearances are deceiving. It has rained a lot here recently and just under a thin and fragile layer of turf is mud, but not just any old mud. This is special, Cornish mud. All the time the turf is intact, holding it in, the mud behaves like a giant water bed, rippling softly beneath my feet, often so slowly that I can barely feel it. Break the surface, and it can move freely, with a texture akin to grease, a sticky super-lubricant that can snare even an unwary tractor and suck it down to its doom...
Where was I... right, trailer stacked, ATV warmed up, just drive out to the field shelter, very slowly, in full four-wheel drive, because the last thing I want is any wheel-spin to break through that fragile turf. The ATV, naturally, has other ideas. Yes, the steering is pointed ahead, but let’s just take a little excursion over to the left... or maybe the right, and back to the left. Whilst I had a general forward motion, the ATV slid from side to side, forever hinting that at any moment it was going to ignore the whole pointing forwards thing, and really explore left or right just as far as it goes.
At the last stage of the journey there really is a left turn, down the slope to the shelter. I took that very, very slowly. The brakes on the ATV are pretty good, provided the tyres can get a grip, and provided that trailer of hay bales doesn't get ideas of its own.

Me? No! Eat it all?  Hardly had a bite.

Finally, there is the ground outside the shelter, thoroughly churned by the sheep. I have a very fine pair of Dunlop All Terrain Footwear, aka Wellies, but like that ATV I just successfully parked on a muddy slope, they have limitations.
The wellies have a good grip, but when the whole ground under my feet moves, the wellies hold on to that and just slide with it. There’s also the matter of depth. My size twelve wellies come up to a bit below my knees, whilst in places the mud is deep and liquid enough to reach all the way to my knees. Perhaps in the future, wellies will have mud-seals at the top.
According to Newton, what goes up, must come down, but with the mud, what goes down does not necessarily come back up. With the wellies, I use this ingenious auto-release safety device called a sock. The welly plunges down into the mud, twisting and turning through layers and pockets of varying density and then, as I pull back, the sock smoothly detaches and protects my foot from the wind as I balance on one leg to retrieve the lost welly.
Sometimes, the sock acts as an emergency All Terrain Footwear, but rather less waterproof than the welly.
I moved hay. Just twenty bales. There’s only so much slide I can handle before oh, my back and the need to wash my socks put an end to it.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

The Habit – Here, and Back Again

The Ginger Yo-yo is in full rebound – Thug (The Purring Death) is visiting us with the sort of determined persistence that defies belief. Just at present, he drops by at least every two or three days and we now have a morning routine where I open the back door, look out and then report to my partner whether or not it's a ‘Thug Day’.
I'll just have two fingers

As I have mentioned before, Thug is adoring and adorable, and if that were the whole story he would be welcome to stay as long as he wants. However, what really happens is that he turns up, tells us what a poor, deprived moggy he is, tries to cadge breakfast, demands extensive attention and then terrorises the other cats.
We have recently had Ginge refuse to come near the house for several weeks after a bad encounter by the back door, and just yesterday Oatmeal got rolled in the mud. Piper knows better - first hint of Thug and he takes cover. Even if he mistakes Ginge for Thug – it’s better to be embarrassed (again) rather than bitten on the arse (again).
Fast Food - some meal options are slow enough to catch
(Piper, after a recent encounter and trip to the vet)

So, Thug turns up and menaces the other cats; in return, I drive him home. You would think that sort of rejection (with small meal option, because a tiny amount of bait is needed) would put him off, but a day or two later he’s back again. Sometimes sooner. Much sooner. The highlight of the sequence has to be a night-time visit, around ten, when I drove him back down the hill. The following morning, he was hanging around by the back door, looking for breakfast – very wisely, all possible meal options were keeping their ears down elsewhere. So, I drove him home... and then, that evening, I drove him home again.
That is the big and consistent theme with Thug visits – again. So much again that it ought to be in capitals and tattooed on his whiskers.
Thug has got into a habit of visiting, a persistent habit that refuses to die. From chatting with his owners we have even identified one occasion when he dropped by in the evening, dodged being picked up and driven home, then walked home anyway for a meal, and then walked back to be with us the following morning. If Thug took up smoking, there would be a towering snow-drift of cigarette butts with a contented ginger cat snoozing on top.
His visits are such frequent events now that he has grown accustomed to the taxi-ride and will follow me all the way round the house and down to our van. We no longer have the frantic struggle, or the sudden mad dash, none of the usual panic of the pet-cage response. Being bundled up and driven home is just a part of the routine – he still doesn’t approve of the ‘taken home’ aspect, but is prepared to tolerate something that includes those essential elements in his life, food and cuddles.
His owners have tried variations on what time they let him out, or let him in – Thug is a great one for wailing outside the window at five in the morning because he’s hungry, or it’s time for his next cuddle treatment. They have tried multiple variations on when to keep him in, when to let him out, looking for that sweet-spot combination where he stays down with them. It doesn’t matter what they do, he still comes to see us. Today (so that’s two days in a row) he arrived mid-morning. My partner met him as she was feeding the sheep and he strolled back to the house with her, in search of the usual light snack and personal attention. I drove him home, because it gives our cats peace and quiet, and makes rolling in the mud their choice, rather than Thug’s.
For Thug it is not a matter of whether the journey or the destination is more important, just that there is food and love when he arrives. Or at least other cats to snack on.
Now, Christmas is coming. The season of good will to all ginger moggies, the time when Thug tried to move in with us last year, because it was too wild and noisy at home with friends, family and their dogs visiting. In this season of giving, I currently make a routine check under the trees (Christmas or not) for the presence of the ginger gift of love and feline violence that just keeps giving.
Remember, a cat is not just for Christmas, except perhaps for Thug, who is more prepared to go home in January.

Monday, 27 November 2017

A Jump To The Left

Some time back, I wrote about two of our rams (TwoMega-Nits of Ram) getting their horns entangled like one of those party puzzles. Back then, the first pass at fixing it was after dark after a five hour drive. Funny how the same things come round.
Butch as a youngster, with his mother - 

This time I there was no long car drive, just a busy day mixing concrete and building a flight of steps. Come evening, my partner went out to feed the sheep and I decided to take a shower. Usually, I wouldn’t step into the shower until sheep-feeding is done, just in case there’s a head stuck through a fence, or one of the regular troublemakers is in the wrong field. This time, I went for the shower anyway, because it’s so long since anything actually went wrong, and because I really, really needed to spend some time under a relaxing spray of hot water.
Butch (top right) as a teenager. hanging around with his mates, Panda and Monk

At least I was out of the shower by the time my partner called from the back door.
Butch hasn’t turned up for food.
That’s sort-of unusual. Butch is our oldest ram (his half brother Monk is several days younger) and really likes his food. However, since his fall from the exalted rank of Alpha Male (Because when you’ve reached the top, there’s only down left... ), everybody tries to beat him up, including one of the wethers. Worse still, he’s only got one horn intact – the right side broke a while back so there is only a stump. Despite being a foodie, Butch can be put off coming to the gate when the evening feed is being put out. And at that time of evening, with the light almost gone, spotting a mid-brown ram amongst the shadows across a couple of acres of field can be difficult.
I pottered around the house, finding clothes, whilst my partner went to finish dealing with the rest of the sheep. After all, Butch might still turn up...
Or not.
Quarter of an hour later we set out with a lantern to search the field where the rams spend the winter. It is our largest open field – no gorse bushes in the middle – but it slopes and undulates, creating a number of shallow dips where a ram might hide. It also has a corner where the fence has been heavily reinforced following an escape attempt some years back, so we started there.

Butch. keeping his right side to the fence
Good choice. That saved us a lot of tramping around in the dark. Butch was not actually in the corner but a short distance out, huddled against the stock netting. Whilst his right horn is largely gone, he still has the full corkscrew on the left and what he did was...
Actually, I have no idea what he did. I suspect it started with a jump to the left, but somehow he had threaded that corkscrew horn into the fencing. Given his age and weight, I really can’t imagine that he turned a couple of somersaults to do the job, but it was quickly obvious that just moving him backwards and forwards was not going to unscrew him.
There was only one thing to do – pick him up, turn him on his back, and just keep rotating until he came free. That sounds simple, but Butch probably weighs somewhere in the region of twenty-five to thirty kilos (small by modern commercial sheep standards, but still about the same as a sack of coal), has no convenient hand-holds, and really, really hates being picked up, let alone turned upside-down. He has various ways to express his displeasure, but once I had him toes-skyward he went for the kick and flail option. So, to recap – pick up twenty-five kilos of uncooperative sheep, turn him over, take great care to not break his neck, nor get kicked in the face, and then untwist his horn from the fence. No, wait, I left out a few details – do this in the dark (OK, there was a lantern, but it doesn’t matter where that is, the glare gets in my eyes), without injuring myself, and in clothes fresh out of the cupboard. With the other rams gathering round. That’s it. Simple.
A ram, twisted into a fence, in a mood – a whole new meaning to cross threaded. I can also tell you from close, personal experience, that a sheep hoof does not fit inside a human nostril, and that it really stings when a grumpy ram tries to disprove that idea. I can also tell you that it doesn’t matter which hoof. At the time, I said forceful things that might be paraphrased as ow, that hurt you pesky little rascal.
When it was done, there was only one more thing to say.

I need another shower.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Chicken In Distress

Keeping chickens brings all manner of challenges, but since ours free-range over an acre or more, a major one is trying to keep them safe from predators. It turns out that there is no shortage of things eager to kill and eat our birds – foxes, weasels, the neighbour's dog, me when they are particularly annoying – as well as random hazards such as passing cars.
They actually have up to eighteen acres to roam across, but somewhere in those little chicken brains, there appears to be an understanding that the likelihood of predators increases the further they roam from the house. We have even observed that birds who witness one of their own being mown down by a passing motorist are more cautious about crossing the road. (Why did the chicken cross the road? Because they are too dumb to know it’s dangerous.)
Nobody here but us chickens

Amazingly, the biggest single obstacle to chicken safety turns out to be... chickens. They make a wide range of noises to express alarm, but rarely when there’s actually something to be alarmed about. So far as I can tell, on seeing one of their number taken by a fox, one chicken response is not to scream loudly it’s a fox, it’s a fox, but to carry on with whatever they were doing, secure in the knowledge that foxy has already eaten. A second response is to fly up high and look down to check there’s a potentially sacrificial hen closer to the ground.
On those occasions when we are on high alert and doing some defensive bird-watching, because there’s been a fox around, we keep an ear out for sounds of distress. At the first sound of trouble, grab the big stick and go running to save some poor hen from being fox-snack.
Right. That works so well.
Let me give a few examples of causes of sounds of distress. The dialogue is a rough translation from hen to human; my responses are rarely spoken aloud...
Hen: He jumped on me, the brute, and pinned me to the ground, so I screamed, and screamed, and screamed.
Me: Yes, dear, he’s a cockerel, you’re a hen, that’s how it works.
Hen: I laid an egg. How did that happen? Hell’s teeth, that thing came out my arse. Anyway, I screamed, and screamed, and screamed... what do I do now?
Me: Yes, dear, you’re a hen, that’s how it works. Now sit on it. Or give it here and I’ll have it for supper.
Hen: She pecked me, the bitch, so I screamed....
Me: Yes, dear, that’s how it works. She’s a bigger, meaner hen than you, higher in the social order of hens, who has to remind you of your place.
Hen: OMG, I flapped my wings and my feet came off the ground. I think I’m afraid of heights, so I screamed...
Me: Seriously?
Hen: Help, help, help... I just opened my eyes and I’m a chicken... and I’m surrounded by chickens... it’s enough to make me scream... HELP! I just shut my eyes and when I opened them...
Frankly, some hens can scream in panic over almost any routine part of being a hen, and with chicken-on-chicken violence being a regular event, moments of absolute peace are suspicious. Thus we have a system for handling false alarms where you have to listen for the quiet sound of almost nothing happening before rushing out to chase off a predator. Or we can give way to frustration and have chicken for dinner...

That’s the choice with the sounds of a chicken in distress – a source of angst, or a piquant sauce and some vegetables on the side.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Am I There Yet?

I don’t often write about writing, but when an interesting detail smacks me between the eyes, I have to write it down. Last time, it was Head Elsewhere, my regular disconnect with the real world. This time it’s almost the inverse, achieving the necessary connection with my unreal world.
I’ve been writing a novel on Wattpad (Digital Tart), fixing it chapter by chapter, each instalment getting the eyeball from my partner before it goes online. So, comments come back, this word isn’t right, didn’t follow what was happening here, please spellcheck the ******* thing. The usual.
I then go through to see what needs fixing, and what doesn’t. One particular passage didn’t really work for either of us, but I patched it up, and all was well. Or not. Yes, it was better, but no, it wasn’t right, and I really couldn’t see why not. It was sufficiently wrong that as I cleaned out the goose hut tonight, my head did a long excursion elsewhere, watching the offending scene play over and over.

By the time the floor was washed and swept, the geese fed, and everything settled down for the night, I knew what was wrong and how to fix it. In fact, if it weren’t for the chickens, I would be writing those fixes now. However, once the geese were done, it was time to put the chickens to bed, so my head went to another elsewhere.
An elsewhere of an elsewhere – cleaning out the chickens whilst thinking about thinking about the writing whilst cleaning the geese... you get the picture? I went back over the goose-cleaning operation, a bit of internal theatre, a personal flashback re-watching myself cleaning the geese whilst being head-elsewhere over the troublesome scene. Once I started looking closely – and the rewind/slo-mo playback of myself in my own head is superb – I saw the real problem. Not the fix for the scene, but why I didn’t get it right the first time, or the second. Until I cleaned out the geese, I really wasn’t there yet.
Welcome to my head. Feel free to look around a while. Just don’t touch anything.
The scene itself was simple enough – two characters who aren’t sure of each other, perhaps don’t like each other, and are about to step into a situation where trust, or the lack of it, is troublesome. I had the scene, the actions, the dialogue... but it wasn’t right, because I wasn’t there. I was standing back, doing a bit of arm waving, you stand there, you go there, now say this, do that... cut... lovely work people...
Except it wasn’t. Until I did the geese and took the time to be really there. To stop the action for a moment and ask the sarky character so what’s your problem anyway? And then the other one – why is this winding you up? And then nudge the mannequins aside and step into their shoes (or armoured boots) and really be there, take a look around, see what my characters were seeing, feel the hob-nails on the concrete.
That sarcasm isn’t just a moment of snarkiness, it’s a childhood of dodging the jackboots, of caring for family in a tight corner, protecting an innocent victim of those jackboots. And from the jackboot side, that sarcasm is a breath away from the other character being the ring-leader of a round of mob violence, it’s a warning to look up to check for incoming bricks, the moment to lock shoulders with the other jackboots... yada, yada, yada. The details don’t really matter, only the being there is important.
The fix, when I get a chance to write it, is probably a sentence or two. Maybe less if I can figure out how to be clever about it, but that’s not the point. Until I was there, it didn’t work, didn’t happen, failed to come together. Until I’m there, in the middle of everything, feeling it, being it, no matter how unreal it might be, the writing doesn’t work.
I’ve never been at the front of a riot, never been front and centre behind the riot shields, but if I can’t let my head go elsewhere (perhaps pick up few useful recollections from the shelves), and be there, I make a mess of the writing. What I have done is stood in the front rank as a pikeman in a civil war battle re-enactment, with the Roundhead army marching down on us from behind a hill. It’s only a bit of weekend fun. No-one is going to get hurt beyond the ability of the St John’s Ambulance folks to patch up. (OK, sometimes there’s a trip to A&E, or the burns unit, or the urgent need for an orthopaedic surgeon... but that’s rare.) It’s just a bit of fun... but the drums, the noise, the marching, the first sight of their pikes appearing over the crest of the hill, my there’s a **** of a lot of them... feel those butterflies anyway.
I can feel that brick in my hand, now. Just let me get a proper grip on the riot shield... hey, mate, am I holding this right? Never done this before, never want to do this for real, so just let me be a moment to soak it in, find some words to go with it.

I’m back now. Until the next chapter. Or tomorrow evening when the geese need cleaning out again. Shit happens, my head goes elsewhere, and just maybe, I’m there again.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

A Brooding Look

One of our chickens went missing – it happens, for a number of reasons. So, they wander next door, decide the food, service or both is better and stay the night, and the following day the neighbour asks is this your chicken? Or, they wander too far, something with teeth and claws decides that the food looks good, the chicken stays for more than just the night, and the following day, the pile of feathers says that was tasty.
And then there is the third option – unbeknownst to us, a hen has been laying her eggs somewhere other than the nest boxes we provide. Then, having laid a good number, she disappears to go broody. This time, her name is Carnival.
Our missing bird taking a (dust) bath.
She disappeared two nights back, so cue the late-night walk around the field checking for sad heaps of feathers. I found nothing, and these days the neighbours send our occasional marauding hens home, so that left broody, or killed further away. Finding a white hen in the dark by lamplight sometimes works... Carnival is brown with stripes, and yellow patches - I gave up looking once the daylight went.
The following morning, I took a more extensive look, but still no sad pile of feathers, no she wasn’t at the neighbours, but she didn’t turn up for breakfast either, and in the past broody hens turn up for the morning grain.
At this point, we wrote Carnival off as a probable distant fatality but, around lunchtime, when we were talking through exactly which brown hen was missing, making sure that it really was Carnival (because she’s not the only one in brown and stripes) I pointed to a particular hen and said... isn’t that the missing one?
Yes. Carnival was back. Not broody at all, right? Wait, what’s that smell? What did I just tread in? We call it the broody turd. After twenty-four hours (approximately) of sitting on the eggs, a hen has a lot of well-fermented faeces stored up and looking for somewhere to go. Not only is the broody turd big, but it has reach and presence, a foul miasma that spreads and lingers. Maybe she is broody then.
So, decision time. Shut her in somewhere until she gets bored of being broody, or track her back to the nest. We’ve lost a few hens this year, and the lock her in routine is not easy to get right, so we opted to track Carnival.
Now, about this lunchtime business – it was a nice day, so we were going to eat out, lunch was already on the plates and ready to go when I spotted our missing hen. I took the first watch, whilst my partner ate, and then we swapped. Yes, we could both eat and watch, but a hen on the way back to her nest can be a nippy little devil. In the time you take to put lunch somewhere safe from all the other hens, she could be gone... And then it’s another twenty-four hours or so before the next opportunity.
So, what does a young bird do when she comes off the eggs? A dust-bath, obviously, a quick freshen up just after dropping that broody turd, and then a bite to eat. Hey, there’s an idiot human following me, how about some grain, mate? Then perhaps another dust bath, a leisurely stroll to fool anything trying to follow her back to the nest, maybe a bit of sun-bathing. Then another stroll... are we paying attention... how about a stroll around the corner box of the stables where the hens normally live. Still paying attention, are we?
She vanished. How hard can it be to watch a chicken? There one moment, gone the next. Somewhere in the vicinity of the stables...
By a process of elimination, we worked out where she is. Probably. There’s a whole run of out-buildings... those either side of the one the chickens use are piled high with stuff in storage. So, if she’s in one of those, we just have to take everything out...
So, we had a plan – watch and wait, and then follow our elusive broody once she comes out for lunch. We will watch carefully – we know where she vanishes, so those decoy strolls can be ignored... and then we will know which box.
The following day, with another round of really nice weather, I set an alarm on my phone to patrol the yard every twenty minutes. Carnival was a no-show at mid-day and eventually, we had lunch in one of those twenty minute gaps, certain that the moment we sat down she would appear, but not this time. In due course, on account of the weather, we had a decent serving of some home-made ice-cream, and as I stepped out of the house with that, there was Carnival.
She strung us along for nearly an hour and even then, we almost missed it. One moment she was pecking around and then, like something out of a Bond movie, she slipped into the shadows, and made a run for it, up on to the perch, up again onto a stack of boxes, and through a ridiculously tiny gap into the store next door.
This is where human guile outwits hen speed. I had all the doors with their bolts barely hanging on. We knew which way she went and got the adjacent door open just a crack to watch her go over all the stacked junk and narrow down the approximate nesting site.
And on the third day... as per the forecast, the weather turned grey and we spent a few hours carefully emptying the store, working back until a certain box that felt too heavy for its size...
In the egg-box

Carnival is now with her eggs in a nice, solid nest box, safe from the rats and other predators. The hole to next door is blocked. She will try to go back. They always do. It will take a few days before her head is re-programmed to recognise the nest box as hers.
The new home - are you sure those are mine?

In the meanwhile, we check on her from time to time. All is going well. She has that grim and brooding look... put those fingers in here and you won’t be getting them back. That’s how a broody hen is supposed to be.