I am reading a book of writings from that most English of magazines, Country Life. The author is Carla Carlisle, who writes a regular column. (If you are reading this, thank you, Sue, for lending it to me - I am really loving it). Every article is good to read - some make me laugh, some almost make me cry (the death of a beloved old dog for example) but -without exception - all of them make me think. And it is from that stirring up of one's thoughts that every good book generates that today's post takes shape.
Every farm has rats. Any farm that has corn stored has more rats. This time of year, particularly, rats breed fast. Therefore they have to be controlled. I try not to think of the bright, perky, very intelligent rats which sit in cages in our local Pet Shop waiting for some little person to adopt them - and jolly good, friendly pets they make too. I once knew a pet rat called Heseltine - he was piebald (if you can apply that to rats as well as horses) and when he walked into the room he usually stopped the conversation. He lived (dare I tell you) in the back of the knife drawer (did I mention that his owner was a middle-aged bachelor who lived alone?) So, when the farmer sets his rat trap I try to keep Heseltine well out of my mind. The farmer catches maybe one rat a week - and it keeps the population down.
The sparrow hawk lives in a tall tree in Forty Acre Wood, only a matter of half a mile as the sparrow-hawk flies. She has mouths to feed and those mouths need little birds. So most days she sweeps through our yard like a javelin, keeping low, keeping by the hedgeside, in the hopes of catching a little bird unawares. Birds are marvellous at looking out for each other and our bird feeders have very good cover (rhodendrons, fir trees) so she rarely catches one. But occasionally there will be a smattering of feathers on the ground and we will know that there is one blue tit, or great tit, or goldfinch less.
When I stand in my sitting room window and look out into the front garden I quite often see a little mouse scurrying between the plants. Sometimes it is a field mouse, sometimes a shrew. They seem to go about their business so diligently and I have a soft spot for them - not least because so many childrens' books tell cute mouse stories. Sometimes when I stand there I see the farm cats - they seem to hunt as a pair. The other day the farmer saw them cross the field together, then split up and go one either side of the hedge along a rabbit warren - sure enough a short time later they returned with baby rabbits in their mouths. And, yes, I do occasionally find a tail and a pair of mouse kidneys by the back door - the cats gift of the bits they don't fancy, I suppose.
But now we come to a more contentious issue. The hens. We are now down to six hens - two black rocks, three or so years old; one brown hen of indeterminate age and breed; two crested bantams which I bred at least fifteen years ago and who are always more interested in rearing chicks than laying eggs (we have no cockerel so they get frustrated on that score); and Goldie. I bred her myself many years ago and she is beautiful. If I can manage to get a photograph of her I will. But, much to the farmer's annoyance, she is almost always broody and spends much of her life in the sin bin (a small hut with a run).
Now I would like some new hens. The farmer keeps reminding me that he is paying for the food and that we are getting - at most - two eggs a day from these six. I would like to buy half a dozen fancy birds - frizzles, wyandots, sebrights - something like that (I buy the hens, he pays for the food) but he quotes stastics and tells me just how unproductive a lot of these old breeds are. He wants me to get six nondescript brown hens bred for their laying prowess.
But worst of all, dear blog friends, he thinks the six left (I am whispering here) are non-productive and would be better in the pot than scratching in the yard!!! I have made him swear to not carry out this threat - they have given me years of loyal service, they are my friends and they deserve to live our their lives in what the farmer chooses to call luxury. So I have won on that one - but as for the variety of hens I buy - well I think the price I pay in this delicate negotiation is that the replacement egg layers will be ordinary brown ones - still the cresties and Goldie will add a bit of colour. Watch this space for developments.