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.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

The Cat Fight At The End Of The Universe

I was woken by the wailing of the cat fight at the end of the universe. From the volume and extra-added screaming, I assumed that Thug (aka The Purring Death) had Piper cornered somewhere, so I went to help. The further through the house I went, the louder it got. Not so much cat fight at the end of the universe, but the cat fight that ends the universe. Ginge had risen from her (well, Oatmeal’s) cushion in front of the washing machine and was dancing around, expressing her concern – make it stop, I want to go back to sleep.
I carried on to the lounge – it wasn’t Piper, but Squeak. I assumed Thug was on the other side, but I couldn’t see, couldn’t get the right angle at the window. (Note to self – on getting out of bed to investigate cat-fight, dress first.)

So there you have it, seven-thirty in the morning, end of the universe and I haven’t had breakfast yet, or got my underwear on. Ginge was right to be concerned. For some reason, Squeak really loathes ginger cats, and like Piper, she can spot a ginger cat by colour and doesn’t differentiate between Ginge and Thug. Whichever one she is putting in their place, the screaming and fury will just go on for ever. Or until the universe finally gives up and ends.
Squeak is utterly unrelenting. When she has a go at Ginge, it’s a relatively even match and Ginge resolves it by running away. In fact, these days, Ginge won’t even come in to the lounge. But Thug... that is a grudge match and a half. Squeak pitches her two-thousand eight-hundred grams of raw whining against his meagre seven kilos of lean mean violence machine. She howls and wails, lunging without a care for her personal safety and absolutely refuses to back down until he turns and runs. Or at least saunters away. Whatever the mode of locomotion, Squeak stays at it until he is absolutely out of sight. This is her window sill, and no damned ginger cat is getting it.

That is the cat fight at the end of the universe. OK, not quite the end. Just close enough to give a flavour. The true end of the universe would be if they were both the same side of the glass.

Thug, relaxing later on the new, luxury, body-hugging lap

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Where’s My Wabbit?

At least two of our cats are active hunting cats and routinely bring back rodents. When stray or feral cats like that move in, the first hint that they really believe the house is their home is bringing back the catch to eat it. Piper reached that stage ages ago, so bringing his own supper in is just part of the routine and, somewhere about three this morning, he came in with the latest something. No telling what without turning on the light, but he does try to tell you all about it. All of our cats have more than one name, so Oatmeal is also Flumph, because when seven kilos of fat, fluffy cat walks across your chest in the middle of the night, there are noises ending in emphatic mph! Piper is also known as Chirples, because when he has something to say, he does it with a stream of chirpling meows, and he always has a lot to say. This is nothing like the wailing of wait for me if we’re walking too fast when he’s following us across the field.
Piper getting a better view on the rabbit situation

(Before you read on, I have to warn you, some animals were hurt in the making of this blog.)
So, middle of the night, a short hello chirple sequence is easy to interpret – I’m in, it is/is not heaving with rain, my paws are dry/dripping with mud, do you want to stroke me before I sleep on your feet? (Or, should you care to step out of bed, I can wrap my soggy self around your shins and then tickle you between the knees with a very cold, wet tail...) In the summer, the conversation starts some distance out, an ongoing chirpling heard through the open windows, fading as he works round to the cat-flap the other side of the house, and then building again as he comes through the house. There may, or may not, be a hiatus whilst he has a snack at the biscuit bowl.
Then there is the middle-of-the-night extended chirple. That can go on for a while, ideally until one of us gets out of bed, and it means just the same as the short sequence but with the vital extra – come see this fantastic mouse I caught. Piper does like his people to observe and admire the catch. That’s what woke me this morning. Chirple, chirple, chirple... thud.
The thud is not good – I had no idea what it meant, but it could not be good. After a few rounds, I started to believe that maybe it was Thug (aka The Purring Death) at the window, trying to burgle his way in and have a bite of Piper. That did not gel with Piper telling all about a fantastic mouse... so I turned on the lights and went to see what all the excitement was about.
It was a bit of a let-down. There was Piper, lying in the hall in that ready-for-action, half-curled pose... and no mouse. But he was watching the gap under a bookshelf so no visible mouse, but a potential rotting corpse... unless it was dumb enough to come out and make a run for it.
Now it was my turn to talk. Do you want me to move the furniture? Are you going to catch the damn thing if I get it out? Can I just go back to bed and deal with this in the morning? What was that thud? The thing is, once Piper has told you all about it, achieved lights-on, and attention from one of his people, he’s done talking. You’re supposed to admire, congratulate, offer a scratch behind the ears, and then push off so that he can eat in peace. (And this is the moment to memorise the location for clean-up later.)
I went back to bed.
Chirple, chirple, chirple... thud. Seriously? How can I sleep through this? Chirple, chirple, chirple... thud. It still sounds like Thug trying to break in, but I know it’s Piper and a mouse going another couple of rounds. A serious mouse, putting up a fight... and in the red corner... no, wait... that’s just blood... Chirple, chirple, chirple... thud. Perhaps if I leave the light on, I can get some sleep. Chirple, chirple, chirple... thud. I mean, really... can’t you just keep the noise down? Chirple, chirple, chirple... crunch.
(This is the part where some animals get hurt...)
I’m not a religious chap, but there’s got to be something to give thanks to for that distinctive crunch. I know it’s horrible, but it’s also natural – it’s the sound of bones breaking, of mouse being eaten. A bit of a downer for the mouse, I’ll agree, but it means peace and quiet in a few minutes, it means no festering corpse under the book-shelf, and all I have to do is remember – tread carefully until the remains are located and disposed of (having taken note of where earlier...). If you want the truly horrible, it’s the cold squelch of mouse guts between the toes when you fail to note the location, or note and forget. (Call me callous if you must, but I’ve tried rescuing mice from the cats, and once you’ve been bitten a couple of times by the ungrateful little ****, leaving the cat to finish the job is the preferred option.)
I really wasn’t paying proper attention. That wasn’t a standard, middle-of-the-night extended chirple. That was the extended, Director’s cut of Chirple the Movie with all deleted scenes reinstated. With added thud. When I went to start breakfast I did remember, and went looking for the mouse remains. Instead, I found a rabbit trying to hide under the bookshelf. Of course, the gap wasn’t big enough, so rabbit could only get in up to its shoulder, back end still sticking out. Idiot rabbit.
I still wasn’t paying proper attention. I went to rescue the rabbit and found it wasn’t hiding, but resting, in pieces – mostly just the back end. Piper ate the rest. I should have worked it out at three in the morning. What goes chirple, chirple, chirple... thud? Piper playing with his food when it’s something a lot bigger than a mouse.
We have had several rabbits in the house – frisky little devils to hold on to and carry out across the field – but this one just went in the tub to go out to the compost heap. Job done. No rotting meat under the book-case.
No, not job done. Around about lunch time, Piper got up. Chirple, chirple, chirple... Chirple, chirple, chirple... poking around the house, checking out that book-case... As my partner said, Piper was obviously looking for his rabbit, so she retrieved it for him and put it out the back door.
Yes, Piper wanted his rabbit. No, he was not going out there with all those mean chickens hanging around. The final compromise was to put the rabbit just inside, on the door mat, where Piper ate it, growling at Oatmeal to make it clear exactly whose rabbit it was.
All he left was one foot, which somehow ended up in one of my shoes. Scrabble, scrabble, scrabble... thud. Oatmeal spent time tossing my shoe around the kitchen trying to get at the unlucky-rabbit foot.
So, I have learned my lessons. Firstly, the really extended chirple, and the thud, means come see, I caught something bigger than a mouse. Secondly, when Piper stuffs the remains of a rabbit under a bookshelf (because obviously it didn’t crawl there on its own) he expects it to be still there later. It doesn’t matter whether it’s me, or Oatmeal, rabbit thieves are totally unacceptable. And Piper has the will the voice to demand his rabbit back.
The one thing you can be sure of with Piper – he understands a party invitation that says BYOB. He always brings his own bunny.

I check under the car before driving away, because the cats regard that nice dark space as a good hiding place. Driving out today, I really checked because Piper was dancing around, a good sign that he’s just chased Ginge under there. He was not going to follow her into a confined space because she is Mistress of the Educational Nose Swipe. I bent down, I glanced, I saw fur in the gloom and said Hello Ginge. I was wrong. When I started the engine to hint that it was time to go, a rabbit shot out from underneath and made a break for freedom up the hill, Piper in hot pursuit.

He returned about an hour later, no chirple, no bunny. Nice try, but no wabbit.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Bee Plus

Another sunny day – they’re rare enough that we notice – and sudden squawking from the chickens around mid-day caught my attention, so I went to see what the fuss was about. As I approached the house, I heard a hum and had one of those moments: I know that noise... no... can’t be...
A swarm of bees flew round the corner, over my head and up towards the old cowshed.
It is years since I last saw one, and that was back when we kept bees ourselves. We had just returned from an outing, and there, above the garage, was a scene from a disaster movie. Or maybe a horror movie if you’re spooked by a two-meter-plus tornado of a few thousand bees above your head. Our actual reaction went something like WTF...? Oh, it’s bees. OH! Its a swarm. Oh, wow! Can we follow them? Can we catch them?
Then they disappeared down the garden, so we gave chase... as far as one of our apple trees, where they gathered as a giant pear-drop, bigger than a football. That was pretty much perfect in terms of trying to catch them. As is always the way, we didn’t have the necessary equipment on hand, so I went back out to buy a few things, and my partner kept an eye on the swarm.
As it turned out, it was swarm weather. It took me a while to get the things we needed from the bee supplies place (operated out of someone’s garage) because there was a queue of bee-keepers from around the area, all dealing with swarms. I got home just in time to witness our giant pear-drop of bees (literally thousands of them, hanging peacefully in the tree) melt away like a blob of butter over a high heat and head off down the hill. We tried to track them, but lost sight after half a mile or so.
I followed yesterday’s swarm as best I could, but after a brief hover over the cowshed, I lost them. The only way to keep track was to head round the end of the barn, and by the time I had done that, they were gone. Or course, they may have settled in one of the buildings, so we shall keep an eye out. We’ve muttered for years about re-starting bee-keeping, so if we have just gained a swarm, maybe we will.

For now, we will keep an eye on the cowshed and barn to see if we have a hive establishing there. Just a daily test to see if we are bee-positive.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Is This A Green Welly I See Before Me?

Ages ago, I wrote about the Pursuit of Green Wellies, the way chicks and lambs quickly learn that the things wearing the green wellies come bearing food. Now it’s the turn of one of our older hens.
Black Lacy in her prime in 2010
Black Lacy - the name is essentially descriptive, a black hen with brown mottling on her wings that made her look like she was clothed in black lace when she was in her prime. Now it makes her look like a grubby old hen in need of a wash, but no judgements here: I’m a middle-aged bloke in need of a smaller waistline.
Black Lacy is not our oldest hen – that would be Chicky, who just keeps going – but Lacy is the one most seriously showing her age. Black Lacy moves slowly, she is incredibly light when you pick her up, and based on prior experience, she is going to drop off the perch some time this year. However, she seems perfectly content pottering around, relaxing in the sun when we have any, and laying the occasional egg when the mood takes her.
The other notable thing is that she is very nearly blind. One eye is completely useless, and there is no noticeable movement of the iris. The other clearly picks up something, but not enough to, say, stop her running into walls. To be fair, that was because all the other hens went chasing something, Black Lacy just got caught up in the moment and never saw the wall everyone else swerved past. My partner heard the impact as her beak hit the wall.
Black Lacy today - to be fair, the
light wasn't as good
The only thing she sees reliably are green wellies. Because her eyesight is so poor, there are certain rituals during the day. I start with lifting her down off the perch in the morning and putting down a pile of corn when all of the other hens have gone, otherwise she would get nothing. There is a similar routine in the evening – wait until everyone else is on the perch and then put down a pile of corn for Black Lacy.
She can’t see the corn, of course. Or not until it is literally right under her beak, or moving. When I trickle corn slowly out of my hand she tracks the movement – once she has found one end of the trail, she keeps following and pecking. Or gets it totally wrong and heads away from the food, but then it is easy to pick her up and start again.
Now I have a new routine, because I noticed her tracking my wellies. I don’t know if it is the colour, the size, or a dim memory from chickhood, but she recognises something about those big green boots and the first place she hunts for corn is right between the toe-caps. Unlike chicks, she doesn’t race towards green wellies, in fact she doesn’t race anywhere (except for the unfortunate incident with the wall) but she does recognise them.
That, or she can smell my feet through five millimetres of rubber. You never know with a chicken.
Whatever it is, our blind hen knows the significance of green wellies.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Noticing Noticing

Mornings have a simple routine, get up, check the animals, have breakfast, except for winter when breakfast happens first whilst we wait for daylight. That’s most mornings. Today was one of the specials where I needed to be somewhere, on time. That means add in getting showered, finding clothes with no significant animal debris on them, and packing in lots of extra jobs.
The clean clothes were already set out. All I had to do was shower, cook breakfast, get clothes off the rack beyond my partner’s desk, check weather forecast, nice legs, stroke cat...
Wait. Nice legs? Where did that come from?
Back up. Literally. It was something that caught my eye on the desk – a piece of junk mail waiting for the decision: recycle immediately, use as fire-lighter, use as litter-tray liner. In the semi dark, some unquiet corner of my mind that still remembers its testosterone-addled youth picked out a dim photo, and nice legs. It took some staring at the desk to put the pieces together.
The thing is, this was just a passing glance. All that background stuff in my head, at the subconscious level, picked out a particular detail – part of the activity we mostly don’t notice. The same stuff that gets your foot shifting to the brake before you can consciously paraphrase the Bard – is that a pedestrian I see before me? – or keeps your fingers out of the way of the knife so that supper remains the vegetarian option. We spend so much of our time not actually noticing all the stuff we notice, that it comes as a surprise when circumstances make us notice it.
The people who do the adverts in the junk mail know it too, even if they don’t know they know it. That picture, on close inspection, was an ordinary young couple walking down an ordinary street. When I pick it up and look at it now, my head doesn’t instantly say ‘hey, nice legs’, except as an echo of this morning’s surprise, instead it explores things like do we want another credit card? No. Or even is this paper too shiny for the litter tray? But somewhere, in the background, that bit of my mind is probably still chuntering – nice legs, see, told you so. So even though I don’t want the credit card, and surely wouldn’t be swayed by the nice legs, some bit of me noticed, and there’s no telling how insidiously it might be nagging the rest.
Hmmm... this reminds me, I must ask my partner if she’s noticed there’s some junk mail needs processing. Nice fire-lighter.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Strawberry Delight

Every solution brings a new problem. After our tricky lambing and bottle-feeding, we moved Rubitu and son into a pen in the greenhouse. Life is like that around here – lamb was undersized, probably a bit premature, shivering in the northerly wind and in need of somewhere warm. Greenhouse – obvious, yes?

Moving a lamb is easy – you pick it up. Getting the ewe to follow is as easy as the ewe chooses to make it. The technique is to carry the lamb so that she can see it whilst doing your best cry of mah, mah if the lamb refuses to call for mum.

As it turned out, getting them in was easy. Rubitu was cooperative, probably helped by the fact that we had spent the last couple of hours with both of them, in a confined space, trying to get lamb to suckle.

After two days of warm and safe, we reached the trade-off point between keeping lamb warm versus teaching lamb to follow mum. To complicate matter further, Rubitu wasn’t eating properly – yes the sheep nuts were very nice, but what she really wanted was fresh greenery. The odd large handful of dock leaves went down well, but we couldn’t spend all our time picking salad for her.

The morning of the big day felt a bit too cold, but shortly after lunch we decided it was finally warm enough. The plan was for a simple division of labour: my partner went to let Rubitu out and see if lamb would follow, I went to install some new cat-flaps as the rodent-suppression team need access to some more out-buildings.

The thing I really need to emphasise is that Rubitu and lamb were in the greenhouse, which is fenced off from the sheep to protect all those young plants being raised just outside the greenhouse. Sheep have no respect for the plants you care about. There is a hedge just inside the fence protecting the trees and we had to beef-up the fence to stop them reaching through and eating said hedge.

It turns out that Rubitu likes strawberries – not the fruit, but the plant. In fact she more than just likes them, but if she can’t have strawberry plants, well those young willow saplings look tasty. Are those raspberries at the back? Rubitu was in sheep gastro-heaven. So much to choose from, but she couldn’t eat a whole one, or at least not before my partner intervened and shooed her off.

It took two of us to get Rubitu and lamb out into the field, one to move the lamb, one to defend the plants. Junior now goes out during the day, but he has another few nights in the warm, so Rubitu has those brief few moments, morning and evening, to give the strawberries a good look, or perhaps a quick munch if we’re not paying attention.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A Wash With Trouble

A day with a long list of jobs is almost a guarantee of something going wrong. As a matter of practicality, I started with laundry, hanging out the wash whilst my partner went to feed the sheep. It’s been a nice, bright and sunny day with a crisp and bone-biting northerly wind so you stay awake to enjoy it. I was in the middle of juggling pegs when my partner shouted for help.

In the hour or so since I last checked, our final ewe for the season went from nothing to lambed. And in trouble. On a day with serious wind-chill.

Shove over, I'm older with more insurance - Cilla (foreground)
 making her bid for the lamb
Around about this time last year I wrote of our ageing ewe Cilla trying to take a new-born lamb from it’s mother, and here she was, at it again. With a side-order of Idris the gander being an aggressive nuisance. Last year I had to handle it on my own – it’s so much easier with two. We led the ewe into the barn, got her settled in and shut everyone else out. Job done. Crisis over. Back to hanging laundry and feeding sheep.

Not too long after, I went back to check. Soay are outstandingly self-sufficient, but things do sometimes go wrong. The lamb had found a gap and gone behind a barrier – easy enough to fix, so I settled him back with mum and headed off to tell my partner. Naturally, we drifted by for another look – basic precaution, and Soay lambs are outstandingly cute.

We only have a small number of sheep, and we’ve only been doing this for about ten years, but sometimes you look and you just know something is wrong, even if you don’t know what. It took a while to figure it out, but the lamb was not suckling, which is high on the list of terminal bad news for a new-born.

Here, right where I'm pointing
I stood him up and pointed his nose in the right direction. How hard can it be? Lambs have been finding the teat and sucking for thousands of years. Junior would suck on anything except the teat. So I stepped back and my partner took a go. Pick up lamb, guide nose, contact with teat... Seriously, it’s not us, it’s the lamb.

Imagine a multiple choice exam, Just to make it simple we’ve made every answer A. There you go, try your best. This lamb just keeps ticking D.

Feed me, sucker.
Let the dribble and drool commence.
There comes a point where this is truly life-threatening. My partner drove to our local farm supplies store to pick up a pack of commercial ‘colostrum’ substitute (the extra-rich initial milk the ewe produces to help jump-start the lamb). We already had some that we bought just in case, but now years out of date – our Soay rarely need this stuff. So rarely in fact that this is the first time in ten years.

So, lamb has had a few feeds. He keeps standing and heading for the udder, but it’s those last few millimeters where his nose veers away from the teat. Left a bit, right a bit, bang on, go for it... what’s this over here?

And now the final problem. We think he’s actually premature. After a lot of staring and muttering, we’ve narrowed down one of the things that bothered us at the start: his head is the wrong shape. It’s remarkably hard to explain. Think of an inflatable toy that just needs a few more puffs of air to push the nose out to where it belongs. We have seen this sort of deformity once before in a pair of lambs born to a ewe who was very ill, but at least hers got the hang of suckling promptly.

On the bright side, the laundry is drying. We’re going to need that later. Hand-feeding a lamb is a messy business.

Just as I post this, junior appears to be suckling at last.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Milking It

Thug (aka Drang, aka the Purring Death) continues to visit. He dropped by on Sunday afternoon whilst we were out, sitting in the sun, watching out for the fox that has been killing our chickens. It was a nice day – perfect to set up the chairs, the camping table, have lunch, read a book...
Then Thug arrived, and all other cats vanished. As always with a cat, given three chairs, one of which was empty, he came and sat on me. Attention is required, and stroking, and my nose needed some firm adjustment upwards and to the left... no, upwards and to the right...
And then he moved on because my partner’s nose clearly needed adjustment.
What he really wanted was food. This option is not available. Adorable as Thug is, he is not allowed in the house due to his predilection for visiting violence on the other cats. Likewise, feeding is also not allowed, because it encourages him, so no food. Sorry. Being adorable is just not enough.
Thug jumped up on to the ageing camping table, but the plates were empty. Normally we would intervene – cats are definitely not allowed on the table – but encumbered with books, laptops and a joint curiosity over what he would do, we watched...
He inspected the tea-tray - nothing there except the milk jug. Small, glass, a bit of milk in the bottom...
He stuck his nose in, just enough to get a sniff. This has echoes of Tigger, a cat we had many years ago, and one of the first things he did was try to get his head in a large blue ceramic milk jug. He couldn’t actually get in, but Tigger had a purr designed to register on the Richter Scale, which reverberated inside the jug. Thug was working on a really small jug, so just the tip of his nose fitted in, and with no interesting sound effect.
So Thug did an Arthur. That probably doesn’t mean anything unless you’re old enough to remember adverts for wet cat food with a white cat eating from the can with his paw. Thug did just that, dipping a paw in the milk and licking it off. It would have taken him a while to get all of it but he chanced on an even better strategy – he tipped the jug over, into the tea-tray. Clearly if people will not put milk in a saucer, Thug will improvise.

Thug is a bright cat. I fear he will rule the world one day. Now that he knows how to milk a jug, there will be no stopping him.

Friday, 14 April 2017

A Cute Lamb Syndrome

Say Ahh! No, not like you’re at the dentist. More like you’ve just seen something amazingly sweet and cute and adorable. So, say Ahhh! because this is the Easter gratuitous cute lamb blog written purely because our first lambs have just been born and because they are just so amazingly cute.
Pretty much everything new-born is cute. I’m sure there are creatures out there who produce plain ugly offspring, but once you get onto cats, chickens, sheep... everything is cute. But some are cuter than others and, for whatever reason, cute as the average lamb is, the Soay lamb has extra-added cuteness.
Wait, I know I'm cute, but is this my best side?
I have done pictures for this blog because you have to see this sort of cuteness. There is a degree of tradition that says the photos ought to have a cute girly holding the lambs, just to emphasise how much cuter the lambs are. Since we are currently out of cute girlies, you will have to make do with middle-aged bloke with beard. Now how cute is that?
Once you get past the initial ahhh! moment, lambs move on to higher levels of cute, with added gambolling and playful curiosity. Last night they were digging up the special SoftSoil(tm) Luxury Kitty-Poo facilities (mole hills), which is seriously cute and, even at a couple of days old they have the sense to not disturb the ones already used by the cats.
No, I'm the really cute one.
At present, the lambs are working on keeping up with Mum, but soon they will work on the next cuteness skill which we refer to as zoom. It needs more than one lamb to be properly effective, so having the twins is an ideal starter-pack. Once a few more have been born then we can have proper zoom - high speed, formation running, over the molehills, up and down slopes, around slow-moving ewes, over sleeping ewes. Zoom is the natural lamb expression of having legs. Sturdy, powerful legs that are functional within the first hour of being born. Legs that let a lamb keep up with the flock. Basically, legs that go zoom.
Either these legs really go zoom, or grown-ups are just very slow.
Lambs are the equivalent of an eighteen year old human male, with full testosterone-induced mental impairment, given the keys to the motorbike/hot hatch/Daddy’s mid-life crisis sports car – the only thing to do is find out how fast it goes.
So, lambs go zoom. And as with the sports car, we have trees to help them stop.
And finally there is the naming, but the twins are rams, and due for the snip, so no names for them, right? That was the rule/agreement/convention which we settled on when we started with the sheep. The ewes get names. The rams get names. The wethers are just known by their ear-tag numbers.
Ginge is also very cute and came to supervise
We only intended to start with a few, maybe as many as six, just to see how we got on, but there were twenty-six, the last of a flock in need of a home following the death of a Soay breeder. Rosie, Rhoda and Ruby were the ewes born that year, and the boys just had a number - we still have numbers Thirty-seven, Thirty-Eight and Forty.
So Bonny’s twins Ocean and Sea don’t really need names, and maybe they won’t be called Ocean and Sea... but lambs are so cute, they have to have names. Even the ones that don’t need it.

There you have it, the gratuitous cute lamb blog, the annually recurring outbreak of A Cute Lamb Syndrome, which will clear up by the autumn.

Monday, 27 March 2017

And Behind The Third Door...

Thug, aka Drang (aka the Purring Death), still drops by to say hello. It’s nice to see him, stroking is essential because he is a demanding cat. Mostly demanding with cute menaces. The important thing is that he is not, under any circumstances, allowed in the house, on account of his tendency towards violence against other cats.
Us getting in and out of the house becomes tricky when Thug is visiting, because he knows there are tasty snacks inside. The merest hint of a door opening and his nose is pressed to the gap. Fortunately, there are two doors, and Thug has learned the dangers of the Front Door, which is dangerously close to The Van. He knows the routine – stroke, stroke, cutesy noises, lifted into the air, into the van and get driven home, down the hill. Thug doesn’t appreciate being taken home, or not before he’s had a bite out of someone else’s food bowl. And perhaps a bite of said someone else. So the front door is the answer for us to get in and out the house.
At present, my partner is away, with the van. Thug is a bright cat and he’s worked it out – no undignified return home without snacks and some recreational violence. (As I type, Ginge is hiding somewhere between five and ten meters up inside an overgrown cypresses hedge, Oatmeal is watching the cat-flap and Piper is just keeping his ears down.) Thug followed me round to the front door, and pressed his nose to the opening gap.
The trouble is, Thug is fast. I can’t get round the corner to the other door before he arrives, let alone open it and get inside. My final trick, once all sheep, geese and chickens were settled for the night, was to climb over the yard gate, walk along the road as quietly as I could, use the sound of a passing car to cover walking up the path, and then try to get through the front door...
I made it. Just. I shut the door in Thug’s face. With the keys still on the outside, but that’s another story.

Thug will move on sometime in the night, but he will be back. No doubt about that, and probably before my partner gets back with the van. There’s only one answer - I need a third door.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Run Away, Run Away...

I’ve written about the downfall of the alpha male before. It doesn’t matter what the species, when that fight comes, the top beast versus the challenger, there is no first and second place, there is first and last. When the alpha male loses, he falls to the bottom – if he lives.
It’s just happened to Party Pants, our top cockerel, and now Neo is the bird. Just to be clear – this not just a little punch up where Party Pants walks away muttering I could take him if I wanted to. This is a cock fight – pecking, clawing, slogging it out until only one is left breathing. Or, with the aid of welly intervention, only one is left standing. And they have to be separated with a welly, because no-one in their right mind puts a hand down there. Not if they like the way the skin goes round it as a continuous covering.
Some years ago, we got a call from a neighbour. A young cockerel of ours thought the best trick for getting food and sex was to hang out with the neighbours hens. We got the call because the neighbour’s cockerel was a big bruiser who had just kicked the living crap out of ours. We carried the bleeding heap home, patched him up as best we could, sprayed the multiple puncture wounds with antiseptic and nursed him in a quiet dark place with glucose feeder and warmth for a day or so. Then he died.
Party Pants in his prime
So, this is Party Pants, the loser, battered and bloody but with no major penetrating wounds, on account of that welly intervention. The trouble is, his time spent at the top of the heap, high on testosterone-fuelled triumph, has erased the two basic survival skills that every young cockerel learns. Run. Away. Two words, two skills, but they go together.
Party Pants has clearly forgotten both. Take run. It’s not complicated. Run, don’t walk, don’t dawdle, don’t pause to inspect an interesting blade of grass, just run, and keep running, because Neo hasn’t had time to forget running. Neo is good at it. All he has to do is master a new skill to go with run: after. Interestingly enough, Neo has grasped it immediately, and run after so easily leads to catch up, and inflict violence, all because Party Pants hasn’t yet got back into the essential skill of run.
And then there is away. That matters. Not just over there, or perhaps if I stand in this corner, but away. Far away. So far away that Neo no longer wants to run after, because all those hens are his now. So far away that it’s clear that Party Pants no longer even thinks of dipping any appendages into the gene pool. Being top bird is all about possession.
Party Pants is in denial and needs to work on away. Particularly when he can not resist the urge to crow, the great chicken expression of come on, if you think you’re hard enough. (Or, Hey! I’ve got a great big tonka. Very difficult to tell those two apart.) The only concession to defeat: Party Pants is crowing quietly, with his beak between his knees. And frankly, in his current state, I bet his toes are whispering back: come closer and we’ll show you we’re hard enough.
In time, Neo will probably settle down and not need to re-iterate his victory. For now Neo has to assert himself, hence the run after with attendant violence. And he also has to assert himself with the hens, because when he’s not looking, or when Party Pants has managed enough away, certain girls are still hanging around with the old top cock. So Neo is asserting himself, frequently and persistently. There’s an old joke: a god and a mortal woman after a night of wild sex, and he says I’m Thor, and she says, You’re sore? I’m so sore I won’t... Well, you know the rest. If you could translate it into chicken, our hens would get the punchline before you could finish. For now, Neo is asserting; eventually the shine will wear off. If he would just stop polishing.

And Party Pants will re-learn run and away. Or get used to the pain.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Two Mega-Nits of Ram

I was never any good at Rubik’s Cube, but imagine one covered in wool, dripping wet, fighting back and now try to solve it in the dark, by lamp-light.
I’ve been away for a week and drove home Saturday afternoon, pre-warned by my partner that Pad and Earl, two of the rams, had got their horns tangled and were currently inseparable. My partner had tried to get them apart on her own, one ram clamped between her knees, trying to move the other. No chance.
All I had to do, after an exhausting week and a five hour drive, was disentangle two-times twenty kilos of testosterone-driven stupidity, in the dark, ideally without losing any fingers.
Just nod if you can hear me...
Our Soay rams have large, curved horns. Imagine something with a two-inch diameter coming out of your skull above your eye, curving backwards and round the back of your ear, down and forwards along your jawline and then, if you have the deluxe version, curving up and back towards your ear... Those horns are big beasts, and tough enough for a ram to batter at a telegraph pole just for fun, or smash a gate off its hinges when bad things like worming are about to happen.
Fancy a hook-up?
Now picture two rams who have twisted their horns together like a pair of corkscrews until the last minute when a jiggle and a shove has left them locked together. It’s a little bit like that early scene in the Hunt for Red October, a narrow passage and only one way in. By the time I got home, the pair of them had had hours of pushing and shoving, failing to find just that right combination of twist and push to get back out again. The other rams had, naturally, been helping – with two of the top males locked together the others took turns in battering them up the backside. Rams are like that.
We looked by lamp-light, we tried, got covered in **** but in the end, we gave up. We did try to get them to take some water because they had to be getting dehydrated, but they were both too busy: gotta shake loose that b****** that’s got hold of my horns.
So let’s try again tomorrow, in daylight, with an option on calling the vet to cut the ends off their horns.
So, Sunday morning, when vets are especially expensive, we looked at the problem again. Really, if it was just a pair of spiral rings to disentangle, it would be easy, but with the rest of the ram attached, not so much. First there is the matter of noses. I looked, I saw the way to undo it, if only the ram’s nose wasn’t there. It was obvious that the two spirals could be untwisted, but once the nose of one ram is firmly wedged against the head of the other the untwisting stops. Then there was a clearance problem – those horns are big and Pad’s horns curve an inch or less from his jaw, so only the thinnest tips of Earl’s horns can get through that gap.
I could see what I wanted to do, sort of, but I couldn’t just wave two rams around in the air. Look... if we could just float Pad at knee-height, and twist Earl like this...
The solution was an old, dead dining chair out of the barn. With Pad lying on his side on the chair, held steady by my partner, I could turn Earl upside down and lie him on his back. It sounds easy, but now factor in the furious wriggling, the surprise of a ram trying to pick my nose with his back hooves (still tingles a few hours on), the need to blow my nose to remove the sudden injection of mud, grass and sheep-s**t, and the problem becomes more tricky.
If only I could see what was going on. Forget the nose and the attendant eye-watering, I could either hold Earl or look at what I was doing, so the un-screwing of the horns had to be done by touch. So, just put a finger in that gap, test which way the curve runs, get finger out again quickly when one of the woolly b******s moves suddenly, and then try again. Those horns that shake telegraph poles and destroy gates are not actually round, more triangular in cross-section, and would easily purée my finger with their ridged edges.
I was so nearly there when Pad decided he didn’t like the chair. My partner was trying to hold him, hold the chair, check he wasn’t about to break his neck... and then I lost my grip on Earl. I’m not sure who was the most surprised out of the four of us. That final extra wrench was either the answer, or I had succeeded just in time to save the rams from serious injury. Whatever really happened, they were no longer linked.
We got them on their feet, and they went and hid under the bushes in the corner of the field. Together. The little ******s has been trying to get apart for the best part of a day, and now they huddled together for safety against the big mean people that just got them untangled.

That’s sheep for you.