Cats and Books

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Seasonal Visitors

A cat is not just for Christmas... sometimes they turn up on Boxing Day. It lurks in my mind that it is traditional for a lost kitten to arrive on the doorstep at Christmas. We had one this year, but not a kitten, and this one was hand-delivered to us by a neighbour – stray cat plus their big dog was not a good mix, and they assumed it was our ginger cat. We'll look after it... Just what we needed, an elderly stray cat, and it got me thinking about our many seasonal visitors, the arrivals and departures which we often barely notice.

The chain of thought moves from a stray ginger cat, to our ginger cat, currently to be found asleep on the bed... which is odd. I know it doesn't sound odd, but Ginge is an outdoor cat who we rarely saw over the summer. She would turn up for breakfast, for supper, and might say a brief hello as she moved from one shady spot to another, but now the winter is here, she is increasingly in the house, sleeping somewhere warm. It was a change which crept up on us slowly, until the day we commented that Ginge was around more often...

From there, I wondered just how many months is it since the swallows left? How long have we had the starling murmurations? Everything changes here as the seasons roll, and the changes slide by without notice until it has all happened. The trees drop their leaves, but that's just autumn, that's the big change, and because of the wind here, autumn can be abrupt – green trees one day, bare branches the next. The whole pattern of the wild-life (and the domestic ones) shifts with the year, but it does it when we're not looking.

When we lived in Reading, it was easy not to notice the seasonal changes, especially in the winter where we would be out to work before dawn, back after dusk. But down here in Cornwall, it ought to be obvious, and still it proves easy to not notice.

The swallows go in late summer, but not instantly. They gather on the overhead power lines, a few of them squabble in one of our stables as they get the last brood of the summer prepped and primed for the long migration flight, and over a space of days and weeks the number peaks and declines. So we do notice the swallows, but it is as if they sneak out a side-door and you just don't notice that their going, just that they have gone.

It's the same with the starlings – we are under the 'flight path' for their evening and morning commute between the roost and the feeding grounds. Tens, even hundreds of thousands of them. Their passage generally coincides with the daily routine of letting the chickens out or putting them away for the night, but again, they build up slowly through the autumn and trail away into the spring. What we have noticed is the starlings who hang around when the sheep are being fed, hoping to swipe a few sheep-nuts or beet pellets.

We get something similar with the chicken feed – a small, mixed band of birds who turn up morning and evening to see what they can swipe – sparrows, finches, a robin and our ever-present crows. It is only just becoming noticeable due to the mild autumn this year, but the morning audience is there, just waiting for the pesky human to push off so that they can grab whatever the chickens leave. In past winters, when the weather has been harsh, I put the grain out and walk away for a few minutes before unleashing the hens, just to give the sparrows a chance.

So here we are, just past the shortest day, and I find myself struggling to remember the many seasonal visitors that have already left, or yet to arrive. Our oca crop is just ripe for lifting, the elaeagnus have shed their berries and most of their leaves, and there was the first appearance of the robin this morning, watching me very closely until I walked away...

The cycle is about ready to start again – perhaps this year, I will notice them as they arrive, but probably not.

As for our stray ginger feline – we lodged him with our vet whilst we tried to trace his owner. Our own cats meant he couldn't stay with us without a major chorus of hissing and wailing but... he looks like an elderly cat, so hard to re-home if we can't find his owner. We haven't really had the conversation properly, just skirted around it, but if we can't find him a home, how would we look after him here? No chance. No way. But he did have a lovely purr... and then to our great relief, his owners contacted the vet.

The animals come and go, but what we notice is when they are here, not the arrival and departure. And, of course, we notice when they have more of the bed than we do.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Muddled Thinking

A snippet online took my other half to the amazing world of red diamonds – hugely rare and expensive, upwards of a million dollars per carat. That's a lot of money just to hang a bit of sparkly carbon off your body, which set me off on a chain of association which ended in a tangle of muddled thinking.

An undisclosed number of years ago I was taught classical Greek – in modern parlance, my teacher would be called inspirational, but back then he was just great. Most of the Greek has evaporated from my head, but one thing really stuck – he would never wish us 'Good Luck' before an exam, but 'Good Thinking'...

I should be so lucky.

My first, instinctive reaction to the price of a red diamond was just how many people could be fed with that money. People want a bit of bling, and people with too much money need to show off how much they have with the rarest and most expensive bling, but why can't they show off their wealth by feeding a few more (thousand? million?) people in the world?

Then I set off across the fields to do the evening routine – good thinking time. Muddy thinking time.

Not so long ago I was having another rant – global warming, dwindling natural resources and the most pressing problem on the planet, the excessive number of us humans. In the good old days, when people died young (c1964, when the UK "mode" age of death was zero (BBC News Article) – to summarise, the "mode" is the commonest value. In 1964, and preceding years/decades/centuries the commonest age of death was zero, aka, infant mortality), population control was achieved through disease, famine and war. When us humans used more of the natural resources than was available, lots of us died and everything balanced out. Now, we have this insane mentality where everyone has to be saved, everyone has to live, and everyone has the right to produce as many offspring as they like, regardless of whether our environment can support so many of us.

To be fair, every other species does the same. The population grows to the limit of the resources, and if anything disrupts those resources, lots of individuals die. What they call a population crash.

So there I was, standing in the middle of a field, bitching to myself about two contradictory things – there's too many of us, but we ought to be feeding people not buying expensive bits of carbon. Logically, rationally, I ought to applaud this carbon sequestration programme, the ridiculously wealthy of the world doing their bit to reduce global population by encouraging people to dig up rocks instead of growing food. But I have this troublesome, muddled thinking that still wants to throw all those bloody diamonds in the trash and feed a few more people.

There are too many of us, and every time any politician touches close to the topic, they talk about planning for our ever-rising population – feeding them, housing them and making sure there is always food, hot water and bountiful electricity. What they ought to be saying is there are too many of us. Some of us just have to go. That's the real green solution – starting bulk composting of humans. I don't have an answer to my muddled thinking, but our politicians don't even seem to have heard the question.

We're getting rid of infant mortality, sorting out the plagues, cutting back on famine, which only leaves the ever-popular war and occasional genocide. Even those great population reducers are being pushed out of fashion (with varying degrees of failure), so we need something to cut the numbers...

And so back to my muddled thinking – it's great that infant mortality is under control, that so much money is devoted to trying to cure disease and improve food supply... but we still need population control, and my number one favoured mechanism is... I don't have a clue.

Population control, by whatever means, is fraught with all manner of moral, ethical and "what did you just do to my granny?" questions. I know we need it, and I don't want to face it. Not that it matters, there's bound to be a population crash just around the corner, because once there are enough of us squabbling over scarce resources, the traditional lottery will re-open: plague, famine and war are the prizes, and the lucky survivors get to start the whole game again. So we either pick a method, or get one imposed at random.

There you have it – a simplistic rant over a complex problem. Forget all the tricky details, because only a simple one matters – I need to get my thinking straight: save the planet or save all the people, because I can't have both. Then I can think about the rest of us pesky humans who don't get that we have to make a choice.

No rush. Still plenty of decades until doomsday. And I'll be dead by then, so why do I care?

I do care. I don't know why, but I do. But that's a whole new pit of muddled thinking...

Friday, 31 October 2014

Out Of Line

Picture the scene: the hero has fallen off a cliff, broken an arm, been shot twice and still keeps going... really? My other half was having a little rant – standard questions that pop up on writing discussion groups, such as what sort of injury can I inflict on my main character to keep him out of action for a day. How about a headache? No? Not dramatic enough? A muscle sprain, then, will that do? No? How about toothache... no I'm not taking the ****. You think you need more blood...?

Let's hear it (tympanic membrane injuries permitting) for the Campaign For Realistic Injuries.

The whole thing would have passed me by as an amusing comment, but I pulled a muscle in my back – a classic, real injury, with only one visible symptom: I couldn't quite stand straight. It sounds silly and I had to stare in the bathroom mirror for a while to convince myself – I had to concentrate hard to stand with my feet, hips and shoulders in line. It didn't obviously hurt (unlike walking, turning, breathing...), but as soon as I stopped trying, my posture slumped with my hips to my left.

A real and realistic injury – the hero walked a bit funny. It lacks something. Let's face it – there is nothing heroic or sexy about a bad back. All I did was heave hay bales around on the Monday, fire-wood on the Tuesday, trimmed hedges on the Wednesday... and spent Thursday through Sunday unable to move and dosed to the eyeballs with ibuprofen.

I had a mobility issue. Walking was fine for short distances in small, slow steps, provided I didn't turn to the right. Left turns were fine, right turns would trigger a muscle spasm and the sort of pain you can't do anything about, just endure until it goes away – impossible to really remember or describe. So there I was, sitting on the sofa, barely able to move, time on my hands (or time on my arse) and a whole bundle of related items came together.

Not so long ago, my other half pulled a muscle in her neck, with a similar outcome – days spent immobile on the sofa. Sitting in the same position, I had a new, intimate and unwelcome understanding of what she went through as it healed. So, you want an injury that means your hero is going to be a few days late for the big show-down with the Avenging Horde of the Evil Dread... go with a muscle sprain. If you opt for broken bones, penetrating wounds or other spectacular damage, that had better be for a few weeks delay... or maybe months.

I mentioned toothache – if you haven't had a proper toothache, you have no idea. I was on a training course a few years back and noticed a twinge on the Friday afternoon. On the Saturday there was pain. On Sunday I started eating a pillow. That helped to distract from the total failure of the pain-killers. On the Monday, with foam-filled furnishing getting scarce in the house, I got an emergency dental appointment – infection and inflammation of the nerve, trapped inside a tooth with nowhere for the inflammation to go... That was one significantly disabling toothache.

As coincidence would have it, we have been following a documentary series on Royal Marine Commando training – if you want a prototype for your indestructible hero dragging himself through hell and into the fight, these are the guys. One particular incident stood out in the context of disabling injuries – the recruit who failed one of the big, final tests (a timed route march carrying a heavy pack) and collapsed just short of the finish line on the retry. The training team were absolutely willing him to finish, and watching it from the comfort of the sofa, it was impossible not to be rooting for him to succeed. He really wanted it, but just missed... because he had a broken leg.

Just in case you missed that... broken leg. Now, if you were writing your hero, finishing a gruelling march with a broken leg, who would believe it? Of course, there is a really serious caveat on this – the recruit was putting everything he had into reaching the finish line in spite of a broken leg, an utterly mind-boggling piece of determination, but even if he had made it across the last few hundred meters (rather than being carried away for medical attention), the Avenging Horde of the Evil Dread would have had him for breakfast. Disabling injuries for your action hero need to stop a bit short of a broken leg.

Realistically, even if you do choose a pulled muscle for your disabling injury, pick the muscle carefully. Lower back is a dicey one, upper back is tricky, neck and shoulder can give significant mobility restrictions...
So, the Campaign For Realistic Injuries. Lets have a few more nasty bruises, ragged hang-nails and troublesome splinters... or perhaps a migraine. I've had one migraine in my life – pain, nausea, visual disturbance, the full works. That's pretty disabling while it lasts...

Let's get real. There's no place for realistic injuries in fiction. Unless you've experienced a good back injury, or a proper toothache, it doesn't mean anything.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Dramatic Licence

We have been watching our favourite medical drama on DVD – all utterly preposterous, all very enjoyable, but seriously... can anyone have that many disasters in their life? I was grumbling about it to my other half... and I was reminded of a few things. If anyone were sad enough to dramatise my life, perhaps pack it into a three part miniseries, just how many crises and disasters are there to draw on, given a little dramatic licence?

I started adding it up – so we have the standard family bereavements, paternal grandfather in my teens, maternal grandfather in my late twenties, all the way through to my mother the year before last. Nothing out of the ordinary, really, although plenty of scope to pepper the script with personal tragedies.

Wait... one more... need to add Jim, the son of our neighbour when I was growing up, only a matter of months younger than me. Jim was a bright guy, degree from Oxford, and a stellar career in the financial sector. Mum phoned to say he had had a massive stroke – now that is a serious kick in the life experiences. All of those 'standard' family bereavements were people in their eighties and nineties, but Jim... thirty-something... if it could happen to him, it could happen to me...

So now, roll on a few years, and changing jobs. After time-served in the scientific civil service, I decided I wanted a job out in the real world. I deliberately took a month break between old and new, just to build a new back door for the house. I thought it would be fun and interesting (which it was) but there was time pressure – a week before the new job, we were going to a convention, so the door had to be in and secure. And there had to be time to cook a whole selection of easily re-heatable meals for a family party just after our return from the convention, and then be ready for the new job on the Monday. And then...

Commuting by train to Slough – not my idea of fun, but scarcely a disaster. By my second week, I was experienced enough to know that something was wrong, just little signs, not enough people at the station, no west-bound trains, and then in the office, not enough people. I had travelled east from Reading and got off at Slough; had I been coming west from Paddington I might have had a front-row seat for the crash at Ladbroke Grove which killed 31 people and injured over 500.

A year or two later, and I was going to Slough by car, so welcome to the game of Russian Roulette known as the morning commute. On my first day, I was fractions of a second from being part of a multiple pile-up. I just happened to be in the outside lane whilst passing the motorway junction East of Reading and saw the vehicle three cars ahead drift into the central reservation, enough to give me warning.

The first and second ranks of cars somehow dodged through the mess, those of us in the third managed to stop. That still left a van parked up on the bank beyond the hard shoulder, a hatchback destined for the scrappy in the middle lane, and the initiator of the whole sub-second crisis parked hard against the central barrier, facing the wrong way. No one was killed, no-one injured enough to need emergency attention, but a tenth of a second or two different and I would have been testing the crash-worthiness of our Volvo.

The list of dramatic (or dramatisable) incidents goes on: near-misses on the motorway, test results to confirm it wasn't cancer, the announcement of a redundancy round the day we were signing the papers for a huge mortgage, the employment hiccup that led to the move to Cornwall, or even just the day that Bitsy, a delightful cat who had been with us for nearly fifteen years, died curled up on my lap (after a short illness, as the press-release might say). One ordinary, run of the mill life, filled with largely near-misses (for which I am very grateful) and still packed with stuff that could be an over-blown miniseries with just a little dramatic licence.

I suspect it would be hard to find anyone who didn't have a similar list. It doesn't all happen at once, there is no music to hint that it's time to reach for the tissues, and no stunt double if it really does go wrong.

Now, I'm off to watch another episode of over-hyped, unrealistic, and dramatic nonsense (only half a step from the stuff that happens to everyone at some point) and ignore the news channel with its snapshots of the people who aren't lucky enough to have the near-miss.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Bite-Sized Chicken Pieces

You can't beat a nice piece of rabbit – the nice pieces are pretty much everything except the intestines and the back legs. For the gourmet cat.

Ginge likes her meat fresh. Preferably barely stopped breathing. And rabbits are in season at present, along with a whole delicatessen bar of small rodents. Oatmeal also likes rabbit and eats any bits that Ginge leaves, apart from the guts. No-one likes rabbit guts. (Or mouse guts – they get left as well, usually in the most startling places. As horrible experiences go, high on the list is the sensation of mouse guts popping between the toes, in the dark, on the way to the bathroom at two in the morning.)

Now we are on to bite-sized chicken pieces. Earlier in the year, the hatching rate from the hens was very poor, so every time a hen has gone broody we have stuck a clutch of eggs underneath. Whatever our brooding problem has been, it stopped about seven weeks ago and, one after another, four hens produced chicks. We now have a total of eighteen bite-sized chicken pieces, who have spent their first week or two in the greenhouse, but four mother hens (translation= ruthless, psychotic monsters) in a confined space does not work, so one brood at a time, we are moving them out to face the world. And Ginge. And Oatmeal.

I am literally chick-watching as I type this. The hens are doing a good job of watching over their chicks, but as we bring each brood out, we spend the day with them, just to make sure. The first one out, Crème Brûlée, launches herself at any cat who comes too close – wings out, claws out, feathers out, attitude out. Today, we have brought out Chicky and Dark Penguin, and are waiting to make sure they are up to the challenge.

The problem is the pecking order. Amongst the hens it is easy. Amber (still in the greenhouse, the newest brood to hatch) is number one and kicks the proverbial out of any other hen. Crème Brûlée is next, then Chicky and finally Dark Penguin. The trouble is, that only counts amongst the hens, and the only way to find out where cats sit in the pecking order is to watch and wait. Crème Brûlée is high above cats, no doubt about that, but what of the others? And how well are their chicks trained, because the other half of the defensive package is for offspring to run for Mum at the first sign of trouble.

Even that might not be enough. Last year, we lost a number of chicks to a fox who came through the yard a few days in a row – and then never seen again. Since the food (hen and chick) supply was far from exhausted, we assume that something killed the fox. There were only two broody hens at that point, Silver, an uncompromising drill-sergeant of a mother, and Barn Growler who would be high on the Social Services watch list as an incompetent mother. Silver lost all of her chicks to the fox; Barn Growler lost none, because they were so accustomed to fending for themselves in even the tiniest crisis that they took cover at the first sign of trouble. Silver did what all our chickens do when faced with a fox – flew up to the nearest high-point. Another few weeks and her chicks would probably have followed her up, but... they hadn't learned that one yet, and didn't have the run for cover reflex.

In watching over chicks, we have added a new phrase to our lexicon – chicken-on-chicken violence. Every time we hear the sound of frantic chicks, we rush around to do a head-count, check the location of cats, check for suspicious feathers between the teeth, but it's just another chicken. Ninety-nine percent plus of violence is chicken-on-chicken, and nothing to do with the cats at all.

So, here I am, sitting guard, waiting for hens and chicks to establish their dominance over the cats. As it turns out, Ginge is not the problem: she likes rabbit and they don't peck back. Oatmeal, on the other hand, is a persistent little ****, and catching one of those bite-sized chicken pieces is a challenge he simply won't give up on. He's a bright cat – he has worked out that we don't want him killing chicks; Crème Brûlée has explained very robustly that she doesn't want him killing chicks.

Oatmeal understands. He will wait until no-one is watching...

Monday, 28 July 2014

How Did That Happen?

Lambing is due to start on Monday – it says so on the calendar. Of course, the sheep never look at the calendar and honestly, I don't think any of them can actually read. So when my other half came in and said Tuppence has lambed, my thoughts were mostly that Tuppence was early, and that lambing with barely an hour of daylight left was about par for the course. (Our Soay sheep lamb outside, and this year we have deliberately had a late lambing.)

Daylight going, a lambing ewe to watch... how long is that going to take? How long depends on the ewe. Rosie, a first timer a few years back, was showing signs about lunchtime, then she disappeared, then she walked out of the barn with lamb in tow. In contrast, Cilla was making 'gonna lamb now' signs just after breakfast and kept us waiting most of the day. Not that it mattered – I had misunderstood. Tuppence wasn't just starting, she was done, lamb out, suckling, all going well... except for that nagging worry in the back of my mind: something was wrong. I just couldn't figure it out, and there was that look on my other half's face, just waiting for me to get the punchline.

Oh. Yes. That was it. Tuppence was not supposed to be lambing at all... Now how did that happen? (OK, apart from the obvious – when a Mummy sheep and a Daddy sheep...)

Back to the calendar... there was the day marked when the ewes were put in with the ram... and there, a few days earlier, a note that Tuppence had somehow broken in to the ram field. It was one of those things that gets forgotten over the space of five months. At the time, we probably had the conversation: ewe cycle is seventeen days, only fertile for a couple of days, certainly less than a one in ten chance that she was actually on heat that day...

So, how did it happen? Simple. Sheep don't read, don't check the calendar, and certainly don't have any truck with probability theory. Of course Tuppence was on heat that day. There was a field of rams next door, and she wanted some, wanted it really, really, badly... There was no other reason for her jumping, burrowing, or otherwise forcing her way next door.

So now we have Tippex – a white ram lamb with a few bits of black showing through.

Back on the calendar, the real thing starts Monday. Or Tuesday. Or... Sheep do things when they're ready, not when the calendar says.

We are in charge. But... There's more of them than there are of you, they have all day to plan their next move, you can't watch them every second, and they are driven by those big three biological imperatives: food, reproduction and sheer bloody-minded curiosity. And when I say driven, I mean forty-ton, diesel powered, cargo-truck driven, and the bottom line is us mere humans are the cargo in this arrangement, not the driver. Being in charge is just a delusion.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

A Shed-load Of Nostalgia

I have a shed – which is somewhere between a stereotype and a cliché. Strictly speaking, it is one of the stalls in our stable-block, has a concrete floor (in my mind, a proper shed has a wooden floor), and isn't at the bottom of the garden, but in spite of all these shortcomings, it is a shed. I hadn't really thought of it as anything other than a place to get things done, until I walked in there yesterday to finish building a gate.

They say smell is a powerful trigger for memory, with taste just behind. Over the last few years, just out of curiosity, we have indulged in little bits of food-related nostalgia, treats from our childhoods to find out if things that seemed so wonderful back then were really all that great. How about Wagon Wheels? I quite liked them as a kid, and perhaps they changed the recipe, but one bite and there was a decision to make: spit now, vomit later. More successful was lemon meringue pie, which I was ambivalent about as a kid, but my wife was really keen, because her mother made it from real lemons – so we tried the instructions in the Good Housekeeping cookery book and I can now forget the dubious lemon meringue of my childhood, and enjoy the real thing on special occasions.

Not so long back, I came across a Tunnock's Caramel Wafer - my grandmother always had them, a taste I really adored. I tried it: quite nice in a vaguely chocolatey, caramely, chewy sort of way, but nothing to get excited about.

To borrow another pseudo-cliche, nostalgia isn't what it used to be. That was until I walked into my shed yesterday – a warm day, the smell of sawdust, the tickle in the throat that says there's something nasty in the sawdust, the work-bench made from old pallets, the tools and shelves... just like walking into Granddad's shed. There was nothing so-so about this. Real nostalgia, they way they used to make it, full fat, full calories, full memories.

My maternal grandfather started out as a car mechanic and had all sorts of stories: looking after Lord Hailsham's car (and how Lord Hailsham could cycle in the rain and hold an umbrella up at the same time), pulling a sports car out of a ford because the air intakes were low and the pistons rods bent (a cylinder full of water does not compress and something has to give), early clutches that were faced with cork and could contaminate the engine oil with little bits of burnt cork. Those are just the ones I can remember, stories I had not thought about for years until I walked into my shed, on a warm June day, and it was just like the old timber summer-house Granddad used as his shed.

I learnt to solder in that shed, how to wire up a car's indicator system, how an old clockwork gramophone motor worked, the startling sensation of being really alive at the touch of the output of a car ignition coil, and I learned that I never wanted to be quite that alive again. We lived in Bristol, mum's parents were in Hailsham in Sussex, so we only visited a few times a year, and Granddad's shed was a magical place on a hot June day.

Later, a few years older and in my first year at university, faced with a very real prospect of failing my Maths course, I spent a couple of weeks at Easter in Granddad's shed, working through every lecture note, attempting every available old exam question. I think that shed made all the difference.

So maybe some childhood wonders have lost their magic, but you can't beat a really decent bit of nostalgia. Or a really good shed.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

The Milk Of Human Gullibility

My other half calls me the cat whisperer, but this business of cat whispering runs both ways. The cats exert some mysterious, mesmeric influence which forces me to tolerate behaviour that would elicit a robust verbal refusal otherwise. Unless you have encountered cats, this might sound unlikely, but for the cat-aware reader this will be perfectly familiar.

It goes like this: Can I sit on your lap… and drool on your trousers… and sharpen my claws on your skin… and now we will go to the food bowl… move your feet over, this bit of bed is mine…

The obvious response should be NO. But this is a cat, so the power of the subliminal whispering subtly shifts that sharp refusal to: not really… prefer not to… I'm not really happy about this… I suppose it would be OK… sure… yes…

That is the whispering cat… a patient predator. But sometimes they just pounce, catch you out with the surprise manoeuvre, just like the one Ginger pulled on me to prompt this chain of thought.

Both Ginger and her stalker, Oatmeal, have moved out of the barn and into the house, although Ginger likes to spend her time outside, you just can't beat a good comfy chair on a cold, wet day. We have now reached a significantly inequitable division of furniture – Ginger has my chair, my wife has her own chair, Oatmeal has the sofa and I learn to type standing up. All this close interaction gives the whispering cat time to study her prey.

I was making the porridge for breakfast – not hard-as-nails, real-man, Scottish porridge, but poncy English stuff with milk in. Ginger was in the kitchen, deciding whether or not the biscuits I had just put in her bowl were fresh enough. A perfectly ordinary day, until I started pouring the milk, and then she launched into the circling dance, staring straight up, the sure sign that your cat has seen something infinitely desirable and the usual softly-softly catchee human approach is not sufficient. This is the feline version of gimme-gimme-gimme.

The thing is, I know cats don't really like milk and are often lactose-intolerant. I am sure there are plenty of exceptions to the rule, and cats conditioned to drinking it by owners who have bought into the classic stereotypes. Our own experience has been somewhat different. Milk? Bugger that and fill my water bowl… too slow, I'm off to slurp at a muddy puddle. And cream? That rare moggy treat at Christmas? Most of our cats over the years just walked away, one or two would have a quick lick and then opt for something more tasty such as washing chicken poo off their paws.

I told Ginger it was milk. I told her cats don't like milk, but she didn't believe me. I followed the standard advice to writers – show not tell – and put a small amount of milk on a saucer. The only thing I didn't do was think it through. Ginger recognised a plastic milk bottle, she knew what it was, what it contained, and it turns out she adores milk. Every last drop was scoured from the saucer and I heard the determined rasp of tongue on glaze.

That was the pounce. The psychological killing blow. Now the pattern is established – milk bottle, dancing cat, saucer… If only I had just thought it through and said no. Too late now, because I said yes. I have fallen victim to the milk-shark.

Cats are inextricably linked with quantum physics – seriously, you don't think it was just chance that led Schrodinger to pick on a cat? Whispering is a non-localised effect, and the persistent influence from Ginger has rubbed off on Oatmeal. His pale fluffiness had no interest in milk before Ginger first lulled me into the world of the milk-shark, but now he has learned the habit from her we have gone beyond the cold, ruthless milk-shark: Oatmeal is a total milk-junkie. He now wails if denied the chance to bury his nose in a saucer of the white stuff. He recognises the sound of the fridge door opening, and can hear it, in his sleep, at the other end of the house. We ration him, but when the whispering is not enough, when the wailing rises to deaf ears then there is the special, attention-grabbing cat talent of being where your feet are about to go. Lactose intolerance? No, lactose impatience. Not meow, but me, now!
If you whisper to cats for long enough, the cats whisper back.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The Pursuit Of Green Wellies

Green wellies was a disparaging term when I was a student, a short-hand for people studying land management, as opposed to a real subject. A few decades on, and not only do I own and wear a pair of green wellies, I have multiple old pairs in the shed, and manage eighteen acres with all the benefit of a PhD in physics. Green wellies are a part of my life, along with animal excrement in various stages of decomposition and an interest in the weather forecast I would never have expected when I was a student.

Green wellies have a curious property – they are a magnet for young chicks (the feathered variety), and it starts around three or four days from hatching. Wellies on, step out of the back door and find yourself surrounded by an insane mob of proto-hens and Sunday lunches.

The first time, it looks cute – little fluffy bundles zooming around your feet. Now try to take a step forwards… oops… no… mind that chick. They move fast in pursuit of the green wellies, rushing unerringly to where your foot is about to come down. When they are a little older, they perch on the toe of the welly if you stand still too long, then its off for another round of zooming as you step away.

The pursuit of green wellies always puts me in mind of the scarab beetles in 'The Mummy'. A fast-flowing tide of small shapes. Fortunately chicks don't try to eat you alive, not until they grow a bit bigger.

I'm sure this behaviour sounds bizarre. Why would chicks chase after green wellies? The answer is food, of course. After three or four days of a pair of green wellies turning up and putting food down, the chicks are programmed. When they get older, forget the green wellies, the adult chicken learns to recognise the measuring pot for the feed. I know I sounds incredible – these are chickens we are talking about – but seriously, see it once and they remember, twice and the memory is set indelibly in the little brains.

This year (so far) we have had a solitary chick. Until recently, the owning (she hatched it, but who knowns who laid the egg?) hen has been looking after the chick. Now she is a bit distracted and the chick has to fend for itself (Go and play, dear, Mummy is laying an egg). Abandoned and about the size of a fist, the chick turned back to the pursuit of the green welly. If Mum is not going to point out food, or provide shelter from the breeze, perhaps those green wellies will do it.

The pursuit of green wellies can be amusing, interesting and down-right annoying. The reasons behind it seem simple enough. All of the livestock do it to some extent, and the pattern varies. Lambs shun the green wellies until they are old enough to take an interest in sheep-nuts, pelleted sugar beet or any of the other scrummy things that the green wellies might have in their pockets. As for geese, they are little more than psychopaths with feathers, hell-bent on assaulting green wellies... unless there is a tub of grain on offer.

Watching the chick and trying to dodge around, my mind wandered – do I have pursuit of green welly behaviour? I know I don't follow people who toss handfuls of mixed poultry corn on the ground, but the green welly chase is really about getting something you want. All of the livestock are heavily oriented towards finding food, and their behaviour is the repetition of a successful strategy. Realistically, it's something which rarely pays off, but when it happens it's worth it.

When I put it like that, I can see that my life is just another example of the pursuit of green wellies. I can tell myself that it is more complex, more sophisticated, but I do keep repeating the actions that get me what I want. Even the things that rarely work, if the reward is great enough. The only obvious exception is cleaning out the goose hut – I keep doing it, but I am very fuzzy on the actual reward.

I also don't play the lottery. Not every welly is greener on the other side of the fence.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Another One Bites The Dust

We lost a chicken the other day – Titch-Black (one of our blue-egg laying Araucana crosses) died of natural causes, as opposed to a local predator for a change. I went into the chicken shed and there she was, apparently sleeping in the indoor dust-bath. She had looked a bit 'off' for a few days, but lively enough when food was about, so I didn't pay too much attention. Losing them to a predator is definitely more upsetting... but seriously, how attached can you get to a chicken? Just because we have known them since they were an egg, seen them grow up, develop character and irritating habits...

It prompted me to consider how we treat our animals in general, and the mind-boggling contradiction of looking after the oven-ready. Before going any further, I ought to warn those of a sensitive disposition – we have been known to eat our livestock.

On the topic of eating animals (eating-animals?), we have an injured cockerel living in the greenhouse. He was attacked by something (probably rat or weasel) that injured one leg and one wing – if we were a commercial operation, we would have snapped his neck there and then. But we're not, so we checked him over, made sure he wasn't in any major distress, and treated the open wounds. We have a simple rule of thumb with chickens – if they are sick they do one of two things: get better or die. You can influence that by keeping them warm, keeping them drinking water, keeping a bit of food going in to them (unless you want to get technical with things like sour-crop). So, we have a cockerel in the greenhouse – recovered, able to fly up on to a perch, but not agile enough to cope outside, and some day soon he will be a chicken dinner. He was a youngster when he was hurt, too young for us to determine whether he was a hen or cockerel (there are usually ways to tell, but our chickens are random mongrels, which really confuses the issue) – so would we have taken such care if we had known that there was no career of egg-laying ahead? Based on our record, yes.

I know it sounds crazy, but that's just the start of the really nuts...

There is a second chicken in the greenhouse and she is called Leopard Neck, on account of her markings. Year before last, she was droopy and not eating, but had no other symptoms, so we brought her in, trickled glucose and water carefully into her beak, then kept her warm in the house in a big dog cage (absolute pain in the lounge), and when she started eating for herself and generally perked up we'd give her a couple more days of convalescence and then put her back outside on a nice day. Within hours she would need to come back in - on and off we had her indoors for almost two months (I did say this was nuts) so then we moved her out into the greenhouse where it was warm, dry and safe from predators (including other chickens!).

Chickens in the lounge really is only a short-term business, although Leopard Neck was one of the better housemates. Our first cockerel, Hairbrush, had a run-in with another young cockerel recently taken on by our neighbours – younger, fitter and faster. We had Hairbrush in the lounge (big cage again) for several weeks whilst he recovered from his injuries, and once he was feeling better (only a matter of several days) he started crowing. The only thing I can think of as comparable was a Burn's night celebration in a one-bed flat complete with piper. Bag-pipes and crowing cockerels simply do not belong in confined spaces.

Leopard Neck has now recovered, but her eye-sight has gradually deteriorated and now she is almost blind. If we were focused on profit... but we aren't, so Leopard Neck gets to live out her days in comfort in the greenhouse, eating grain and laying the occasional egg.

So, chickens in the greenhouse, even in the lounge... it can't get any crazier than that, can it? Except for the sheep in the bath.

In the run-up to lambing last year, one of our smaller ewes took sick, in the cold weather. We carried her to the greenhouse (warm, dry and already had Leopard Neck in residence) and went through all the standard treatments for things like twin-lamb disease and calcium deficiency, which matched the symptoms and benefit from prompt treatment. When this clearly wasn't the answer, we moved on to antibiotics from the vet. After that, the essentials were to keep her hydrated and taking the sheep-equivalent of high-energy sports drinks. The weather was turning worse, the light was going, and our ewe really needed caring for through the night. The best answer we could think of was to take her into the house and put her in the bath, which kept her relatively confined since she couldn't stand at that point. It was the perfect place to be able to keep her warm, whilst feeding water and high-energy drenches through the night. Sadly, she died, but the next time we have a poorly sheep who needs nursing through the night, it will be in the bath again.

It makes the final hours of Bitsy the cat seem perfectly normal. He was 18 years old and ill, booked in to see the vet first thing in the morning for what we were certain would be the final visit. By breakfast time he was so far gone, in no evident distress, and apparently comfortable so that the stress of being put in the cage and a car journey would have been unkind. I sat on the sofa for the morning, with him curled up on my lap, until he died just before lunch. We have had numerous cats over the years take that final trip to the vet and I don't think this way was any less stressful for me, but Bitsy went peacefully.

Household pets or lunches-in-waiting, we look after our animals. Whether you know each individual by name, or just one out of a herd, it's always unpleasant when another one bites the dust, a horrible business when you have to call the vet in to put an animal down.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Reached the Top – Butch and You

Some songs don't so much get stuck in my head as lurk in the background and wait for their moment. This week's hit is from the Disney Jungle Book: I've Reached the Top and Had to Stop...

Now, if this were a movie, the dialogue would be 'It's a guy thing.' In the testosterone driven world of livestock, its just the way things are. Once you reach the top, there is nowhere else to go except down – just hold on as long as possible until the newcomer knocks you off your perch (possibly literally).

All this was prompted by You, our Number One Cockerel. I will admit that it is confusing having a chicken called You when we also have a flock of ewes, but names here often happen by accident. We do a head-count on the chickens each night (certain idiot hens have been known to go broody and settle down any old place, rather than in the fox-proof hen house) and when we only had a few birds, that was easy. Then the count got up in the region of twenty and they will not stand still, so the process was to count by colour: eight white, seven brown, five black, etc... and You – the multi-coloured cockerel.

You is a splendid bird, mostly black but with iridescent blue highlights and golden-yellow flashes on his wings. The hens like him, he pays attention, he watches for predators, he doesn't pursue them across the paddock as if trying to emulate Usain Bolt but finishing with a flying ****. The competition is Mosaic, a mostly white chap with brown patterning, and a year or two younger. To be fair, some of the hens do like him, but he is inclined to the fast pursuit and sudden mount finish. (Or the sudden last-minute jink to a hen who didn't even know she was in the race.)

The relationship between You and Mosaic was simple – You chased, Mosaic ran away.
Not any more. You is getting older and slower, and now Mosaic has taken his chance. We have a new Number One Cockerel, and now You needs to learn the art of running away. That's not so easy for a bird who's been top of the pile for so long.

It's the same with Butch, the first lamb born here, a solid piece of proto-mutton. At one point we started to regret calling him Butch, because a vigorous and chunky lamb grew into a skinny, leggy sheep, but in his second year he filled out into a woolly tank and very much the alpha male. We have a small flock of rams and until last autumn, everyone got out of Butch's way.

Butch has a half-brother, Monk (very much the number two ram), and a son Pad (by Lily two years back) who has been working his way up the ranks. Butch and Monk have sparred all their lives, and Pad is not really a match for Dad (yet), but mistakes happen. Butch decided to take them both on at once.

The interesting thing is that when there is a change at the top, the former alpha male does not move down a notch or two, he goes to the bottom. Even the youngest ram, barely half-grown at nine months old, was suddenly prepared to (cautiously) test his horns with the Old Man, whenever Butch was prepared to come out the gorse clump he hid in.

When you reach the top, the only way is down. All the way down. There is no retirement on a golden-handshake pension, just a one-way trip to the bottom of the pile.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Feral Conversation

Ginger-And-White is a big, feral tom cat, with the sort of expression that says "extra garlic with my babies for breakfast." He was a minor character in last-year's retelling of the classic love-triangle, Romeos and Oubliette (I love you... No, I love you... Forget it, both of you...)

G&W now lives in our barn. I put some food out for him morning and evening – any additional snacks are his business to catch.

He has been a regular resident for a few months, but with no set routine until a few weeks back when he started hanging around, waiting for breakfast. Now we have a regular morning conversation as I walk in to the barn:

G&W jumps off the hay bales, retreats a safe distance and hisses at me.
I tell him "that's not very nice."
G&W meows at me with a tone of voice that says: "Watch it, writer. I invent worlds as well. Worlds of hurt and bloodshed..."
I tell him "that's better."
G&W blinks at me.
I blink back and put the food down.
It's a relationship of sorts.

Relationships evolve. For the last few days, we have skipped the whole hiss and meow bit. G&W just watches me from the far side of the hay bale. There's still the promise of hurt and bloodshed if I push my luck, and he waits until I am outside the door before checking out breakfast.

The cat whisperer strikes again.