Cats and Books

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.