Sunday, 29 January 2012

It's A Question Of Maths

I've been thinking about numbers a lot in the last week. Namely, the numbers 10 and under. I've been considering how much the difference between, say, 10 and 6, actually matters. I mean, if you're talking about millions of pounds, it probably has a greater impact than if you were say, talking about Mars Bars. An extra 4 million pounds might make the difference between a mansion and a mansion with a swimming pool and stables perhaps. But an extra 4 Mars Bars just means that you're likely to be sick as well as have a stomach ache. You see? On a small scale, there isn't much between 10 and 6.

Which leads me to consider rehoming any of my girls. Because at the moment, I have 10 small chickens residing in the Palace. I had decided to rehome up to 4 of my girls in order to make less of a scary impact on my new neighbours. I was thinking along the lines of noise reduction, looking less like I was moving a farm in and showing some compromise. But it suddenly struck me. If any of my new neighbours are going to object to the birds, it won't be the amount they will object to. It will be the whole idea of clucking poultry living next door. It's a very rare occurence that all 10 hens make a racket together, and they barely make any noise at all during the autumn and winter months. So perhaps it makes no sense to rehome some birds now, when a serious complaint might mean that all birds need rehoming.

In short, I'm ninety percent certain that I'm going to take all of my birds to the new house and play it by ear. If anyone has concerns, I can address them as and when. Because if I rehome birds, and then move in and find myself surrounded by chicken lovers, I will be very sad indeed.

It's all for one, and one for all from now on.

Monday, 23 January 2012

We're On The Move

The deed is done. We have reserved a new home. I am freaking. Out.

Partly it's the usual house moving stuff. How will we move all of this stuff here, to there? How will I pack everything in just six weeks? How will I feel when I leave our home for the last 11 years and move in to the soulless box of the new build? How much gin will I need to get me through it? All normal, understandable concerns.

But I also have my hens. And that's where I fall to bits a little. Because I'm moving on to a brand new estate, where everyone scratches their heads when I ask if I can keep chickens there. They um and ah, and make vague references to domestic animals being ok, but there being nothing specific about livestock. In fact, every time I pose the Chicken Question, I am met with blank looks quickly followed by an expression best described as appeasing. In short, the builders think I'm mental.

No matter. I can handle being thought mad. It's nothing new. But I think to be safe I need to hedge my bets. I currently have ten chickens residing in the Palace. Ten chickens sounds like a lot. If someone who isn't a chicken lover hears that I have ten, they tend to respond thus: 'Ten! Bloody hell! Your graden must be like a swamp! Are you running a farm?' etc etc. Yet when I had six, it went more often like this: 'Aw! Chickens! How sweet! Lots of people are keeping little back garden flocks now, aren't they? I read it in The Guardian' etc etc. So I think I have to do the unthinkable. I think I have to rehome 40% of my flock.

It's not an easy decision. In fact, it's quite a painful one. But I know it is better for me to have some birds, than none. And my fear is that if we move in with ten birds, there will be complaints. People get a bit snarky if they spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on a brand new house and then discover that a zoo has moved in next door. In my mind, I see us moving in with the Palace on a trailer, hens bokking off, and the puppy hanging out of the car window barking his head off. We look like the Beverley Hillbillies. First impressions count.

When I announced all of this on Twitter yesterday, I had several enquiries to rehome some of my girls. My Twitter friends are wonderful, and the poultry peeps that I know on there will no doubt help me find my girls a great new home.

But oh, it will be hard to say goodbye.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Tough Decisions

I find myself at a crossroads. After three years of back garden chicken keeping I have some tough decisions to make. We humans are rapidly outgrowing the available house space. As we dance around each other in a complicated waltz in order to reach the bread bin, I know that something has to give. The ever tolerant husband has made his position clear: the animals have plenty of room, the humans do not.

So we are looking at moving. Based on the dire housing market, the only sure fire way of doing this involves selling our souls to the Devil (well, our house to a builder). That means moving in to a shiny new house built from cardboard and spit. It also means being able to move, and possibly sit in a room without rearranging the furniture or turfing children from the near vicinity.

It also, in reality, means a less than ideal garden space. If not smaller than what I have, certainly less flat and regular. The garden attached to the new house will either require skiis to navigate or a map. So it comes down to me having to make some sacrifices. Possibly.

The Palace is a large piece of furniture. It is unlikely to fit easily in to the new garden. Or, if it does, it is unlikely to fit well. I can't in good conscience give my girls less free ranging space. So that leaves me with a dilemma.

I won't under any circumstances give up all of my birds. But I may have to give up some. The old guard (Mabel, Maude, Maeve) will be going with me even if they have to live in the bath. But I find myself contemplating not having all of the others with me. As I look out in to my (admittedly trashed) garden, I don't know how I can choose which girls come with me and which I say goodbye to. In the grand scheme of things, I realise that this isn't a life changing decision.

Yet somehow it feels like it is.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

ASBO Chicken Trains The Puppy

Now that the puppy has settled in, it's time to make sure he knows that the hens aren't mobile chew toys. He will now sit quietly tethered to the outside tap while they free range on the lawn if I'm mucking out, which is an improvement on the leaping-barking-fruit-looping he was doing a few months ago. So I decided it was time to step it up a gear.

When I thought about introducing the puppy to the birds, I knew that a short sharp shock was the best way to go. Therefore, there was really only one contender. Maeve. Nothing scraes Maeve. She has seen off many other chickens, a couple of cats and at least one of the children's school friends. I have found her eyeballing the hysterical puppy from the back step as he frantically tries to claw through the glass. Her orange, intelligent gaze appraising his floppy ears and lolling tongue and finding him, frankly, pathetic. Last week she quite deliberately took a dump in his food bowl. I suspect she thought this an insult, but the puppy seems to think chicken poo is a delicacy.

So, back to today. I approached the mighty ASBO carefully. She continued preening in the winter sunshine, one keen eye fixed on me. As I drew closer, she ruffled herself and took on her 'come and have a go if you think you're hard enough' stance. I know from experience that any timidity gets you a nasty peck, so I swooped down and grabbed the malevolent ninja with both hands. She looked at me coolly, biding her time. Taking a deep breath, I walked towards the tethered puppy.

As we drew closer, Maeve cocked her head to the side. The puppy stretched his lead out and stood on two legs, eager to get at the funny feathery toy. With great care to keep them at maximu distance, I held Maeve up for him to sniff. He barked at her. She looked at him, looked back at me, and then pecked him square on his tender pink nose.

The puppy recoiled, sneezing. Maeve hissed. Gathering himself, the puppy leapt at her again. This time she was ready, and grabbed the flesh between his nostrils and gave it a tug. He shot back against the wall, licking his tender shnoz and looking confused. He approached again, but cautiously. Gently, he extended his head to sniff her. This time she really went for it, her head coming back like a jackhammer, and left a small dent in the flesh. Deciding that this was enough teaching for one day, I put her down.

The puppy was most perplexed by the whole episode, and when I untethered him he still attempted to bound off after the flock. But I noticed that while the other birds still picked up there a pace and legged it to keep their distance, Maeve merely sauntered, throwing him a 'watch it, mate' glare.

I think she'll train him yet.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Always Something New To Learn

So far, this has been a wet and windy winter. The hens are unimpressed. Their copious feathering and lightness make them particularly vulnerable to anything above a strong breeze. Many times over the last three years I have had to rescue a windswept hen from a rose bush or the coop roof. So they have spent a lot of time huddled in the coop, muttering complaints and refusing to lay eggs.

Of course this is an improvement weather-wise on last year, when we were under a foot of snow for weeks. My girls dislike snow even more than the wind and wet. They spent most of last December shrieking at the injustice of the white stuff covering up their lawn and feigning death to make me bring them treats. Cunning, chickens. In the very cold weather, I was defrosting the drinker two and even sometimes three times a day. We were all cold, miserable and fed up.

This mild but soggy winter should therefore be a breeze (pardon the pun). I confess I took my eye off the ball, and was quite pleased not to have to trudge across the lawn at 7am with the kettle. You would think I'd have learned by now, wouldn't you?

Yesterday morning, I saw a scrum at the feeder. Normal breakfast behaviour. But ten minutes later, there was still a scrum. And a few fights. Huh. That's not normal. I put down my tea, secured the bonkers puppy and went to investigate. I found a full feeder, but an empty tray. The driving wind and rain had managed to turn the feeder tray in to a mini swamp. These soggy pellets had made a sort of disgusting soup, which the girls had happily scoffed. Unfortunately, the creeping wet had made the pellets in the main part of the feeder mutate in to a sort of pellet cement around the feeder holes. So no feed could flow in to the tray. It just sat in the main body, looking all delicious and edible but tantalisingly out of reach. Which explained why a hungry and bad tempered Maeve was kicking the fluffy arse of every one of her flock mates.

I removed the feeder, and emptied it from the top. The free flowing pellets were still good, but at the bottom the pellet cement was well and truly set. It took two boiled kettles of water and a toothbrush to clear it all out, and all the while I muttered obscenities about bad design and the Great British weather. Once everything was back in working order, I returned the pellets to the run. The girls dived in, stuffing their beaks and occassionally throwing me evil looks.

It's nice to be appreciated.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

This Post Isn't About Chickens

And yet, in a round about way, it is. It firstly concerns a clock.

From a distance, this clock looks like a handsome brass carriage clock. That might even be gold leaf marking time on its dial. At first glance, you might even suppose that mother of pearl makes up its face. It is only on closer examination that you realise things are not as they seem. It is far too light to be brass, far too shiny for its casing to be anything other than gold sprayed plastic. There is no wind up mechanism, just space for two AA batteries. In is the kind of clock given as a free gift by an insurance company, or the Readers Digest people. Yet it was given to me as a precious object. I was assured that the giver had wanted me to have it for ages, but had just been waiting for the right time. She also told me that it was valuable, and that she'd had it for many, many years. The giver was my maternal grandmother.

My grandmother was a formidable lady throughout my childhood. My earliest memories of her involve her standing in my parents' kitchen, jangling car keys in her hand, and organising everyone. She was always busy, and when I was young I would often go along for the ride. She tried for years to make the grapevine in the greenhouse do something useful. She made amazing and elaborate cakes. Her cheese straws and pickled onions have never been bettered. She taught us to do handstands against the garage wall, and how to skip double dutch. Periodically, she'd pick up a new hobby and run with it. The entire family sported aran jumpers one winter, like it or not. Her hands always had to be busy. For a while, everything was knitted. Dolls, clothes, decorations. Everything. Then, growing tired of knitting, she turned to cross stitch. There wasn't a wall in the house that didn't have at least one framed masterpiece, and everyone else in the family had their share too. I have one in the downstairs loo.

She travelled extensively, regularly disappearing to the other side of the world for months on end to visit her sister. She often exasperated her children, stubbornly doing whatever the hell she liked whether it seemed appropriate or not. Like driving, despite being shocking at it. I stayed with her regualrly at weekends, and she taught me to knit, sew and bake (with varying degrees of success). I discovered 'Gone With The Wind' at my grandmother's flat, and it remains one of my favourite films. She told me I was clever, capable, amazing. She copied down my primary school poetry in to a book as if I was a proper poet. We played many games of Scrabble, which she always won. Sometimes she farted elaborately and audibly and pretended she hadn't. My cousin nearly had a hernia trying not to laugh.

But, like I said, she was formidable. If you annoyed her, you knew about it. Her favourite way of conveying disappointment was to write letters. Woe betide you got one of her letters. Quick tempered and tongued, you knew if you'd stepped out of line. Yet to me, she was always an inspiration, and still is.

My grandmother now has vascular dementia. The cheap clock she insisted I take she has mistaken for the clock which stood on her mantelpiece for years, and which is now safely put away in a cupboard. She gets confused and misremembers things. Sometimes she gets stroppy and can be less than pleasant to my mother and my aunt. Taking care of someone with memory problems is wearing, heartbreaking and frustrating. She has been scammed out of money, wandered off and got lost, misplaced precious jewellery. Daily dramas which test her daughters' patience and nerves to their limits. The strong woman she was has been replaced by a vulnerable person who needs care. In fact, the kind of person she would have delighted in helping and fussing over (and bossing about). When I was in hospital poorly with my second child, my 75 year old grandmother was attempting to hoist the 'old dear' (a woman about five years older than her) out of her bed and on to a commode. She never really retired from nursing.

So this post isn't about chickens. Yet in a way, it is. Because this woman helped shape me, and I doubt I'd be the same person I am today without her influence. And while she is in the slow, heartbreaking process of forgetting me, I will never forget her.