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owlet

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…’

the owlet's swollen damaged foot

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.

after we'd delt with his foot and fed him - ready for bed...

'Well I never! So this is 'outside' then!'

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.

'Who are you?'

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’!

'Chicken' in her willow over the pond 1995

roe deer by Courbet

hunting roe deer by Courbet

I draped and fixed a blanket over the foot-well providing the deer with a dark confined space – this I hoped would keep him calm and quiet for the duration of the journey, which was about nine miles.

So I set off, leaving the men of the household looking to the heavens, shaking their heads and tutting. “Ah well, if that’s what she wants. Mad if you ask me.” muttered Olly.

Three miles down the road and the blanket erupted in an explosion with the deer jettisoning himself with force at the windscreen, the window, the whatever. With one arm trying desperately to restrain and calm him whilst the other attempted to bring the truck to a halt I was hugely relieved there wasn’t another vehicle in sight.  Once stopped I thought I might just as well turn back as it was far too dangerous to carry on. However I had to continue up into the village before I could turn. Soothing and calming the deer I settled him on the passenger seat and placed my hand on his head between his ears and emerging antlers and blow-me-down if he didn’t take a deep breath, relax entirely and fall asleep. Tentatively I pulled out on to the road expecting him to explode at any second, but he didn’t…so I took the decision to carry on to the vets.

They must have been looking out for me as no sooner had I turned into the vets than Sally and a couple of nurses piled out to greet the truck. Inching the door open I explained he remained calm only as long as my hand was on his head. Sally gave him the once over “I don’t know Paula. I really don’t. Let me go and get someone else for a second opinion.” She returned with Rupert and his son. They hummed and hahed. He could be treated with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories, no problem, but it was the crepitus and his breathing that was causing concern. We decided to give him a chance and called Debbie at the local wildlife sanctuary whose main expertise was looking after owls and small mammals, not deer.

Debbie arrived with her partner and the exchange was made. Sally turned to me “In all honesty, Paula, I don’t think he’ll make the night. What with the shock, the injuries, the travelling…” she tailed off.

“I know” I replied “but at least we’ve given it our best shot.”

“But given all that, it’s been just amazing to work on a live roe deer. He’s so beautiful. His muzzle, extraordinary, fine and very black! Really striking. Thanks for bringing him.”

“My pleasure!” I said somewhat ironically “We’ll keep in touch. Exchange news. And thanks Sally.” I drove off home.

He did survive the night and the following day he began eating! None was more surprised than Sally. For ten days he lived in a dark horse box, recovering from his wounds and regaining his strength. Debbie was careful not to disturb or visit him too often so he wouldn’t become familiarised with humans. After ten days we thought the time had come to release him. Unfortunately the day of his release coincided with the bringing in of our haylage bales so all was not quiet and peaceful on the farm.  I’d chosen Flower Field for his release – small, well bounded by thick hedges – inbetween the copse and the route he was using when attacked. I waited with camera for the moment the door of the horse box was opened…but it was all rather anti-climatic. He had to be lifted out and with that he scuttled into the brambled hedge bank and as far as I could see hunkered down deep in the undergrowth. No leaps to freedom there! I expected he would stay the day there possibly moving away to his territory at nightfall – or maybe he just wouldn’t survive.

Later that afternoon Jess and Theo were taking their last goodbye walk around the farm. They were leaving the following morning. Whilst walking in Dillings the heavens opened and they ran across to Ravens Copse for shelter. Unable to find a way in they walked a little way down the headland looking for a less brambly entrance when Jess saw two ears twitching in the long grass.  “I grasped Theo’s hand” she said “and put my fingers to his lips…very slowly we walked a little closer. He was facing away from us, but yes, it was the deer, resting up in the grass. We gave him a wide berth; we didn’t want to disturb him. But he knew we were there, his ears were semaphoring.”

So he had already made the half mile trek back to the edge of Ravens Copse, the place he was making for on the day of his accident. I’ve searched, of course, the hedges and banks around the copse and the copse itself for signs of his demise, but have found nothing…so perhaps he’s once again running wild and free.

the roe deer buck in the foot-well of the truck

injured roe deer buck in the foot-well of the truck - you can see a few of the puncture wounds on his neck

“It’s a wee deer” I said “a roe deer. It’s hurt. A bit. Quite a bit.” Theo continued to stare nonplussed. “We need to get Olly to bring the truck down, I think” the deer kicked violently and let out another of its horrendous screeches; I tottered, slipped-slithered and splashed in the muddy water maintaining an iron-like grip on the deer…calmly. Soaking wet, covered head-to-toe in mud and blood, I tried smiling serenely, reassuringly, at Theo who asked thoughtfully “Do you have a farm, nanu?”

“Yes, yes I do. Shall we call Olly together?” No sooner had the words left my mouth when there was an explosion through the bushes and Olly appeared “What the hell do you think you’re doing down there! I thought something awful had happened to you. Look! I’ve run down the lane and over the field in my flipflops.”

“Um, well. LOOK, a roe deer! It’s been injured by the dogs. I need the truck. Will you bring it down? Oh and I can’t get out. Can you help me? Please?”

“Christ sake mum, let it go.” He expostulated.

“ Can’t. It’s neck’s injured. It’s got no balance.  I think there could be damage to its windpipe. I need to check it over. Look could you somehow get me out of here?”

“Is nanu playing. Is she naughty?” asked Theo…Olly takes no notice, he’s furious “What are you going to do? Have a pet deer, play wildlife games? God! Just let it go, will you. It’ll either live or die. You’re just stressing it more, and you’ll definitely kill it!”

“No” I said firmly “I need to check it out, treat its wounds. Phone the RSPCA, vets…I don’t know. I need to get out. Please. Can you help me?” He relented and somehow we managed, me holding onto the deer with grim death, Olly anchoring himself on a tree and gripping me with grim death.  Pulling, heaving and slipping he managed to lever me with the deer in my arms up the steep tangled, muddy bank. Olly marched off to get the truck, muttering to himself, not a happy chap.

I sat on a tree stump clasping the deer – he was calmer now, with only occasional kicks and struggles. I could begin to assess the damage better. Theo, standing back, was observing everything with solemn seriousness.

“Wig-worm, do you want to look at him. He’s so pretty. Look at his nose. Look at his eyes. You can touch him if you want.”

He inched closer “You have a farm, nanu, and a truck?” he asked.

“Yeh, and now a deer.”

“A deer? What’s a deer?”

“Different from a cow. Different from a sheep. A bit more like a goat, but it’s wild.” I explained. Theo inched forward to touch it “Very slowly, very, very slowly and gently” I soothed “Not his face. Come slowly from behind. Yes, yes, that’s it.”

Theo put out a fat hand and tentatively touched the deer’s haunch “That blood, nanu?” he whispered.

“Yes, he’s been hurt. But we’ll make him better. Would you like to help?” In the background I heard Olly furiously revving up the truck. “We’ll take him up to the farm and then maybe to the doctor?”

“Nanu?”

“Yes?”

“I’m concentrating. Be quiet.” He whispered, gently stroking the deer.

And so Joes found us. “Oh man! Look at that!” he exclaimed “Hey Squiggs, you okay? Man! I wish I had a camera!” he said taking us in; dishevelled muddied-bloodied mother holding petrified deer which his son was tentatively touching “What happened?”

I began the explanation as Olly roared into the field with the truck. “Squiggs, you coming back with me?” asked Joes

“No! I’m going with nanu.”

“It’s okay, It’s fine. He’ll be fine.” I said over my shoulder to Joe as I carried the deer towards the truck “Hey Squiggs, come with me. Come on. Look, you sit here.” I said indicating the dickie-seat behind the passenger’s.

“That’ll be good, nanu. That’ll be ‘portant. I’m helping you.” He replied as he scrambled on board.

With Olly’s irritable help I managed to ease myself into the passenger seat whilst still maintaining my original grasp on the deer.

“You’re mad, mum.” Olly threw at me as he closed the door and we started off across the field back to the farmhouse “You’re crazy.”

Arriving back at the farm I was able to extricate myself from the deer and settle him on a towel in the foot-well. He was young, last year’s kid, most probably he’d just been seen off by his mother to make room for this year’s offspring which would account for the dogs’ success in hunting him. Apart from the deep puncture wounds and a gash, which I cleaned, he was okay, albeit in shock.  No broken bones, healthy before this encounter, carrying enough weight.  But his breathing worried me, and he had air bubbles under the skin (subcutaneous emphysema or crepitus) which could mean his thorax had been punctured. Would he survive? I wasn’t sure, shock alone can kill. But I wanted to give him a chance.  I phoned my vets.

Sally said to bring him over. There wasn’t a RSPCA centre but there was a Wildlife Sanctuary which had started up locally. “Anyhow” said Sally “I’ve never had the chance to handle and study a live roe deer. Will you manage?”

“I think so.”…..

calmer, though in shock and ready to drive to the vets

calmer, though in shock and ready to drive to the vets

And when we landed back at the farm? We collapsed, gasping deep breaths of apparent tranquil Englishness greenness; an illusion nevertheless! In fact the countryside thrummed with industry as every farm for miles around unwaveringly and single-mindedly mowed, turned, raked and baled their forage fields in a race to make silage, haylage or hay. Unsurprisingly this year everybody was determined to beat the weather!

I was overcome. My neighbours and contractors had done me proud. Knowing my anxiety at being away they’d come in over the weekend and despite being under huge pressure themselves had worked unrelentingly to finish my harvest!  I couldn’t find the words to thank them enough. What wonderful neighbours. This was just the perfect homecoming; hundreds of bales of quality June haylage for the stock this winter and the opportunity to take a second-cut of ‘rocket-fuel’ as we’ve nicknamed it (the second-cut in organic systems is bursting with clovers, proteins and sugars; soft and palatable it’s perfect for weaning calves and freshly calved cows).

I was ecstatic! All that was left to do was to carry in the bales. This was something that could happily wait a few days.

The next day I was off to admire the fields and bales with Theo, who was ever so serious and involved in all this real ‘portant farming stuff, when there was a kafuffle in the hedge alongside the lane “Oh! What’s that Nanu?” asked Theo

“I expect it’s just the dogs after rabbits…or” as there was a sudden increase in the excitement “…it could just be a fox.”

“A fox, Nanu? A fox? In there?” Asked Squiggs aka Theo.

“Umm yes. Ness and Skye are pretty chasey after foxes. It’s because they are sheepdogs, you see.”

“Oh” said Squiggs thoughtfully “Nanu, are you sure?”

“Not sure, sure. But…” I trailed off – the dogs had started up an excited hunting yelp along the side of Rushy field. Followed by one of the most chilling screams I’d ever heard.

“Run Wiggle, run, run, run with me” I got hold of his hand and ran as fast as his legs would carry him along the lane. We reached Rushy Field gate. The screaming and yelping had reached a crescendo.

“Listen Wiggs – this is very very ‘portant. I have to run as fast as I can over there and I need you to follow me, really follow me. You mustn’t go away. Please. You must follow.” I bent down to him and put my hands on his shoulders “You’ll do that won’t you. Cos you’re my best boy?”

He looked a bit askance. I could see him sizing up the alternatives. The noise was frightening. But it could be exciting. He could go on up the lane to the bales. But maybe there was something in following Nanu. Looking at me solemnly, he nodded.

“Good boy! I’m off now.” And with that I pelted across the field whistling and calling to the dogs having no idea what I would find. Breathless I reached the other side and thank god saw Theo following. Ness suddenly erupted out of the hedge, her mouth wide and frothing, tongue lolling, wet, muddy and panting as if her heart would pop. She flung herself at my feet. Skye, just as run-out emerged higher up the field. I was about to turn and call out to Theo that all was well when I heard a loud splashing in the stream.

“Oh no” I thought and fought my way through a tangle of bramble, thorny blackthorn and low slung willow branches “Oh no” I muttered as I pushed through to the edge of the steep stream bank. A bloodcurdling scream filled my ears and there was a young roe deer buck, desperately scrabbling to get out of a deep pool of muddy water. His eyes enormous with fear, his nostrils dilated, breath jerked out of him in jagged rasping wheezes. He caught a glimpse of me uttered a spine-chilling screech, floundered and sunk under the muddy, blood-stained water.

I jumped in, scrambled to get hold of him, stop him from going under. Terrified and gasping for breath he screamed and kicked at me frantically with fear-strengthened legs and hooves as somehow I managed to put my arms around him. Then I saw. His neck, lolling helplessly to one side, puncture wounds stippling its circumference trickling trails of watery blood. An open gash along one shoulder. He screamed again and quietened momentarily in my arms.

“Nanu, nanu? What you doing?” I looked up and there was a grimy, scratched Theo looking down on us and not at all sure if this was frighteningly serious or a kind of weird Nanu game. “Nanu what is you?” he asked puzzled.

Simultaneously I heard Olly calling “MUM, MUM? What’s happened? Where are you? I’m coming!” and in the background Joe shouting “Theo, Theo! Mum is Theo with you. Mum! Theo! Will you answer? Answer me!”….

Woom! Bang-Boom! Smash! Splinter, crack, shatter.  Debris crashes around me in a confusion of noise.  The bobcat seesaws violently and comes to rest as another spear-sharp section of concrete roof panelling hits, exploding into razor shards. I freeze. Heart stopping shocked.  For a moment I have no idea what’s happened.

Everyone’s away this weekend. Robert’s on a hoverfly identification course near Shrewsbury and Olly at some friends’ house-warming party.

I check on the cows at around eleven-thirty yesterday evening. Desiree is restless and her udder is full.  I decide to pen her in case she calves. Desiree is the only one of my cows who is unpredictable and protective  at calving. I  make sure everything is as safe as possible in case I have to intervene.  I check on her again in the early hours of the morning. Nothing doing – though by the time I go out to do the morning chores she is well into labour.

Feeling very pleased she chosen such a sensible time I get on with mucking out, scraping down and feeding the main herd. As I’m scraping a large heap of dung breaks away and deposits itself outside Desiree’s pen. I make a mental note to miss it when I reverse back in.

Reversing back up into the cow palace I turn to avoid the dumped heap, and  out of the corner of my eye see Desiree beginning to heave. For a split second my attention slips, the bobcat hits the pile of dung; it’s thrown off balance, pitches forward and lurches backwards, my foot instinctively slams down (but bobcats don’t have breaks, they have hydraulic control pedals), the hydraulic arms and scraper fly into the air catching the high door lintel, with another violent seesaw the arms break down through the lintel and smash up through the roof. The whole incident is over in seconds.

a day in the life...wrecked cow palace!

a day in the life...wrecked cow palace!

Eventually the bobcat stabilises. I get out shakily and survey the wreckage. I feel weak. Miraculously Olly arrives on queue – he’s come home to give me a hand with the animals. No one has ever been more welcome!

oh deary, deary me

oh deary, deary me

Despite the noise, chaos and ruins, Desiree quietly and purposefully carried on giving birth to a large healthy bull calf – with brains. Just as well, as after my debacle I sure didn’t feel like risking life and limb getting a calf onto the teat of a volatile cow!

Old news I’m afraid. I didn’t write about it at the time as it took the wind out of my sails, a wind which continued to be taken away by other circumstances. And now they’ve found out it may have been an arson attack by the disgruntled, dismissed ex-chef. That someone can torch a building as ancient and special beggars belief.

It was very dark and very early on Christmas Eve morning. I was scraping out the cow palace with the bobcat when I saw Olly running up the feed barriers, I stopped,
“What’s up?” I called out
“I can smell burning. Toxic burning I think…you know, plastic, rubber or something.” He shouted over his shoulder, not stopping.
‘Uh-oh’ I thought ‘the chimneys…’ jumped off the bobcat and went in the opposite direction.

As part of our energy-saving-lean-time measures we are trying to use our two woodburners and our own wood only for heating this year. Despite a myriad of safe guards, as well as the stoves having been expertly and carefully installed, along with their own insulated flues (meticulously cleaned every year), I find myself worrying sometimes as we do have a thatch roof. And as we’ve never had the stoves burning continuously in the past I feel the risk is slightly increased.

But all looked damply darkly peaceful over the farmhouse and I could just make out pale coils of grey-white wood smoke rising languidly from the chimneys into the dense blackness. There was, however, an unpleasantly acrid tang in the air.
“Did you see anything?” I called
“Na, nothing.”
“Maybe someone getting rid of a toxic burn under the cover of darkness…duh, and that’s a very stupid thing to say.” I remonstrate with myself  “Far more likely to be seen at night!”

So we get on with the morning chores.

I’m coming in for breakfast, and Olly calls down
“It’s the George!”
“What’s the George?”
“The burning, the smell…the George burnt down.”
“What? No! You mean our George? It can’t have. No, it’s impossible. The George? Are you sure? Quick, let me see.”
I dash upstairs to look at the news on his pc – and there it is the horror, the devastation, the ferocity. I’m speechless. It seems unbelievable.
Will interrupts “I saw it! Late last night when I went out. I saw this great orange glow in the sky. I thought there must have been some new or festive lighting put up in Hatherleigh.”
Well in a way there was, though under no circumstances could it be called festive.

It’s amazing how much the obliteration of a building has affected the community. ‘For god’s sake it just a building…’ I expect people are thinking. And yes, that’s right, it is; but it’s one of Hatherleigh’s most ancient; after all it’s been in existence in some form or other since the 10th century.

The George was unwittingly the heart of the community, of Hatherleigh, and like most hearts it was taken for granted, occasionally worried about if it wobbled, but also worked hard and cheerfully for countless festivities (Robert and I celebrated our marriage there). It stood as an emblem and gave the town its distinctiveness; now all that’s left is a gaping blackened hole surrounded by depressingly forlorn crumbling cob. The heart no longer beating.

Did I hear someone shout “Bring back the stocks!”?

Locks Park Farm

Thanks for visiting my blog. All entries are presented in chronological order.

I have a small organic farm on the Culm grasslands near Hatherleigh in Devon, with sheep and beef cattle. I've been farming in the county for more than 30 years. I've set up this blog to share views on farming and the countryside - please do give your thoughts.

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