Playing pied piper and the free-range feline

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Spending my days mostly in the garden during these past few weeks of maternity leave, I’ve relished the opportunity to stand and stare. Having the leisure to stop whatever I’m doing and observe all our animals has been among the highlights of what feels, at the moment, like an extended holiday – and being a week overdue, there’s even been some borrowed time, too.

Every time James or I head down the lawn, our trusty flock of chickens begin to run after us in a highly comical fashion. They’re after a helping of corn and who could resist their imploring expressions? I rather like the way they form a drift that follows us all the way down to their house and run.

The hens have also taken a leaf out of the Labradors’ book and enjoy hovering around while we eat our lunch outside. In fact, one particularly bold brown hen has taken to hopping onto a chair and then onto the table to see what she can nibble on. Suffice to say I encourage her back down to the ground, but she’s just as persistent as her canine counterparts and returns to try her luck within minutes. Naturally, German Shepherd Darcy doesn’t wholeheartedly approve (he’s just as greedy as his sisters) and the other day more or less let her know his thoughts on the subject (pictured below).

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Patterns of behaviour continue to shift as we prepare for our baby’s arrival. Beau the Bengal has, until recently, been entirely free-range – able to come and go whenever and wherever he chooses but, bearing in mind the fact that he would enjoy shredding our lovely wicker crib to pieces and the cautions about the appeal that sleeping infants hold for cats, we’re now having to keep our bedroom off limits to him. Naturally, being a contrary creature, he sees entering this forbidden part of the house as the holy grail and takes advantage of any chink in the new security system, runs in and immediately falls asleep – with a virtual ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign above his head – at the end of our bed.

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Back to hens… The flock’s eggs have been abundant recently and are keeping us well-fed – not only in cooked breakfasts and omelettes, but as ingredients in some homemade meals, including Delia’s fisherman’s pie (which includes hardboiled ones and is all the better for it), that have been squirrelled away in our freezer – all ready for when the little chap decides to make his appearance.

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I’m finding that watching these productive, amusing creatures is particularly helpful while waiting for this life event to occur – yet again the simple truth that their soft cooing and chirruping, pecking and scratching, preening and dust-bathing is so thoroughly absorbing to observe and can take your mind off all manner of subjects is confirmed.

Happy henkeeping all!

Power and patience

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The theme of authority continues at The Smallholdings this week. There’s not only the ongoing minor battle between Audrey and Margot and Labradors Amy and Megan and German Shepherd Darcy – the Araucanas are slowly but surely pecking away at the dogs’ status (eating their food, drinking water from their bowl and entering our house) – but between Beau the Bengal cat and Jeffrey the cockerel. I caught them this morning having a Western-style face-off across the garden (pictured above) and, on a few occasions over the past week, they’ve had some rather amusing crowing/meowing competitions, which Jeff’s won wings-down. For every impressive proclamation he made, Beau tried to out-do him with what sounded like a distinctly underwhelming cry. The cat  seems to have mastered almost every other creature at The Smallholdings, including James and I, except for this charismatic rooster. It will be fun to see who wins the contest.

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Elsewhere, Margot and Audrey continue to show interest in our domestic goings-on. I spotted them appearing to watch the washing (pictured above) the other day which I thought was probably taking it all a bit too far. Invading the house on a daily basis I can just about understand, but don’t ask me why chickens should be interested in the laundry.

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Talking of watching and waiting, when on earth are the nights going to be warm enough to put out tomato plants? I sowed ours – ‘Moneymaker’, ‘Gardener’s Delight’ and ‘Golden Sunrise’ – into propagators on various windowsills around the house way too early (beginning of March) and, having transferring them to the potting shed a few weeks ago, have been doing what I can to keep them alive and strong ever since, including the emergency rescue effort of a dilute feed the other day, based on the advice of my gardening expert friend Lucy. This has perked them up no end but, as you can see from the picture above, some still need propping up. Anyone else been brave enough to take theirs outdoors yet?

Being patient is key at the moment as our baby is due tomorrow and I’ve a feeling he’s going to be a few days late. Still, any borrowed time gives us more opportunities to carry on with the decorating plans for our house which we’d more or less stalled on until a few months back and are now progressing with gusto. We look forward to our latest livestock delivery whenever it takes place!

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Back in the swing

Since leaving Country Living HQ to begin maternity leave a fortnight ago, I’ve found that any notion of routine has disappeared along with the usual 6.50am London-bound and 7.08pm homeward-bound trains, and regular office hours. I would sit and type my weekly blog on a Friday morning before work began, having picked up thick, buttered toast spread with Marmite from the cafe next door (I did manage to remove most of the crumbs from my keyboard before my cover, Kitty, took over). It was a ritual I relished – and, of course, if you’ve a dedicated timeslot for any activity it means it’s more likely to be done than if you simply expect to fit it in. So, after a blog-free fortnight, I’m attempting to establish a new routine at home and writing a two-in-one post today to make up for lost time. No doubt all such resolutions will dissolve with the arrival of our baby boy, but it’s worth a shot in the meantime!

A GOOD ROOSTING 

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Routine also happens to be the theme of the goings-on in the world of Audrey and Margot this week. I’ve already documented the fact that they spend most of their time hanging out in our (half-built) porch – or utility room, when they can gain entry – pecking around the dogs and even approaching them in an attempt to eat their food (as pictured above), which is either extremely brave or exceptionally foolhardy. In fact, sometimes our three canine companions look at us as if to say ‘Can you please get rid of those pesky hens?’ (Megan, below, wears this expression most of the time).

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It’s as if the balance of power has shifted in The Smallholdings’ animal kingdom and the Labs and German Shepherd don’t like it one little bit. Obviously, the cat has always reigned supreme, but the dogs were of middle ranking. Now the Araucanas have usurped them.

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Audrey expresses an interest in the chew that Amy’s keen to keep to herself

This week, the cheeky pair have pushed their luck further and have even begun to roost in the utility room or porch at night. James wondered if this new move was due to invaders (the nasty red mite or vermin) disturbing them in their coop, but there’s no sign of any such pests. I just think they consider the end of our house to be more sophisticated (even in its rather grotty state) than their avian abode. Needless to say we have been politely moving the slightly deluded pair on.

Audrey and Margot bed down for the night
Audrey and Margot bed down for the night in the utility room

KEEPING IT SIMPLE

Just lately, James and I have changed tack in some of the ways we live. Instead of acquiring more and more hens to ensure we maintain a steady supply of eggs for friends and family, we’re not replacing the ones that die of old age, and are allowing the numbers to dwindle to half a dozen or so. Although this means that we inevitably disappoint some whose orders we can’t always fulfil, we figure that fewer chickens will mean that we get round to routine tasks such as dusting them for lice, treating scaly leg mite and checking them over more regularly and thoroughly. It’s a common assumption that once you’ve one or two of any animal then you may as well have a dozen, but when it comes to taking proper care of them, this just doesn’t ring true. It takes twice as long to treat 12 hens as it does six – and that can mean it’s hard to fit in.

Jeff continues to be ever the gentleman, allowing his dwindling harem first dibs in the corn
Jeff continues to be ever the gentleman, allowing his dwindling harem first dibs in the corn

This new way of thinking – essentially, that old adage that less is more – is being extended to various areas of our lives and we feel all the happier for it. No doubt this is also due to our imminent new human arrival and anticipating a reduction in time spent on our animals for a little while, but it’s an approach we’ll continue to adopt, I expect. Similarly, due to the need to build a new run because we’ve kept two herds of pigs on the same land now in consecutive years, we quelled our usual let’s-get-on-with-it-then mode of action and resisted the urge to put in new fencing, deciding to delay acquiring new porcine residents until next spring. This is as much due to the fact we need to finish our very much semi-baked house, which we’ve only half-renovated over the past eight years due to the fact we’ve become distracted by more interesting livestock pursuits in the garden, as it is down to the fact that we want to reduce the items on our plate. The nursery is a good couple of months away from being complete and so we’ve put that ahead of new piglets, as much as we’ll miss them this year. How much more fun will it be,  though, with a toddler in tow…?

Here’s to happy henkeeping!