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In an oak tree not far away something strange and bizarre happens. The tree weeps. It’s been weeping for many, many years. And as it weeps the sap it produces ferments. The tree is infected. With a fungus.
Down one side there’s a scar…black, glistening, reaching into the roots, staining the soil and exuding a pungent aroma of fermenting fruit which is utterly irresistible to insects. Those who sip the sap become intoxicated and it’s not unusual for us to see hornet, beside butterfly, beside fly – shimmering in an iridescent cocktail.
Back in March 2008 we had a first for the farm. Gwen, a sweet cow, gave birth to twin heifer calves. They were lusty, tiny, pretty and quite adorable – we called them Marmite and Mustard-Seed. For twins they did pretty well considering it was one of our sodden monsoon summers where all vestige of pasture/grass/herbage was swallowed up in a quagmire of soul-sucking mud.
Time moved on and I decided to keep Marmite as one of my replacement heifers. Though not as big as I would like, she, nevertheless, had a lovely temperament and reasonable conformation. Also I was rather curious as to how she would develop in the future.
During their second summer our youngsters are grazed on some rented land a couple of miles away. They do well on it, and it’s a safe environment for them have their silly season as adolescence before joining the main herd and taking on the full mantle of bovine responsibility.
One misty October morning, not long before they were due to return home for the winter, we were rather taken aback to find a monstrous and completely hideous Friesian bull standing possessively in the midst of our coy young virgins.
‘What the heck…!’ Robert exclaimed. Not only were we somewhat surprised as the land is well fenced, but somewhat wary too…Friesian bulls are not known for their docility.
18-month old heifers are unabashedly flagrant in their sexual desires; bawling outrageously, they pant, salivate and sweat in sexual fervour, mounting and pursuing their peers relentlessly – willing or unwilling – and so advertising their condition to all and sundry. Luckily this heightened state of oestrous only lasts twelve to twenty-four hours whereupon, with a flick of a switch, they morph back into the demure bovine maidens they were.
When we found them that morning there was no sign whatsoever of a rampant orgy having taken place. The heifers couldn’t have been more demure or uninterested…in fact it was more a case of them gathering around us, all sideways glances, breathy exclamations and outraged mutterings about ‘that awful disgusting, wicked BULL that was letching…yes, LETCHING at them’ and ‘could we possibly just, please, get rid of him…or move them immediately – NOW’ – which of course we did.
After having paid a visit to the neighbouring dairy farm to ask them to keep tighter control of their bull and to remove him from our land without delay, we went back to inspect the heifers. We looked under tails for signs of bulling, or worse, penetration; we looked along flanks for signs mounting; we looked at legs for signs of strains (large bulls can occasionally damage young, immature heifers’ hips and back legs – amongst other things!). Nothing, nada, nil, zilch.
‘Well, that’s a relief’ said Robert.
‘Don’t you believe it’ said I ‘No way would a bull have scaled field and fence for nothing!’
But as to who or which we were clueless and would only find out during the winter when we could keep a close eye on the heifers. Of course nowadays there are other implications of strange cattle getting into a closed herd – disease, bTB and the like, which can have lasting repercussions on the health status of one’s herd and potentially be far more damaging than an under-aged heifer becoming in-calf.
Unfortunately, yes, you’ve guessed, it was Marmite, by far the smallest and most immature of the group, who was the culprit.
I watched her anxiously through much of the winter, feeding her extra rations. I watched her anxiously during the spring as she began to swell with calf. I watched her anxiously as she neared her time, keeping her in a field close to the house so she could be checked frequently. I watched her anxiously as I was worried about an underage Ruby heifer calving a large Friesian cross.
She had us on our toes. Her udder swelled to huge proportions as did her teats…
‘It must be soon’ sighed Olly ‘Look at the size of her teats!’ and then found they were being bitten by the largest horseflies imaginable, causing Marmite considerable discomfort.
The waiting seemed interminable, forever, until one evening she was slow in coming for her food and was even slower the next morning. Within a couple of hours she was calving. Within minutes the sack was showing. Within seconds the calf was halfway out and completely trapped in a thick, bluish, membrane. I broke the membrane, got the calf breathing and went to pull the rest of it out. It was stuck…firm…! My hands, slippy and wet from membrane and birthing fluid, could not get a good grip….I shouted, screamed, hollered – but I was halfway down a field, out of earshot of the house and people. I bawled again…no one. There was nothing for it I would have to strip using my overalls as ropes. There I was – down to bare-nothings and pulling for victory when thankfully Olly appeared. Relief! Together we pulled the m-o-n-s-t-e-r out…but wait…she wasn’t, she was beautiful, actually beautiful!
The colour of bitter chocolate with a black dorsal stripe and black fringing around her ears; her nose was slate blue-black and deep black kohl outlined her ridiculously long lashed eyes – she was a hybrid, a fusion, a mix between calf, fawn and foal!
Mother and daughter continue doing well….
…my little barn owl died during the early hours of Thursday morning. I am so sad and sorry I didn’t manage to save him.
I have met, been encouraged and selflessly helped by some remarkable people in the last few days.
My vets, Penbode in Holsworthy; the lovely women I met in the waiting room there who took the trouble to phone me with the number of a friend of hers with a supply of frozen mice.
Honeybrook Farm, excellent suppliers of frozen day-old chicks, who didn’t want me to fork out a mass of money for hundreds of unwanted chicks, and suggested someone fairly local they thought could help.
That very person…who, with extraordinary generosity, sent up to me via one of his employees, a free box of chicks and an offer to help in whatever way he could.
Last but not least the Devon Barn Owl Trust.
Thank you all.
The cattle were bawling again. They’d been at it on and off all day.
‘What is up with them?’ I muttered to myself ‘I only moved them Friday? Can’t be short of grass yet, surely.’
I was in the middle of feeding hens, feeding dogs, getting washing in, and picking veggies for supper.
I had another thought – perhaps the water wasn’t working and they were thirsty. That would explain the ruckus. I called over to Robert who was busy saving potatoes (you’ve guessed, they’ve all got blight. Damn it. Well, one bed anyway)
‘You couldn’t check on the cows for me could you? Don’t know what’s got into them. Water possibly?’ Robert’s far more able to deal with water repairs than I am.
‘No’ he said when he reappeared ‘Water’s fine. They’re hungry. Starving actually!’
‘Weird, there was plenty of grass there. Okay. Let’s move them then.’
We set off down the lane. It’s been a good year for our farm. Ideal conditions from winter to summer have resulted in an abundance of grass without our normal swamp-like conditions.
‘Where are you moving them too?’ asked Robert.
‘Five and Dung’ I replied ‘Though it could be Dillings, Flop or Top!’ I grinned up at him ‘Good to have a choice once in a while.’
Five Acres and Dung Field are at the end of a remnant of ancient green lane. To get there we pass Turkey Shed, a beautiful haphazard barn made from elm boarding which Robert restored twenty odd years ago. I love it; it’s one of the most beautiful buildings on the farm. At the time of its restoration Robert installed a barn owl box, which had never been used for breeding but it did become a favourite roosting site. This year, though, the owls’ preferred box in another barn was taken over by jackdaws and they resorted to nesting in Turkey Shed.
The cattle turned up the lane with me bringing up the rear – as we passed Turkey Shed I noticed feathers in the mud and a few yards further on there was the dead mutilated body of a barn owl.
‘Oh no, oh no, no. Robert, look! One of the barn owls…oh I can’t believe it.’ We secured the cattle into the field and went back to the dead owl.
‘That’s tragic. Just awful. After all those years.’ The barn owls have been severely hit by the last three years of unprecedented wetness and as far as we know haven’t bred successfully on the farm for about four. And now this…
‘I think we’d better check the nest. Just to be sure there are no chicks starving in there.’ Robert said as we looked up at the nest box for signs of life. ‘I’ll get a ladder. Can you bring down a box and torch?’
By the time I got back Robert was up the ladder. ‘Can you hand me the torch.’ He asked. I passed it up ‘What can you see? Anything there?’ I asked as I craned my neck ‘Empty?’
‘Er…yes, uh….wait a moment. No! There’s one here. Oh god…its foot. Its foot’s caught! Uh…baler twine…it’s caught up in baler twine. Tight around its foot…it’s tethered!’ he attempted to cut it free ‘Got it. Here…’and he passed me the lightest bundle of stinking snowy-white fluff. One foot was grossly deformed and swollen, baler cord biting deep into the flesh just above the foot. I rushed up to the house with my precious bundle
‘Oll, Oll! Can you help please? I’ve got a baby owl…baler cord caught tight around its foot…need some help…got to get it off. Are you there?’
Olly came down the stairs ‘Ah Jesus! Poor bugger. That’s awful. Hang on I need scissors…bloody hell it’s going to be painful when it comes off…’
Together we carefully and methodically cut away the cord buried deep into the tissue above the foot and around a toe. I feared gangrene, infection, the worse. Once we’d removed all the tiny fibres I bathed the foot in warm, salty water and massaged it gently with teatree oil.
We now had a tiny, traumatised wild owlet in our midst. Would he survive? Would the shock and the pain prove too much for him? After all barn owls are notoriously emotionally sensitive…difficult.
It was getting late. After I’d forced-fed him strips of raw beef I put him to bed in a box lined with fleece. Tomorrow, if he survived the night, I’d phone the vet, source some suitable food and get as much advice as I could.
Somewhere between our poultry morphing into marauding ‘gangstas’ and the ‘Night-of-the-Long-Knives’, I acquired ducks. Becoming increasingly despondent at my unsuccessful attempts to restore law, order and civilised egg laying amongst the anarchic hoard I decided to sate my poultry and fowl yearnings by indulging in some comforting duckdom. Not too many; a happy breeding trio; eggs (visions of rich cakes and floating sponges); a brood or two for replacements plus delicious-duck-dinners; and, most important…control!
Now for as long as I can remember I’ve hankered after Silver Appleyards (the large, not diminutive form). Somehow they just epitomise duckishness to me. Solid, comfortable and children’s picture bookish to the tee. But at the time they were difficult to get hold of so I decided to plump for Kaki Campbells – easy to locate, calm temperaments, phenomenal egg layers and pretty good table birds. They would, I thought, hold their own in an increasingly lawless farmyard.
Decision made I went to our local Hatherleigh Market Poultry Auction and found the perfect lot – a smart drake (Albert), first wife (Marigold) and second wife (Victoria…obviously). They were secured for a nifty £10.
A duck house was fitted out for them at the edge of the old horse pond in front of the farmhouse (actually Robert and Mike of ‘walking-dead’ fame had built it as a nesting box for wild mallard, but with a few cutting-edge alterations it was perfect); and domestic duck-bliss established itself in no time. Exemplary on all accounts; they came at a clown-like running-waddle to the call of ‘duck-duck-duck’ quacking and chatting vociferously, gulping down whatever titbits you’d got for them; they laid eggs aplenty – 90% of the time in the correct place; were socially charming (apart from Albert’s hideous raping performance during the mating season); and received thumbs-up from the whole family. Amazingly there were no skirmishes between chicken and duck gangs either.
Not long after the Night-of-the-Long-Knives, Mike, that expert in fowl dispatching, fell head-over-heels in love and moved out to be with the girl of his dreams. His room was soon filled by Tom, an old PhD buddy of Robert’s, who was at a loose end and in between jobs. Interestingly Tom’s dissertation had been on Eider ducks and during the course of his research he’d become, he informed me, a master at the humane dispatching of duck…! The following conversation went something like this:
‘Fantastic! That’s music to my ears. I’ve a batch of young ducks that’ll need to be dispatched for the pot soon and after the last debacle (here I recounted the chicken story) it would be brilliant if you could do the deed for me. Not my most favourite past time.’
‘No problem. Be my pleasure. So then, do you think you could find me a large syringe and a long, thickish needle?’
‘Er-um, yes, I could. But why?’
‘I inject water into their brains.’
‘Inject water into their brains. By far the least messy and most humane way. Seriously Paula…think about it. It was the method I used exclusively during my research. Absolutely’
‘Uh-h, yes I am. I am thinking. I’m thinking about encephalitis, brain swelling, brain haemorrhage…all, I believe, some of the most painful conditions there are?’
‘Oh Paula, don’t be so anthropomorphic!’
‘They’re still BRAINS aren’t they?’
‘I assure you it’s a recognised way…’
Under pressure I relented. I’ve blanked all details of the deed but have a distinct memory of revulsion at the whole procedure and a faint recollection of the resulting duck-dinners being tinged with an unsavoury flavour and guilt.
Apart from being doomed in the dispatching area the ducks continued to flourish until one fine spring morning – Victoria took to the skies with an irresistible wild mate. This seemed to have a detrimental effect on Albert who took to attacking and drowning Marigold’s newly hatched ducklings. I’d heard that drakes that turn on their youngsters will sometimes stop with a change of territory. So with a heavy heart I boxed up Albert and Marigold and took them down to the poultry auction. Not expecting anything much for them other than a nominal sum I nevertheless put their names on their cage, a short message and left hoping that someone would give them a new home….
They were sold for the princely sum of £45! Those ducks had landed in clover. Somewhere, someplace Albert and Marigold continued to live out their lives and give another family pleasure. And rather poignantly, for the next couple of years, Victoria used to circle the farm and dip down to us in a quacking victory salute!
We have hens! Six ex-batt girls. There’s Lottie, Dotty and Potty (aka Hettie, Nettie and Lettie); Sergeant Major Pecker and her side-kick, Big ‘Evil’ Red, with Maureen-in-the-middle. But I’m rushing; gabbling on; I need to take you back a few years.
People nearly always ask ‘And hens? You must have hens on the farm…?’
‘Used to’ I reply.
A decade or so ago our well-ordered and regimented flock of Barnvelders and Indian Game birds morphed into feral mob. Every man and beast was wary of this fearsome gang terrorising the farmyard; maraudings, attacks, rapes, pillage and plunderings were a daily occurrence. A few hens canny enough, escaped by laying their eggs in some far-flung nook or cranny; often these stoic birds were taken by the fox, but occasionally one would return to the yard proudly puffed and clucking, fluffly-cheeping-chicks tucked under her wing. Sadly no sooner had those cute chicks feathered their wings than they were absorbed into the poultry mafia. Things were quite out of hand. Action had to be taken
On one account the feral hoard were predictable. Each night they would hunker down in a large decrepit poultry shed on the back lawn, odd really, for such a wild tribe. Thus a decision was made; Mike – a friend living with us at the time and a much-talked-up-expert in the despatching of fowl – and Robert, would humanely-eradicate the majority of the rabble.
The night was chosen. The assassins ready. The plot hatched.
Robert was to enter the shed, pass a roosting bird to Mike, who with a quick stretch and flick would wring the neck…and so on, till the task was accomplished. Not a willing accomplice I chose to stay in the kitchen, busy, but on hand in case I was needed. So far so good.
Shouts! Yelling! Squawking! Total mayhem erupted on the back lawn. Torch beams tracked across the house, the trees and garden. Running footsteps, bellowing, panic.
I stuck my head out of the door ‘What’s happened? What’s going on?’
A body whizzed past me, breathless, panting, shouting back at me ‘They’ve gone. Oh for crissake. They up and ofted!’ gasping, rasping breaths ‘Get out…yeh, get out, get them! Bugger, bugger, bugger! Quick…they could be anywhere! Get out here! C’mon…quick!’
What happened? With the dastardly deed done, the boys were congratulating themselves and were about to pick up the mountain of dead fowl outside the hen house door…which had…yes, you’ve guessed… disappeared…completely. That’s right, not one cockerel/chicken/pullet to be seen!
Mike, it turned out, had not been quite so ‘expert-in-the-despatching-of-fowl’ area. I won’t elaborate on the Night of the Long Knives. Suffice to say the majority of the walking-dead were found and despatched, for a second time – that is except for Chicken. Chicken (with bent-neck) escaped and lived out her (long) life in a willow tree overhanging the pond. Never, ever to be tamed; never to be seen on the ground. Though sometimes, when the moon was full and the stars bright, a small hen-shape could be spied swimming in the pond.
More fowl-stories to follow shortly including an update on the ‘girls’!