Country Diary 95
I’M AFRAID that I have many animal deaths and disappearances to report. The first is Twister the ferret. About six weeks ago, we separated him from Whisper, the female, because we didn’t want them to have babies. He was vasectomized, and we put him in a different cage to recover from the operation and because it takes a few weeks to take effect. Two days later, I found an empty cage and a dead rat in the yard. Twister was on the loose. Later that day, a man arrived on the doorstep and asked if we had lost a ferret. Twister had not only escaped, but had walked over a mile through fields and forest towards the coast, where he had been found asleep in a bucket. We collected him and put him back in the cage. But tragically I did not secure it properly, and again he escaped. He has not returned since, nor has he been seen. We have told the children that he is living in the wild, which, according to Brian, is perfectly possible. After all, these are brave and hardy creatures. And Brian has kindly lent us his hob, Bubble, Twister’s dad, to keep Whisper company. But we did love Twister!
POPPY, OUR black labrador, adelighted us all by giving birth to ten puppies. One of them died after about two weeks, and the cause of death is still a mystery, although we suspect that it may have been squashed by its mother or by a child. The children had named this poor creature Ping Ping, and Delilah spent the day of Ping Ping’s death composing a funeral service: “We are gathered here today to celebrate the death of Ping Ping. He didn’t live long, but he was loved by all of us.” We buried him in the front garden. Another tribute, now pinned on the noticeboard, showed a picture of the puppy with the line: “We all loved Ping Ping are [sic] little puppy.”
MORE DEATH in the henhouse. Over the weekend, some visiting friends put their dog in the outbuilding which we use for the chickens. Even though the dog was in a cage, the hens seemed reluctant to roost in there. Victoria managed to catch the three old brown hens and shut them in, but the cockerel and the young hen proved uncatchable. In the morning, there was no sign of them and we can only conclude that the fox got them at some point during the night. This is the cost, then, of the slightest relaxation in our programme of vigilance. The fox is always there. It is very sad and it’s a tragic story. I sometimes think of what those battery hens have been through in their lives. You could write a Black Beauty style narrative about one of them. “I was born in factory and kept in a tiny cage for a year, seeing no light and having no freedom of movement. All my eggs were stolen. Then one day, I was released with fourteen of my companions and taken in a car to a family farm. There followed two years of comparative happiness and liberty, marred only by the death of more of many more of my my sisters. I was married to a grand Dorking cockerel. The first year I had five babies but four drowned, and the last, a little boy, was eaten by the humans. During our second winter, my second son was killed and eaten. My daughter lived long enough to start laying her own eggs, but then one night in late May, she and my dear husband were taken in the night by a fox. Now we are but three, and on my perch at night, I sometimes quake as I speculate on what terrible events might befall us in the future.” When these deaths occur, I, as poultry-keeper feel dreadful. The slightest dereliction of duty is swiftly punished, and you find you are full of self-recrimination.
SO WE NOW NEED to restock. On a recent visit to the excellent Swindon Literary Festival, I visited the farm that is run by the festival organizer, Matt Holland. He runs courses on keeping poultry, and advised that we should buy a couple of good quality hens to throw in with our ex-Bats. “I’m a fan of mixing stock,” he said, because this produced hardy specimens. So we are now going to hunt for two good hens and a nice cockerel.
I’M AFRAID that when it comes to growing vegetables, there is no way around it: labor omnia vincit. In previous years, I have attempted various “no-work farming” techniques such as not weeding, not digging and not sowing in neat rows. The result has been fairly disastrous. Certainly the garden was always a mess and therefore I dreaded working in it. That led to procrastination, which led to more more mess, and so the vicious circle went on. This year, though, I have put some hard toil into it. I have thoroughly dug the patch. I have weeded it every day, and also continually stirred up the soil with a three-pronged cultivator. I have put a thick layer of eggshells around each lettuce to deter the slugs. The result is a thriving vegetable garden, which I look forward to visiting. The radish patch has provided a bumper crop and some enormous radishes, as big as beetroots, but not remotely woody tasting.
VICTORIA BROUGHT home an excellent new piece of equipment from the home brew shop. It is an Italian mechanical cheese press, Ferrari brand, which can also be used as a juicer. The first use we put it to, though, was to squeeze honey out of the combs Victoria collected from the beehives (you will remember that all the bees died over the winter). You simply tip the combs into the circular metal basket, and screw down the mighty press. You then watch as honey drips from the little tap into a jar. This way we filled five jars with the most delicious honey you can imagine. It’s a very enjoyable job and it is satisfying to use muscle power rather than flicking a switch to turn on a motor. The machine can be used for squeezing anything, so we are ging to make apple juice next. Victoria has also made delicous butter. This feat was accomplished by putting cream in the Kenwood. Ten minutes or so of whizzing separates the cream into butter and buttermilk. The butter is patted, ideally between two wooden paddles, and then spooned into a dish. Imagine having your own cow! That is now our dream. We’d have endless dairy products of the highest quality.
EVERYTHING IS GROWING like crazy, and Victoria has made some delicious risottos with the nettles and wild garlic that are everywhere. The sides of the lanes around here are thickly covered in wild garlic and you can smell it as you drive past. The buttercups and dandelions have grown into a flowering frenzy; the red campion is appearing and the bluebells are beginning to wilt. The tulips are all finished.