Cats and Books

Monday, 24 December 2018

Sheep Are By The Dozen

I don’t do festive blogs. Apart from this time.
Performance notes:
I’ve only done the final ‘verse’ and performance details are left up to the reader because whilst I’m fine lugging 25kg feed sacks around, I can’t carry a tune to save my life.
My personal recommendation is that this should be sung in four part harmony, two parts vodka, one part orange juice, perhaps with a side-order of cheese.

On the twelfth day of Christmas my livestock gave to me
Twelve ewes escaping
Eleven lice a biting
Ten fleas a jumping
Nine muddy gateways
Eight fences falling
Seven rams a running
Six geese a-honking
Five blank stares
Four fighting cats
Three drenched hens
Two dirty gloves
And a crisis in a far field

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Old Man Biskit

1: Elsewhere online, and in parts of that real-life thing, I am known as Biskit.
2: I got asked why I blog about the animals on the farm. The short answer: because I enjoy it. The longer answer...

You talking about me?

Old man Biskit had a farm,
Blog it, write it, now.
On that farm he had some cats
Blog it, tell it, now.
With a cat-scratch here
And a furball there,
Here a scratch, there a ball
Everywhere a cat fur

Old man Biskit had a farm,
Blog it, joke it, now.
On that farm he had some sheep
Blog it, show it, now.
With a poop-joke here,
And a ram horn there,
Here a joke, there a ram,
Everywhere a poop-horn

Old man Biskit had a farm,
Blog it, quote it, now.
On that farm he had some geese
Blog it, hype it, now.
With a honk-hiss here,
And a beak-bite there,
Here a honk, there a bite,
Everywhere a beak-hiss

Old man Biskit had a farm,
Blog it, share it, now.
On that farm he had some chickens
Blog it, spread it, now.
With a cock-fight here,
And a cute chick there,
Here a fight, there a chick,
Everywhere a cute-cock

Old man Biskit had a farm...

And now he needs an hour or two to put his feet up.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Hands Up – An Educational Experience

The saga of Thug (aka The Purring Death, aka Drang as his actual owners call him) continues, very much an evolving experience for all concerned. The routine surrounding his visits has become both simpler and more complex – where once my partner picked him up and popped him into the car, nose next to tempting kitty nibbles, now he races there and waits impatiently for me to catch up. He has learned that breakfast (or other meal, depending on time of day) happens in the car, on the way home. If I am slow, he races back, just to remind me that there are things to do, places to go, large and adoring cats to feed.
As any theme-park operator will tell you, yesterday’s thrill is today’s old news and the only way forward is innovation. For Thug, having taken the half-mile plus walk up the hill, there needs to be some entertainment, and he’s looking for that innovation. Of course, if said innovation also runs away making frantic squealing noises, all the better.

I can see you...
So, for instance, several minutes of fun can be had by lurking outside the front door, staring through the new cat-flap to the spot where Piper has taken to sleeping. Then all it takes is a plaintive mew and Piper is awake, acutely aware that the Ginger Nemesis is close and watching. Think of it as a waking nightmare – wake-up and there’s the nightmare, not yet red in tooth or claw, and just itching to get his wonderful whiskers dirty.
Of course, Piper has also learned a few things, in addition to run for your life. In particular, he’s established that the new cat-flap doesn’t open for Thug. It’s safe to glare back, perhaps growl a little. Then run, just in case.
Alternatively, Thug hangs around by the back door, after all there’s no telling when Piper might be outside, strolling by and needing another bite taken out of his backside. It’s amazing how these hyper-alert, super-hunter felines can wander around, thumb up tail, brain in neutral, and not notice six or more kilos of ginger monster sitting in plain sight, just waiting...

I can reach
However, kitty nibbles from a bag do actually trump prey-cat on the run. Once I open the back door, and Thug knows he has my attention, as well has his next meal, he then races round the house to be waiting for me out the front. There, the new cat-flap means he can peer in to watch me put my shoes on and be ready for our race to the car as soon as I step out. It also gives him a chance to see when I’m not coming, so that he can gallop back round the outside of the house to find out what I mistakenly thought was more important than an adorable ginger cat.
Thug has also learned that if I’m carrying an old yoghurt pot, that’s where his breakfast is. With a normal cat that might not be overly significant, but Thug is big with long legs and even whilst jogging along beside me, he can reach up and take a grip on that pot with both paws. Sometimes he just takes a hold of my hand. Six or more kilos of cat hanging by his claws in my skin is a learning experience – lower that pot quickly to avoid extensive bloodshed, or remember to keep my hands well above cat-reach height. As it turns out, the most frequent donor for Thug’s red-in-tooth-and-claw is me.
The important thing is that I have learned the lesson. I probably look like an idiot, walking to the car with my hands up, but I’m not a bleeding idiot. Pain is a great teacher.

Let me at it.

Not that Thug has this all his own way. Some time back, in an earlier instalment, I mentioned his sister, Storm, a very spooky and perfectly normally sized cat. I’ve seen her from time to time as I return Thug home, but she’s not really a people cat, and certainly not keen on strangers. However, the cat definition of stranger is variable, experience-based and subject to change on a whim, a purr or the discovery of food.
In the last month or two, Storm has learned a part of the routine herself – when my car arrives at the official Thug residence, there will be cat nibbles on the doorstep, because that provides enough of a distraction to keep Thug from racing me back to the car if there’s no-one home to let him in. I started to notice that, as I walked back to the car, Storm would emerge from hiding and demonstrate her expertise at getting her nose under Thug’s chin and separating him from breakfast.
Now that she has learned the routine, Storm has finally decided that the Great Cat Whisperer is OK, and taken the next step: why go to the effort of stealing her brother’s food when she can mug me and cut out the middle-cat? It’s easy enough to do, a quick sniff of my ankles, a strop round my legs, the look that says stroke me and I’ll let you hand me cat nibbles.
As ever, Thug management is an ongoing educational experience. I await developments – perhaps Thug will start to learn Storm management.

 #  #  #
This month's blog was partly prompted by #BlogBattle: Educate. Please go and take a look at the other entries,

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Five Great Ways To Roast Live Clickbait

Life online can be something of an obstacle course – I know what I want, I’ve found the right web-page, and now all I have to do is dodge the adverts, the animated gifs, the sly popup windows, and then, just when I think I’m there: clickbait.

Three Ways To Get Your Hands On A Hot Chick

Not interesting clickbait, not something I want to look at, but clumsy coarse rubbish on the menu. A digital dietary option that I know will be high in polyunsaturated facts. I know it’s digital junk-food because it follows the standard form that says clickbait, but eat me anyway.
It’s a pattern and in a moment of former-programmer irritation I started designing a search formula to automatically track and net cheap clickbait. So, the underlying design of the clickbait headline goes something like this:

Seven Foolproof Ways To Talk To Cute Redheads

1: Five Great Ways to Roast Live Clickbait
First there’s a number, certainly greater than one, generally more than two. Really, three is a good basic starter, four if absolutely necessary, whilst five is a perfect choice. Going on upwards, six through nine are bearable, ten is another perfect number, eleven just wrong and twelve has such a deep resonance that it’s beyond perfect. Thirteen is an absolutely no-no, unless this is Halloween clickbait – thirteen ways to pretend there’s no-one home when the trick-or-treat mob arrives.
2: Five Great Ways to Roast Live Clickbait
Secondly there is a standard tag such as things or ways, perhaps something more adventurous like styles or destinations, ideally augmented with a well-chosen modifier like perfect or great. Now the pattern is coming together – five great ways...
3: Five Great Ways to Roast Live Clickbait
Thirdly there is a basic grammatical link like to or for, leading into the necessary verb, which can be just about anything, but again there are some stock favourites like get or make, perhaps find or save, but I’m going to go with something a bit more punchy: roast. Five Great Ways to Roast Live Clickbait – Yes, bland is fine for the clickbait pattern, but for the wildest, most dishonest clickbait the verb wants a bit more pop. You can probably do a search for it along the lines of ten ways to make your clickbait sparkle.
4: Five Great Ways to Roast Live Clickbait
Finally, you need that eye-catching topic. It can be anything from a single word to a detailed phrase, but shorter is better, and there are clear winners to choose from. Number one is sex. So, twelve rules for perfect sex – clickbait dream. Money is another good one, five ways to be a millionaire. Just feel that mouse movement. And then food, clothes, cars... really, it doesn’t matter, just so long as it gets attention.

Nope. Not buying it.

So, there you have it, Five Great Ways to Roast Live Clickbait.
Of course, when you click the link, the destination page probably barely mentions clickbait, certainly not live clickbait, and might not bother to offer the promised five distinct points. You can forget learning how to roast, boil or fry it, or not until you’ve clicked past a dozen pages crammed with adverts, because that is the point. After all, full-fat fried, or lean and roasted, the clickbait is only there to expose you to advertising.
By the way, would you like to buy my book?
Or a handy aerosol pesticide, guaranteed to kill one hundred percent of all clickbait. Only four-nintety-nine a bottle.
I could offer you a link to Thirteen Ways To Permanently Eradicate Clickbait, but it would be a total sham. There’s a reason for that pattern – it works. Even when you recognise it, clickbait is like chocolate cake – you know it’s bad for you, it can be resisted, but it takes an effort of will. Let’s face it, long before the internet was at the end of a list of Ten Really Useful Applications For Computers, newspapers and magazines had been drawing in readers with a promise of Ten Ways To Have A Bigger (insert sex-related term here).
By the way, did I mention buying my book? Five Killer Runes to Save You From the Demons as you read Hell of a Deal.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Second Best

Everyone wants to be the best, supposedly, but so far as I can see our Alpha Male cockerel is very content to be second best in some things. It’s a very precarious position once you’ve Reached theTop. After taking the position from Party Pants, Neo has been top cock for a couple of years now, with no-one to challenge him until recently. Earlier this year we hatched some chicks – known at the time as the Fast Food Five – who turned out to be four hens, and the one we now call Spotty Cock.

I'm in charge, right?
So, Neo has competition.
Spotty, being young and testosterone super-charged, is courting the hens. Neo, being a perfectly normal testosterone-powered psycho, wants to keep them all for himself. This is all perfectly standard – new guy comes along, some of the girls fancy a change, established guy kicks the proverbial out of the newcomer on a regular basis. New guy eventually figures out how to hang out with the girls somewhere established guy can’t see.
I'm younger, faster and have more testosterone...

Fortunately, Spotty has learned the all important skill of Run Away. Not only has he learned it, but he keeps in regular training and has proved that he is the fastest cock on the farm. Even though it’s only a two-bird competition, being the fastest means no blood-shed, because when two cockerels decide to fight it out, there is blood everywhere.
Now it seems to me that although Neo is now a mature guy of over two years old, it’s not that long since he was practising the fine art of being the fastest cock on the farm, keeping out of reach of his predecessor, Party Pants. Of course, the day came when Neo decided not to run, had it out with Party Pants, and became Top Cock in a significant blood-bath. At the time, my first thought was a fox attack but, as is so often the case, it was just another round of chicken-on-chicken violence.
Maybe I’m misreading it, but Neo is still fast, probably more than capable of catching Spotty and putting him in his place. There are certainly occasions where the chase results in Spotty being trapped in a corner, because no matter how fast his legs are, Spotty is still a chicken and not terribly bright. Even then, Spotty gets away. So I’ve become convinced that Neo is not really trying to catch him. Somewhere deep in that intellectually challenged bird-brain is the knowledge that Spotty is younger, faster and if forced to fight quite possibly destined to be the new Top Cock.
It’s all a matter of perception. Provided Spotty keeps running away, the status quo can remain. Neo is Top Cock, but the second-fastest bird. Sometimes, second best really is the best thing to be.

Friday, 31 August 2018

Take Another Lap

We’re well into Autumn now, because it started in early August, but there are hints of better weather for September, which means the chance to sit outside and write. Of course, that brings its own challenges, especially at lunch time.
There are marauding chickens, they know what a plate is for, and with a little effort can manage the vertical-launch to swipe lunch. Having lost half a sandwich to chickens in the past, I am wary, I keep an eye on them, but there’s only one of me, twenty of them, and their hunting strategy evolves. I’m not sure if the latest trick is a diversionary tactic, or just wearing me down.


We have two cockerels, and the younger of them has taken to standing behind my chair and delivering his best, most deafening cock-a-doodle-ahhh! I know it’s supposed to be a ‘do’ on the end there, but he’s young and hasn’t had enough practice. Neo, the senior bird, does a serious cock-a-doodle-dooooooooooooooooo! The way he strains to get every last bit of breath into that finale makes it look like he’s the one laying the eggs, not the hens. Either way, it’s three strikes and then I throw something light enough to do no harm, but change the lyrics to cock-a-doodle-EEEEK.
Naturally, it’s a conspiracy, because the cats also get involved. It does happen that I get sat on when I’m working inside the house, but for some reason being out in the sun makes me a far more attractive target. My best explanation is that if I’m guarding my lunch from chickens, that improves the chances for a cat, specifically Piper, to swipe something tasty.

I'm not sure these are my size

The thing is, Oatmeal often hangs around his people when they are sitting outside. His preferred spot is under the chair, or on our feet, because whilst he has many fine and adorable qualities Oatmeal is not an agile or athletic cat. He can jump, but not very high and not reliably. The essential pain-avoidance activity is to watch him and, when he does make the lap-leap, give him a boost up because the alternative is to have claws latch into your leg as nearly seven kilos of cat finishes the jump with a climb.

Give it up, Two-legs - I can wait all day and this laptop is warm.

Piper, on the other lap, launches and almost floats up. I say almost, because little Ginge is the one who really floats up, but she’s not much of a one for stealing my lunch. Piper is. Piper arrives, plants his six and half kilos on my lap, or on the laptop, and then goes reaching for lunch. It doesn’t matter whether or not the plate carries anything that Piper actually likes – it’s the principle of the thing. Supposedly this is a case of mi comida es su comida, but since neither I nor the cat speak Spanish, it’s anyone’s guess.
The only solution is to show him the plate, make it clear that neither bread nor fruit is for cats, and hope he doesn’t notice the cheese. And hope he doesn’t sneeze.
I like sitting outside to write, but I have to be alert and remember the golden rule: the cat is like an Olympic runner in training – he can always take another lap.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

And Swallow

Piper, six-and-a-half kilos of ex-feral tom, has a bird problem. He’s been stalking swallows, by hanging out close to a nest, and now the swallows are fighting back. Poor Piper got spooked and abandoned the hunt when they started dive-bombing his ears. Now he just runs for cover. It was very funny, until the little feathered devils started doing it to me.
The nest (one of many around the farm) is tucked up under the eaves of the old stables, just outside the door of the old tack room where we keep the geese over night. Before the eggs hatched, I would get the sudden flick and flap above my head every time I walked underneath and a swallow took off, nought to whatever crazy speed they reach in seconds. Now that they have hatched, the parents zoom in, feed and zoom back out.

They are busy little birds – we have photos from about two weeks back, taken from inside the tack room. The parents came in and attended to the lone, wide beak just poking up above the edge of the nest. Back then they lingered long enough to get pictures. A week ago there was no time to waste – in and gone again in two or three seconds.

The pattern is relentless. In, feed, out – unless I’m too close.
I’ve watched the incoming flight pattern. The adult bird comes in from the field, straight along the yard, turns sharply a quarter of the way along, takes a long loop over the house, and then ducks under the stable block eaves and into the nest. However, if I happen to be standing near the nest location, they keep doing that lazy loop over the house, coming back, turning again just above my head. Every one of those jinks is a sharp snap by my ear and a furious cheep, before they race off for another run.
As I said, it was very funny when it happened to Piper, but I’m not laughing now. It’s like someone clapping in my ear every five seconds, accompanied by shrill screams of outrage.
That one lone beak was also misleading – it just happened to be the only one visible. The current best estimate, now that the youngsters are bigger, is four, and as they grow the adults are getting more aggressive in explaining to me that this is their patch now. It’s understandable, I suppose – two busy parents, stressed out by the price of grubs and insects these days, and four beaks to feed.
Last week, I just happened to pause in the stableyard, staring out over the field beyond, and a swallow came in just over the gate, aiming for me at face-level. It did miss me, flicking aside at the last moment, but it all happened so fast that I had no time to duck. I don’t know how fast a swallow flies (African or European) but it covered the five meters from the gate in a blink. Looking at the nest, I’m sure the pressure is really on now – those youngsters are getting big, their down almost entirely replaced with feathers, so the big day must be coming and the food demands reaching a peak.
The harassment is also multiplied. At times there were at least four adult swallows strafing the yard and I suspect that some of these are stroppy teenagers from an earlier hatching. We know that there’s been at least one previous set this year, because they built the nest in the rafters of the corner box where the chickens hang out. We had to leave the door open until after dark so that the swallows could finish their day’s feeding.

It’s not just Piper and myself getting harassed. My partner saw a half dozen swallows mobbing a buzzard until it retreated, and more recently a falcon coming in low and fast across the paddock, chased into the tree-line by three swallows on its tail.
Now the yard can return to peace and quiet. Over the last few days, the number of chicks visible in the nest has dropped. It’s tricky to keep count as all we can go by is the beaks or tails sticking out over the edge of the nest. As of yesterday, we are pretty sure that the last of them has finally flown the nest.

However, according to Google, there’s time for them to raise another batch before the autumn migration.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

A Bit Of A Flap

Thug, aka The Purring Death, has settled into a routine of sorts – turn up, look hopeful, walk with me down to the car, have something to eat (other than his gourmet preference of other cat) and be driven home. Usually he comes for breakfast, but we do get the occasional evening visit, but either way the key thing is to take him home so that our cats can get out and about in safety.

I can see you in there

There is still a single, small window we leave open for Ginge, but that’s fine because she is the only one small and agile enough to use it. Piper sometimes jumps up from the inside and stares at the outside, then he gets back down again, because the drop is awkward, and a long way down for a big cat.
So, imagine my surprise at finding Thug in the bedroom, just as I was going to bed. I wouldn’t have noticed so soon, but Ginge was very surprised and told everyone about it very forcefully. I picked Thug up, put him outside, and performed the routine – down to the van, something to eat (Ginge is not on the menu) and drive him home. Fortunately, his owners are night-owls, so there were people up and about to let him in.
As a precaution, we shut that small window – Ginge can use the cat-flap like everyone else. Or not. A small and insistent ginger cat made it very clear that she likes her window open, likes being able to pop outside for a pee, rather than, for instance, digging a hole in the carpet behind a piece of furniture, pretty-please, you know you want to do this my way.
Thug dropped by again the following very wet evening, as we were going to bed. My partner spotted him first, corralled the soggy moggy and I did the drive home. Then we looked at the paw-prints. None on the window cill, nor anywhere close to the window. In fact, there was a very clear trail from the cat-flap, to the food bowl, and then onwards.

I push here, right?

Thug has made that dangerous leap of comprehension – how to use a cat-flap. Once might be a fluke, but twice is the start of routine. He dropped by on the third night, got spotted on the final approach, and we locked the cat-flap. A large ginger nose gave it a nudge, and then a proper shove, and then the sort of head-butt that only a big ginger Thug can deliver. Fortunately the latch held.
The whole point of the cat-flap is ease and convenience – the cats can get in and out without us having to hang around. Yes, they will sit beside a shut door, with a perfectly serviceable cat-flap, and wait for one of their people to open the door, but if there’s no service staff around, they can still get in or out. As now can Thug.
So, we have bought new cat-flaps – electronic ones that only open for the designated micro-chips. The first one went in the back door, and now Thug is puzzled. He knows they are supposed to open, he can see the others go through, but it just doesn’t work for him.
Not long before Thug discovered how to use cat-flaps, we were about to put a new, extra-large one in the front door, mostly to help our extra-large cat, Oatmeal. I had a new door panel made up, hole cut, just waiting for a gap in some adverse weather to make the change. Sadly, the new electronic cat-flap needs a different shape and size of hole, so I had to re-do the panel.
Since the changes, Oatmeal and Piper have taken to sleeping just inside the front door, perfectly positioned to watch out for Thug through the new, clear plastic catflap. In reality what happens is a big ginger face lurks outside and watches them sleep, whilst wondering why the shiny new cat-food dispenser won’t open.
We have won, for now. Thug is big and smart, but hacking a microchip is beyond him.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

The Naked Sheep

One of the key features of our sheep is that they shed their fleece naturally, so there is no need to shear them. That’s the theory, anyway. Come spring, the stock fencing, the gorse bushes, anything with a bit of rough texture picks up tufts of fleece as the sheep brush up against them, or scratch the serious itch that comes with the shedding. It mostly works. There’s really just two issues...
Firstly, some sheep opt out of the natural shedding process, or only do half the job, which means we do have to do a partial shearing when the weather warms up. Our oldest ewe, Cilla, is an absolute devil for not shedding and her fleece develops into a semi-rigid shell – a sheep-armadillo cross. Partly because of her age, we only trim when the weather is really good, and by the time that comes round I feel the urge to get out the angle grinder, just to cut through that outer layer.
Cilla passed the trait on to her son, Softy. Perhaps if he hadn’t had the snip, he would shed like a ram, but instead he is an enormous wether in an armoured jacket. We did a partial trim recently, because the weather suddenly got warm – not a full shearing, just enough gaps so that the rest might unravel like a knitted jumper with a pulled thread.

Butch, with a proper winter coat

Secondly, and most significant in late Winter, the rams get in a bit of a hurry. Butch, our oldest ram, and his half-brother Monk had already started shedding, just as the cold weather arrived back in March. In winter, both have a dense fleece that keeps almost everything out, and a very fine hairy chest wig to show what splendid lads they are. (OK, in Butch’s case, a splendid older gentleman, with half a horn missing and a spot of bother with his right knee.) But just as the snow came, our woolly lads were looking a bit moth-eaten.

Butch getting scruffy

Just to clarify – this isn’t like a cat moulting, swapping a thick, dense winter coat for a thinner, lighter summer casual. When the sheep shed their wool, there’s a change in the growth pattern – the fibres get thinner and more fragile near the skin. The shedding process is not a light trim at the barber’s but a skin-hugging buzz-cut. In the middle of this year’s round of sharp easterly winds, freezing conditions and abrupt snow or hail, Butch and Monk developed bald patches.

Monk, just chilling, in patches

It does all grow back, of course, but for the coldest few weeks it got pretty chilly round their nethers. It’s not funny being an ageing ram in skimpy underwear when the temperature drops.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Happy Old Sheep Day

It’s more than twelve years since we moved here, and nearly twelve years since we took on the Soay sheep. The number of original members of the flock is diminishing and the oldest is a black sheep called Cilla. And today is her birthday – seventeen. This time next year she could vote, if she weren’t a sheep.
The birthday breakfast today

Ten years ago, our then-oldest sheep called Oakapple was taken ill and couldn’t stand. The vet was quite amazed – she so rarely heard such serious heart murmurs in sheep because they don’t usually live that long. Despite everything the vet could do, Oakapple died later that day, and she was a mere youngster compared to her grand-daughter, Cilla.

Not only is she our oldest ewe and oldest ever ewe, but also one of the most laid back. After our first lambing – eleven years ago – we called her Aunty Cilla, because she was the principal lamb-minder. The other ewes could go off grazing and Cilla would potter along at her own pace, with the lambs, until the big reunion and frantic scramble to match eager noses to the right udder.

Cilla with her lambs in 2008

Sometimes having lambs gets on top of ewe

Cilla has stared in one of my earlier blogs, because even an ageing and laid-back sheep can make trouble when she really puts her mind to it. At least two years running, at lambing time, the great lamb-minder has decided that some of the new crop must be hers.
A few year ago - Are you sure this one isn't mine?

Cilla also has the dubious honour of being the last of the Ladies Wot Lurch – a group of four older ewes who took things at their own pace and walked with a bit of a wobble. When we were down to two, we renamed them the Baggages.

Catching a few rays

Cilla now lives with three other ewes who are just easing into middle-age because the rough and tumble of the main flock is too much for her, and it’s the only way to be sure she gets enough food. This time last year, we didn’t think she would make it through the Summer, but now, perhaps she will be up for voting next year.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Let It Snow?

No. Forget cheery Christmas songs, this is March. It’s supposed to be Spring. Please make it stop snowing.
I know this imported Siberian weather has been around for less than a week, but it feels like forever, and the snow just makes it worse. A whole four days back I took advantage of the sudden cold and moved hay bales, ten to the trailer-load, because the mud was solid and I could get traction. So, there’s an upside. Just the one, mind you.

Earl enjoying his frozen food

The downsides...
The animals need water, the liquid stuff, not the crunchy version that has suddenly become the default. The water troughs froze, taps on the water tanks froze, the hoses to get water from place to place froze. At least the sun was out. For two days, we laid hoses out in the sun, lined up down the slope so that any ice inside would melt and drain. Then the sun stopped coming out.

By Thursday, a bucket of water would start to freeze over within an hour. We now have an ice-cube graveyard, although they’re not cubes but bucket-shaped cylinders of ice because it was easiest to tip out the frozen and refill, adding a kettle-full of boiling water to each and then carrying out across the fields. The outside tap had to be defrosted by carefully dribbling hot water from a kettle. The re-freeze time was five to ten minutes.
The start of the ice-mould graveyard

Thursday afternoon, the snow arrived. Just as the first scattering of flakes were coming down we drove over to the nearby reservoir as we had been told the water was freezing on the shore. By the time we got there it was frozen all the way across. We lasted less than five minutes, taking photos, before the wind chill forced us back into the car. The wind was driving fine dry snow over the top of the spillway at the reservoir, and creating swirling fake-mist along the road.
The reservoir, viewing along the spillway

Not a lot of snow settled at first – this was horizontal snow, carried on the wind, keeping clear of the ground and really just passing through as fast as it could. To look at, it was barely snowing at all, but in those quiet corners where the wind couldn’t scour it out, drifts built up quickly. At the end of the greenhouse, where the hen Leopard Neck has her chicks, the snow was up to knee height by the end of the day, and as fast as I could clear it, the heap re-formed. I didn’t tell my partner I was taking a shovel to feed the chicks.

Friday was better – still bitterly cold with a howling easterly, but obviously warmer, because the outside tap remained unfrozen for more than an hour. Even so, most of the day went on carrying water out to the animals, and bringing back iced buckets to empty out and refill, and maintained a supply of warmed feed for our small group of elderly sheep.
The most striking thing about those two days was the near-continuous commitment to feeding and watering the animals. The second most striking thing was scraping the ice out of my beard after every trip outside.
Piper thinking about going out - you gotta be kidding me.
This morning (Saturday) when I first stepped out the air felt still and warm. By the time I had done the first basic round of checking on the animals the breeze was picking up. When I stepped out again after breakfast, there was light rain falling. The big freeze is over, the mud is emerging from under the snow as if it has been in hibernation, and tufts of grass are poking up.

The normal Cornish winter has returned – warm, wet and muddy. I’m sure I’ll be complaining about it in a day or two, but for now let it rain.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Chick Lit

There are reasons to write about chicks right now. Firstly, we had five hatched a fortnight back and they are cute. Secondly, I have to get in quick and write fast. Chicks don’t hang around long. Thirdly, we now have a sixth called Twiglet, a surprise hatching that has not gone so well.

Twiglet - chicken doesn't come much fresher than that

There is a special quality to chicks that I somehow forget, and have to relearn every year – everything about them goes from zero to fast in an eye-blink. Somewhere, in the small-print of their DNA, is the need to do everything exponentially.

The Fast Food Five

Newly hatched, they toddle about and cheep frantically if the enveloping warmth of Mum is gone for more than a few seconds. At that time, it’s easy to pick them up, look them in the beak and go Ahhhh. Cute.

Now blink. They’re a few days old. They still cheep, but toddle has become zoom. Catching them is still possible, but it takes two, and a corner to herd them into, because all that speed is delivered in three dimension. And zoom itself is exponential – stationary to zipping between your fingers in an eye-blink...

For the first day or two, they hardly eat anything. Then Mum introduces them to feed pellets, and they swallow a few. Now blink. A few days old, and pellets are sucked down, a whole can-full in a day. And then a can-and-a-half... and then, before you know it, the ongoing zoom demands a continual stoking. The only thing that stops them is a sudden collision with adulthood.

Wait for me...

I now have a routine established, get them up in the morning, provide breakfast, then lunch, supper and put them to bed. Over the next week or two, the number of meals will increase, but the general routine stays the same. Except for yesterday morning when there was a surprise waiting for me under a hopeless hen we call Carnival.
Last year, she gave us the Brooding Look, aggressively sat some eggs and failed to hatch anything. In January, she did the same, and then refused to stop being broody and took over a pair of stray eggs. (It’s amazing how eggs can run off like that.) Much to my surprise, when she came off the nest to eat yesterday morning, there was a chick poking its beak out of a hole in one egg and going cheep very loudly.
I picked it up, as you might, and realised that it was in trouble. The whole hatching cycle had got hung up and the inner membrane on the egg had dried out, making it too tough for the chick to tear. I did the necessary, peeling off enough shell to get it going and then had to hang around whilst Carnival ate breakfast. That ought to have been a serious red flag – hatching, cheeping chicks normally mean that the broody absolutely refuses to leave the nest.
I went back after breakfast, just for a quick look, and Twiglet had been ejected from the nest. I thought it was dead, but when I picked it up there was a hint of movement in the legs, which can just be a post-mortem spasm, but might just mean it was still alive. On the off-chance, I cupped the chick in my hands and went to tell my partner.
Twiglet, an hour old and in trouble

There is a routine for this as well. When we used to raise geese, the goslings were hell-bent on suicide from the moment they hatched, escaping from under the goose, wandering from the nest and then getting cold until they died. However, just like all those crime dramas with a frozen body, they’re not dead until they’re warm and dead. With goslings, which are chunky and robust, we used to sit on the sofa and stuff them down inside our jumpers; for the chick it was time for a box with a hot-water bottle wrapped in a towel.

Mummy, what small feathers you have

By the time the kettle was hot and a suitable box picked out, Twiglet was already warmed up enough just by my hands to be kicking. After half an hour nestled down in the box, there was indignant cheeping, and after another half hour, silence – the sound effects sequence for the transition from almost-dead to alive-but-it’s-chilly-here to warm-and-cosy.

That’s the easy bit. Now we have a box set up in the bathroom (showers will be tricky for the next week or two) with a heat lamp to keep Twiglet warm. There’s no guarantees, but it's alive, and it’s kicking, so there is a fair chance. If only we could trust Carnival to look after it.
There. I’ve written about chicks. Now it’s time to feed them again.