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Albert, Marigold and Victoria March 1995

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.’

‘You WHAT?’

‘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…’

‘Yes?’

‘Yes!’

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!

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'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

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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