Sunday, 2 September 2012

Meet Mrs Balls

Scotland Farm has a new inmate. Her name is Mrs Balls and she is a Sussex Light/Rhode Island Red cross chick. Now the important thing is that although she arrived only 2 days ago, I know that she is a she and not a he. This is because this particular hybrid cross of hen is self sexing -  the girls are born golden and the boys traditional chick yellow. Very important because its the girls we are after and the boys, well, they have to "go down the road". Most people dont know that sexing chickens is a highly skilled job and can take up to two years to master. So having a chick whose plumage gives the game away the instant it hatches is a big plus.

Now Mrs Balls is special in other ways. I bought 18 cross eggs off Ebay and popped them in the incubator confident of at least a 60% hatch rate. All was going well until we had a power failure. It occurred at 11.30pm just at the crucial stage of chicken egg incubation and I got alarmed. Called the power utility and was told the power would only be off for about an hour. Well in the wild, hens get off their eggs daily to eat and enjoy their morning constitutional so if the power was off for an hour, the eggs ought to be fine. Ergo I did not intervene and went to bed. The only problem was the hour stretched to two hours and then three hours. By the time the power was finally restored, the eggs had cooled off for 5 and a half hours. Not good. But I restored the incubator and let nature take its course.

Obviously something went very wrong becasue most of the eggs candled infertile. I debated with myself taking all the eggs out and chucking them but something made me hold back. The due date (29th August) came and went and nothing happened - no hatching, no peeping of little bird voices, no tapping of little beaks. Nothing. Then on 31st I walked into the bird room and the most nauseating, horrible smell hit me. Honestly this was a stench that made sheep footrot smell like Chanel No 5. After reeling backwards, I recovered, braced myself and made my way to the incubator to find green fluid leaking out from the bottom - clearly the source of the putrid aromas. There to my astonishment I discovered Mrs Balls standing in the incubator, having not so much hatched in any sense of the word but obviously her rotten shell had just exploded and projected her into the world. What an undignified way to arrive and clearly she was not happy. I grabbed some paper towel and mopped up as much of the green soup as possible without retching. I then opened the incubator and extracted the little scrap of chick. Books say leave chicks in the incubator for 24 hours to dry off properly but the gases and fumes in the incubator were so vile and toxic that I was sure the chick would simply choke and die.

She is an odd little thing - not quite right but she is toddling around in the brooder, eating and drinking. She has been joined by a more robust healthier brother - the only other egg that hatched out of the 18.
But why have I called her Mrs Balls? Well my South African readers will cotton on pretty quick. Mrs Balls makes the best chutney ever and its the golden brown colur of this chick's feminine plumage. The chick also had the balls to hang in through the power cut and then survived being encased in green slime - that takes strength of character - hence Mrs Balls.

Havent named her brother yet but it remains to be seen if both surive. Hope so.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Feathered Fiend

Reading my recent blog about the trout fishing weekend some 40 years ago, I think leads to the completely erroneous conclusion that all went well for me and all went badly for poor Colin. Time to confess – I too got my come-uppance that weekend and like Colin it came from the bird world in the form of a blue crane by the name of Pete.

Pete was very much in control of the farm and especially the farm house. He was a tall bird – easily my height which made him look huge at my age. He also has these beady untrustworthy eyes which seem to dart around looking for mischief. To top it all, Pete could also move at bloody lighting speed and sported a stiletto beak that was as sharp as a razor. The problem was he was fine with men but Pete, for some reason, absolutely loathed women.  His gender bias which, given half a chance, ended in blood being spilt, was well known and even before we arrived at the lodge we all had been warned about Pete and were briefed about how to deal with him. All the cars drew up at the front door on that first evening. The men got out and called for Pete who appeared suddenly from out of the flower bed on elegant stick thin legs. The men called Pete around the back to the kitchen door with the promise of a tasty morsel and then yelled “All clear” where upon all the women dived out the cars and belted for the front door, slamming it behind us. This was the only means of safe passage if you were of the feminine variety.

Now my father and I had been given a guest house, separate from the main house and about 20 metres from the kitchen door. For some bizarre reason known only to the owner and builder, this guest house was designed sans lavatory or anything that resembled a bathroom. “Don’t worry,” said our host, “we will leave the kitchen door unlocked at night so you can make use of the facilities any time you need.”

Sure enough, I woke on that first morning at about 4.30 with a bladder full to bursting. I got up and was about to leave the sanctuary of the guest house when suddenly the full extent of my predicament became horribly apparent. It was still dark enough for no one to be around to act as a Pete decoy to allow me safe passage to the main house but it was already light enough for Pete to be up and about, on the prowl and ready to attack any unsuspecting female.

I peered out from the doorway of guest house. The flower beds looked quiet and undisturbed. The beds around the kitchen door looked pretty benign and by this stage my full bladder was making my eyes water. So I decided to make a dash for it on the basis that it was only 20m metres between me and a permanent urinary tract infection. I actually recall thinking I am not even in my teens, I don’t yet wear a bra so maybe Pete wont work out that I am female. Perhaps I can fool him.

I am about to turn 54 and even at this stage of my life, I find it difficult to describe what happened save to say that, to this day, I cannot look at a blue crane without beads of blood appearing on my forehead and me involuntary exercising my core muscles in a way that would make my personal trainer proud.



Friday, 6 July 2012

Simon's Cat - a Dedication

I love the Simon’s Cat cartoons on You Tube – they are charming. But living with cats has its moments and so I dedicate this blog not only to Simon but to all cat owners in the knowledge that they will understand where I am coming from. Two nights, one ongoing saga told by three different souls.

The first night
Bella the Collie says: So here I am, very much top dog and asleep in my rightful place. Now I am a very tolerant pack commander but I cannot understand why the second in command insists on being infested with these stupid felines. Honestly, the fuss they cause at all hours when I am trying to get my much deserved sleep. Last night was a prime example. I dealt with it by giving the second in command a dirty look and told her: your problem – you sort out. I then went back to sleep.

Me, the poor human says: Bloody cat won’t let me sleep! I go to bed circa midnight knowing that Leo is out on the prowl but the kitchen window is open and he can use the dog door in the passage. At some ungodly hour I am woken up by this hysterical meouwling outside my window. On goes the light. Bella raises an eyebrow at me and goes back to sleep. I go to the window and explain nicely to Leo that because of the external scaffolding (that he is standing on), I cannot open the window wide enough to let him in. Cat carries on yowling pitifully. I go downstairs, open my study window and call him. He doesn’t appear but the yowling gets louder. Go back upstairs, cannot see Leo. Go back downstairs – he still hasn’t appeared. Room is cold and so am I. Go back upstairs. Leo is pawing at my bedroom window. I explain again, not so politely this time, that I cannot open the bloody window wide enough. Go downstairs you feline idiot, I bellow. Cat is now turning purple, so am I. Go downstairs and close the study window. Go back upstairs. Open window in spare bedroom. Cat appears. Looks at me and then says no, I don’t think so. He dithers half in and half out the open window. I am now seriously cold. I lean over and assist Leo in taking the “in” decision by putting my hand firmly under his butt and catapulting him into the room. Takes him a couple of seconds to regain his composure and then he trots downstairs. I go back to bed. Five minutes later, Leo is in my room meouwling at me. On goes light, I get another black look from the dog. Leo and I go downstairs and I open the kitchen for him. He tucks into a meal. I go back to bed - finally.

Leo says: I just cannot understand the fuss. My human possession can be so stupid sometimes, she just doesn’t get it. Here I am protecting the property all night and what do I find? I need to come in for a meal and I am bloody locked out – how rude. This is just not good enough so I call my possession and ask politely to be let in. She just stands there in the middle of the room, barefoot and scantily clad, waving her arms at me and babbling incoherently. I ask her again – please open the window. It’s that simple – just open the window. Next thing she disappears. I hear her clattering downstairs which is of course none of my business and completely off piste. I wait patiently for her to return. Which she does but still doesn’t open the bloody window. Now I am getting a little fed up with this game of charades – I am cold and hungry. She is shouting so I start shouting over her, in the hope that she will finally understand what I need. By gum! Would you believe it, she disappears again. More clattering downstairs. This is getting silly and I am now very annoyed. Suddenly she gets the message but she opens a window about 10 metres away. Oh well, better than nothing. I go and check it out and woa! Never been through this window before. Not sure about this – could be dangerous. Better have a think about what to do. Then suddenly, don’t know how, but I am in – some rocket behind me appeared mysteriously and projected me into the room – knew that window was suspicious. Oh ok, all safe so now I can get breakfast. What the hell! Someone has closed my kitchen door. Only one thing for it – need to inform possession. Upstairs again. Why did she go back to bed in any case? This is not the time to sleep. Sleep time is when the sun is up not when its dark. Not sure she will ever get this right. Thank goodness that stupid dog stayed out of the performance this time.

Second night
Bella the Collie says: Ruddy feline is at it again. Oh well back to sleep.

My version: Cat won’t let me sleep! If I don’t get a decent night’s sleep soon I am going state side.

Leo’s version: Ha! Have spent whole day sleeping. Now its time to show my human possession how much I appreciate her. So first offering is a shrew at 1am– a bit small but my possession thinks its elephant nose is cute. Well, what a bloody performance - on goes the light in the sleep room, possession, again scantily dressed, running around the room after the shrew. I had to intervene, things were getting ugly. I grab shrew and what happens? - possession chucks me and the shrew out the sleep room and slams the door. Clearly she wanted something else. I leave the shrew to scuttle under the sofa and out I go – I really need to please my possession. 2am - now I have something that I know will please her but what the hell - the door is still slammed shut. I have to get in, so I go to huge effort with the rat in my mouth. I climb up the honeysuckle creeper and squeeze in through the top window. Present my possession with this amazing gift. Well what a bloody performance: on goes the light again in sleep room, possession says YUK (or a word that sounded like YUK) and grabs rat with hand covered in a tissue. Then what thanks do I get, she dumps my toy in the dustbin in the water room adjacent to the sleep room and slams the door between the two. So now I cannot get to my rat – possession might be through with rat but I was just getting warmed up, they such fun – they make this cute squeaky noise when you toss them in the air and they last longer than the shrews. Only solution – out I go again. Get lucky at 3am, bring possession a really cool mouse. Deliver it to her bed side but I am puzzled. Why has my possession got her head under the pillow and what is that sobbing noise?

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Food chains and feather fiends

It’s official with irrevocable proof that I reside right at the bottom of the food chain here at the farm. Some months ago I did a pilot test to see if we could raise quails for eggs, meat and sale of point of lay hens. I ordered three dozen fertile eggs off the internet and when they duly arrived by Royal Mail, wrapped in bubble pack and intact, I put them in the incubator. After eighteen days nothing had happened so I thought, oh well there goes another idea. I switched off the incubator and prepared myself to chuck the eggs out. The first one I lifted out however felt heavy and full, so I put it on the kitchen scales where it clocked in at a massive total of 8 grams. To my astonishment as I was looking down at it, it wobbled and gave out a loud cheep where upon many of the other eggs still in the incubator responded and started tapping and cheeping. In other words, the chicks were telling me in no uncertain terms to stop interfering with nature and to butt out of their forthcoming lives. Just under half the eggs hatched over a period of 2 days and these little yellow and cocoa coloured bumbles bees knew exactly how to get on with the job of living and growing. And boy did they grow! – like topsy as we watched. Interestingly they were totally self-sufficient from the moment they hatched. They took instantly to their chick crumb feed, knew where their water was and in general crapped in only one corner of the brooder. After 6 weeks, I felt confident enough to sex them and was disheartened to find that I only had 3 hens. This 75:25 male to femaIe ratio I established is normal for the bird world so I got on with the job of feeding the boys up for the table. At 9 weeks they went off “down the road” as our dear neighbour says when acknowledging where our meat comes from and they returned a few days later neatly packed in trays ready for either freezer or oven. This left us with 3 females and two cock birds (one stayed on by accident since I had not yet refined my sexing skills) and happily the hens have started laying eggs which are not only in great demand because they are delicious but they also represent the second phase of the quail project. But here comes the food chain bit and my rather lowly stature therein. One of hens is a feisty little thing. She clocks in at about 300 grams and I can easily pick her up in one hand so she’s not exactly the most terrifyingly huge creature. Nor do quails have scary sharp peaks or claws. Nevertheless, this little girl gets muchly bothered if her food bowl runs low and attacks me when I dare open their hutch to refill it. First time it happened I got such a shock I nearly fell over backwards. Now I have got wise to it. The other day I was feeling particularly put upon so instead of sacrificing my hand, I opened the hutch and glared in. There she was ready for battle, feathers puffed out. I squinted at her and shouted, “I have just eaten one of your brothers and very delicious he was too!” I did feel a little better until I realised that George the Romanian builder and Sean the English carpenter, currently doing some work on the farm, so happened to be in ear shot. I looked up to see them stare at me, exchange knowing looks between each other and then wander off in opposite directly shaking their heads. Round three to the little quail.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Hysterical Shouting and Screaming

Until recently, my experience of guinea fowl had been limited to a brief indirect encounter when I was about 8 years old. A work colleague of my father’s invited him to a trout fishing weekend in the Eastern Transvaal and for some reason my mother elected not to join him. This meant I was allowed to go with him. The weekend party was made up mainly of adults and save for one, I was in the minority. The only other member of the group my age was a pasty hysterical boy called Colin. Colin was known for almost incessant noisy outbursts, tantrums, screaming and tears. My most vivid memory of Colin was his face - red and blotchy, tears and snot-caked as he let rip emotionally about whatever was worrying him that moment. And there always seemed to be something worrying him. Colin’s behaviour might have had a lot to do with his rather unusual family circumstances. His parents were both on their second marriage (to each other) and each brought from their previous relationships, three daughters all in their late teens which meant that when Colin arrived he essentially had seven mothers under one roof. This may have explained his rather unique perception of the world and constant state of hysterics although I can think of a number of advantages of being poly-maternally endowed.
Throughout the weekend Colin and I studiously avoided each other. I found his emotional outbursts embarrassing. I had no idea of what he thought of me and nor did I care.
On the last morning of our weekend, breakfast commenced without Colin and I must say it was rather pleasant - peaceful and relaxed. Not to last of course because half way through, Colin burst into the kitchen totally hysterical, screaming and crying. Eventually the group managed to extract from him what the problem was this time. Colin appeared to have gone wandering across the veld on his own where he came upon a guinea fowl hen on her nest of eggs. She did what any self-respecting mother-to-be would do and defended her budding brood by setting up a terrible screeching racket and attacking Colin, giving him the fright of his life.
I was totally unimpressed. I remember glowering at him over the breakfast table as he sniffled into his cornflakes muttering “if I had a .22 you all would be eating guinea fowl now” and thinking what a prat.
Fast forward 44 years and when James and I went to buy some Southdown ewe lambs, we came across an aviary which contained a number of guinea fowl chicks. “Oh please take them”, said Susan, “I don’t have room for them and they are very cramped.” James said no. Susan, her daughter Gussie and I packed the 11 birds into some boxes and we drove home, the sheep in the trailer and the birds in back of the car. I emptied them into a hen coup and let them get on with life. Five keeled over immediately and kicked the bucket. The remaining seven survived. After a couple of weeks, I let them out of the coup, saying ok guys goodbye, convinced that they would take off, never to be seen again. Not on your nelly. They stayed, integrated with the hens, moved into the hen’s lodgings and generally began taking control of everything they encountered.
That was 9 months ago. Today they rule the roost, moving everywhere an almost solid group, a spotty hysterical Doctor Doolittle’s push-me-pull-you. Fully grown they are big birds, far bigger than the cochin hens and that is saying something. They are somewhat prehistoric looking with their elaborate spots, their turquoise faces and almost bald crenulated skulls covered in a mere hint of odd tufts of bum fluff. To top this weird attire, they sport bright red wattles, the large wattles identifying the males.
And they know that they are imposing, taking great delight in collectively chasing cat Leo in through the kitchen window. He tries to regain composure by settling down in the safety in a patch of sun in the dining room near the glass French doors only to find the seven guinea fowl leering menacingly in at him from the outside. He clearly doesn’t want to lose face for a second time in quick succession so he pretends they don’t exist. He turns his face away from them and by the process of cell osmosis attempts to inch away from them in a way that belies his intentions. They continue to peer in at him tapping their beaks on the glass and chattering incessantly at him. He looks slightly green around the gills.
Once the cat has been firmly put in his place, the birds then go to sit on the farm gate facing the street. They are quite happy to perch there for hours, again chattering nonstop and much of Hawkley Village has witnessed them sitting there like the vultures in Disney’s jungle book. But then I drive up to gate, returning from home from wherever. I press the remote control to open the gate and it begins to slide to the right. The seven guinea fowl give a shout of alarm and being to shuffle to the left. The gate continues to shift to the right and birds, as they begin to run out of perch space, continue to shuffle to the left until of course the bird on the far left falls off with much shouting and before he reconstitutes himself in the driveway. The gate continues to open, shifting to the right and the remaining birds shuffling in tandem to the left until the next bird falls off the gates and so it goes. The first time this happened, the building contractor from across the road stopped work and watched the process, open mouth before he collapsed laughing.

People had warned me that guinea fowl are very noisy but are great watch dogs. Ours, people noted are the calmest most chilled birds they had ever met but hysterical shouting and screaming is par for the course with guinea fowl. The birds know me and my voice, they follow me everywhere – even across the fields when I am doing my sheep rounds. They allow me to put them to bed at night and even let me medicate two who were injured when a sheep hurdle fell on them. I thought I had them sussed but they continue to surprise me. Bob came to scan the sheep last week and we kicked off early – before I had let the hens and guinea fowl out their coop for the day. Melissa let the birds out while Bob and I got one with the scanning. All was well until the guinea fowl came round the corner and into the barn where they encountered Bob in his black water-proof waders and with his odd looking sheep scanning trailer. The birds took one look and decided in concert and very shrilly: we don’t like this! They went absolutely bananas and set up a screeching racket that was blood curdling and ear splitting; the noise painfully amplified in the barn. The two dogs scattered. Bob stared at me in alarm and mouthed above the chaos: “I have never heard anything quite like this ever before in my entire life.” After about five minutes of screeching which seemed like eternity, I managed to calm the guinea fowl down after which they decided “Oh ok, he’s alright” and they settled on the barn gate to happily watch Bob complete the sheep scan.

As we approach the spring I am aware that the birds are fully grown and about to go into their first breeding season. I pity the two girls in the group, nature conspired against us and the gender ratio is not good. I am told that once the hens are sitting on eggs, I must do everything I can to locate the nest and remove the eggs (our incubator is due to arrive any day). This is because the hen will refuse to leave her nest and will therefore be fair game for the fox. That would be sad. Be careful, came the warning, when you approach the nest, the hen is likely to set up a furious screaming match and is likely to attack you. Yes I know, I said with a wry smile, I have had experience of this before. Irrespective of its gender, I think I our first guinea fowl chick born to Scotland farm will be named Colin.