Swallows, a Hopeful Return

Across the globe as we collectively weather the COVID-19 pandemic, we are hunkering down at Crockern.  As such, I’ve had plenty of time for thinking.  Thinking of science and epidemiology.  Thinking about governmental policy.  Thinking of how others are coping.  And more immediately, I’m thinking of writing, cooking, walking the dogs, playing the piano, gardening, reading books and addressing the bounty of projects here at Crockern.    All that thinking leaves me with one certainty:  If ever there was a time to contemplate nature, it is now.

After nearly six months of relentless rain and strong winds, we finally have a reprieve.   It is blissfully sunny and the land seems to roll for miles under a gleaming blue canopy.  The green and gold of the hills are dotted with sheep.  Our night sky is luminous with an abundance of stars.   My morning dawn walk with Millie and Brock is typical for this time of year:  crisp air and a light layer of frost upon the ground.  The bird song is triumphant.

It’s important to anchor myself with these observations.  As I look at my calendar, I’m reminded that only a few months ago the political caucuses in the USA began and Brexit preparations continued to fill the news.  Nearer still, during the last two weeks of February Roger and I had the good fortune to be in Zambia on a safari.  Over the past few weeks, all of our lives have transformed into something different and what was once normal – kids in school, adults in work, and Roger and I moving about freely – now seems a long time ago.  It’s hard to imagine how much our lives will be reshaped by this pandemic.

And yet, somethings remain unchanged.   With spring upon us, the pied wagtails are busy building their nests in various nooks and crannies in the stone walls.  The daffodil bulbs are all happily blooming across the garden.  The green woodpecker continues to mock me with its laughter call as I daily set about filling potholes.  Our duck couple come and go to the pond, sparking our hopes they will have a brood of chicks swimming on the water soon.  Roger is repairing fencing in order that we can protect the 120 trees we need to plant from sheep, who will destroy young saplings in a single grazing session.  These are the very trees we had hoped to put into the ground over six weeks ago, when nothing but wind and rain confounded our efforts, and the news of COVID-19 seemed somehow distant.

When we were in Africa in February, we saw over 90 types of birds and I have no idea how many different types of butterflies.  Herds of Puku, Impala, Zebras and Elephants appeared around bends in the dirt road.  There were Hippos, Baboons, Hyenas, Giraffes, Buffalo, Kudu and Wild Painted Dogs.  We even saw a lion hiding in the bushes after dragging her kill to a more remote location.  At night, the calypso chorus of frogs would sing us to sleep.  Before drifting off, I might startle if I heard calls of baboons, warning of a predator nearby.   But seeing the familiar swallow, the very ones who migrate from Africa to Europe provided me a connection to my daily wildlife discoveries between Crockern and the remarkable gifts of Zambia.

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“Are you going to come visit us this spring?” I would ask when we saw the different swallows in South Luangwa National Park.  “I certainly hope so, and if not you, perhaps some of your friends?”

In the last several years, our swallow population at Crockern has dropped dramatically, and without any explanation.  Did they get lost on route, or blown off their migratory course with strong winds?   I’m anxiously awaiting their return.

Swallows make the spring.  Their aerial gymnastic arrival, eating insects on the wing and diving in and out of our outbuildings, is right up there with the start of baseball season or BBQs with friends.   They build their mud nests, have 2-3 broods, eat loads of bugs and sing their happy chatter song throughout the long summer days.  By September, they show their restlessness, fluttering about on the barn roof, and prepare to migrate back to Africa.  Their return journey takes about six weeks.  Swallows from different parts of Europe fly to different destinations, but according to the  RSPB, our visitors to England end up in the very southern parts of Africa, traveling down through western France and eastern Spain into Morocco, crossing the Sahara Desert and the Congo rainforest, before finally reaching as far south as South Africa and Namibia.

For the past few years, it has been difficult to trust their arrival.   Our first year at Crockern, we counted over 30 active nests around the property.  Last year, we counted a mere six.   Such a decline in a single decade.

Lots of theories abound as to why this might be.  Changes in agricultural practices throughout the globe, where pesticides and insecticides eliminate their main source of food:  insects.  The gradual disappearance of grasslands, hedgerows and wild spaces also changing the insect populations.  Climate change and crazy weather with its accompanying drought, extreme temperatures and weather events may have a hand in their decline.

It’s almost April and we’re bunkering due to a global pandemic.  Despite this madness, the leaf buds will soon unfurl with new foliage.  By May I’ll have the veg beds mostly sorted.  And hopefully in the next few weeks, we’ll catch glimpses of the long tail of a small bird diving, swooping and zigzagging flight patterns overhead.   There is something comforting in the knowledge that the Swallows are due to return.  A nod towards normal.   After a long six months since they left, we’ll welcome their return as they hawk for insects and delight us with our imagined stories of their travels from Africa to Crockern.

A Stork Out

During the winter, one of my primary focal points is the wood burner.  Not just the heat it produces, but the hypnotic beauty of its dancing flames.  I am easily distracted while sitting in one of the chairs close to this stove.  Installing the wood burner was our very first project at Crockern, and since that time we have spent many fine hours enjoying it, both dogs curled at our feet.  I also proudly organise the store of wood in the barn, rotating our supply to season the latest arrival.  My wood store organisation paid off when Chimney Sweep Steve said, “You two should write a manual about how to use a wood burner.  This one is as if it is brand new.”  Like the Grinch’s small heart, mine too grew three times that day.

I won’t betray my love for our wood burner, but lately, I find my tendencies toward distraction are pulled in more than one direction.  I can no longer walk past the living room window without stopping to see what, if anything, is visiting the pond.  I’m like a hopeful teenager willing my crush to round the corner and catch my eye.  Each time I look out upon the pond, I enjoy the magic which tentatively creeps into the scene:  a sparkling glimmer upon the water as the sun pokes through the clouds; or perhaps, a rippling of waves as the wind whips up the valley.   Already, our new pond is attracting wildlife.  We have had the arrival of a pair of ducks swimming daily, and periodically making camp on the island.  I watched a Sparrowhawk preen its feathers on a nearby fence post, resting from a recent hunt nearby.

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But most recently, I spotted Roger gingerly wading out into the pond.  Roger is tall and slender, and the pond is very muddy at its edges.  I waited in anticipation for his probable slip and splat into the mud.   But Roger didn’t fall, instead he came to a spot and stood motionless, gazing intently at the water.  “What is he doing?” I wondered.  Hunting?  Attempting to determine the various depths of water?  Considering where we will be placing trees and any other plant life?  Looking for the muddy archive of animal print trails passing near the pond?  Or, trying to see the pond from the same perspective as the Grey Heron, one of our first and most frequent pond visitors.

It’s no wonder we’ve spotted this elegant long-legged hunter waiting by the water’s edge for a fish nearly every day.  Across the river and in the stand of pines, lives a colony of Herons.   Herons nest socially and usually at least 25 metres above the ground.  I’ve walked in these woods and looked up but have never spotted a nest.  Over the years, we have delighted in watching Herons sail along the river’s path with their slow-flapping wings and long legs held out behind.  They look almost prehistoric in flight, and comical as they attempt to gain purchase on a flappy tree limb.  From my own perch,  it is easy to watch these magnificent birds fly in and out of the pines.  And if I can’t spot them, I can hear them making their loud and raucous selection of croaking sounds.  Impossible to miss.

Until they started visiting our pond, I did not appreciate the size of a Grey Heron.  Some of the adults can stand up to one metre in height, with a wing span of about two metres.  I’m only about 1.6 metres tall.  This makes it one of the largest birds we will spot at Crockern.

Herons are usually solitary hunters, standing silently and patiently with that beautiful pale grey plumage.  Because they are still for so long, I can take in the beauty of the broad black stripe extending from their eyes to the back of their white heads and necks.  I like the extra feathers drooping down their necks, too.   They are dead on trend for eye-liner styles and may be the unknowing inspiration for a drag queen or two.  Lady Heron performing tonight on RuPaul’s Drag Race!    These natural killer good looks are accented by their long and pointy yellow beaks, perfect for spiking their prey.  That could spell curtains for some of the other small wildlife to visit the pond.  Fish are not to be found in our pond.  How long will they wait until they realise this?  There are plenty of moles in the fields, so perhaps those will suffice.

Most recently, I was driving up the track and glanced down towards the pond.  I wasn’t expecting to see much more than the direction of the wind on its water and the mud patches all around the perimeter.  But standing stock-still, scattered almost equally around the edge like numbers on a clock face, was a siege of Grey Herons.   Six to be exact.  I phoned Roger from where I sat in the car.  “Roger, quickly get your camera and go to the living room window.  Do not let the dogs out.  Take pictures.  You’re not going to believe it.”

Perhaps, dear reader, you’ll be equally surprised by the photos.

Fieldfares

Winter on Dartmoor is characterised by days of rain, strong winds and lots of mud.  Hail, sometimes the size of large capers, can slap and exfoliate your face, an unpleasant experience as if a cruel dermatologist was having a laugh.  Occasionally we get snow.  All of this conspires to delay certain projects, some of which we do need to urgently address.   On the few days we’ve had a break from the wet and windy stuff, I’ve managed to get out into the garden to assess and tidy.  I observe for signs of growth and areas that need repair.  I noted last week daffodils are starting to break the ground, which seems early, but I know in our climate it isn’t.  They are hearty enough to withstand a frost or snow in February.  I look at our raised vegetable beds knowing some attention is needed.  We will be hoisting a few fallen stones back onto our dry stone walls as well.  I examine with pride our young hedge.

In 2016, Roger and I planted 150 hedge plants.  The following year, we added 100 more, doubling the thickness.  We’ve positioned a mix of native hedge plants along the south and west parts of the garden:  Guelder Rose, Dog Rose, Hazel, Blackthorn, Hawthorn, Maple, Holly and Alder.   Apart from providing an alternative boundary to stock proof fencing, our hope for these hedges is to provide greater habitat for the wide variety of animals and plants.  A happy foraging place for birds, small mammals and pollinators.  Perhaps too, we can create a bit of a wind break from those strong prevailing storm gusts coming up from the south.  Attractive and purposeful.

Hedge Planting

Part of our hedge in 2016.

The other day we had a much needed break from the rain.  A day of sunshine with puffy clouds like giant spun cotton candy in the sky.  It was a short lived reprieve.  The next day our grey skies returned like a dirty plastic tarp on the wind.    The ground remains saturated.  The mud is everywhere.  And the smell of wet dog has become all too familiar.

Today promises a mixed bag.  Sun streaming through a rupture in the clouds and into the windows, brightening up this old stone farmhouse.  Bright blue skies peak through from down the valley.  Roger and I put on our winter-wear to take the dogs for a walk along the river, one of their favourites.  No sooner are we all set to head out when we spy a wall of filthy boiling clouds traveling fast up the valley from the south.   We dash back inside and wait for this patch of weather to move through.  We watch the cold sleet pelt the old slate of the barn.  The grey stones of walls meet the grey air passing through.  The greens and browns of grasses and mosses are lost in the precipitation.  The red berries on the hawthorn bushes strike brightly against the back drop of winter’s monochrome.

And as soon as this weather system came, it’s gone, a day of many atmospheric conditions.  No wonder the British love talking about the weather, it is constantly mutating.  Sunny with rain is an all too common forecast.   Speaking of which, here it is, the sun again.   As we stroll down the track, Millie and Brock, with tails aloft, trot on the hillside in search of scents and sticks.  Roger recently spotted a fox in the mid-afternoon up on this hill, so no doubt our two canines will catch the occasional whiff of this sly creature.   As we carry on, a flock of Fieldfares, perhaps fifty or sixty, suddenly take flight.  Their hideout, a bunch of riverside willows, disturbed by the approach of two enthusiastic collies.

I like Fieldfares.  They stand upright and move with purpose.  They are gregarious, roaming the winter countryside in large flocks.  When they perch in the open on gorse bushes or in the high branches of a Rowan tree, the air is filled with their constant chatter.  In winter when they visit us, groups of them are found on the open moorland, they seem to like the rough grasses and gorse which surround us.  Their presence indicating where berries and insects are to be found.   They like hedges, feeding happily on Hawthorn berries.  We’re glad our hedges are thriving.

Cloud cover at this time of year can sometimes be so thick I am only able to see a few feet ahead.  When that happens, my hearing becomes more acute.  Sometimes, the collective flap of Fieldfare wings can be heard through the mist.  As Virginia Woolf wrote, “The sound floated out and was cut into atoms by a flock of Fieldfare flying at an enormous speed – somewhere or other.”  However, I prefer to see Fieldfares diving about in their formation flock.  They are part of the winter scene.

Winter can be a time of scarcity, when wildlife ventures further in search of food.  We keep food and water out for the birds.  Fieldfares don’t come close into our garden to feed, preferring to feed on berries in the hedgerows and trees.  They migrate here, arriving in November and spend winter with us before flapping on.  Almost all will likely leave before they breed.   This spring, we hope for a big return in our Swallows and House Martins, numbers having been inexplicably down the past few years.

We do have a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers.  They have started pecking holes in search of bugs in a section of the Sycamore tree which shades Gin and Tonic Hill.  We like the idea this pair is so close to Crockern.  We hope they have a brood this spring.

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Fieldfare flock (photo found on Wikipedia).

A Brief Resolution

 

 

I’ve never been keen on making resolutions for the new year, largely because I have always broken them. Why set myself up for failing to get fitter, drink less, eat healthier, or fold my clothes like Marie Kondo?   I’m not alone.  It’s estimated over 80% of us who manage to make resolutions lose resolve by mid-February.   I get it. The very thought of a resolution nags “I must” or “I should”.  And if I don’t, I have failed, which is a lousy feeling.  It’s simply too much pressure.  What’s with all the hype if they so rarely work?

My resolution failings are in with the majority, but I wonder what percentage misses the mark within the first few hours of the new year?

Rather than making a list of resolutions, Roger and I have a slightly different tradition on the last night of the year.  We sit by the fire and explore the question:  “What are the areas we want to bring into focus in the new year?”  To do this, we each write on a piece of paper those things from the previous year we’d like to let go.  Sadness.  Anger.  Stress.  All the biggies which can get in the way of having fun.  We then burn the paper and with it, those burdens.  It may be a little new-agey to do this, but admittedly, it is very satisfying.  It’s symbolic and we both privately say goodbye to things that have been weighing us down.  We don’t discuss our regrets; we just burn them and then switch gears to forward thinking.

Next, we make a little list of a few items we’d like to do in the new year.  Again, these aren’t so much resolutions, but more guidelines.  We both agreed that we wanted to be more creative, tart up Crockern with specific projects, increase our travel, address fitness levels (okay, a little more exercise and less drinking come into this, which sounds perilously close to resolution territory), go to an Exeter Chiefs game, and try to go to the movies from time to time.  While we came up with these ideas independently, our 4-5 items where completely in synch with one another.  We’re off to a good start!

As we sat by the fire, discussing some of our plans for the new year, we both confessed that we wanted to be more patient about the things which make us nuts:   People driving up the track, climbing our stone walls, blocking our gate, or leaving poo bags in places  along the track that mean we either continue to look at them, or we have to clean them up.  It’s a big ask for both of us as our tolerance for what seems like completely oblivious behaviour on the part of the general public reached an all-time low last year.  Still, it’s not making us happy or stress free to focus on it, so we both agreed how we might go about “letting go”.

When I mentioned this intention to a friend, he quipped “I suspect it is easier for an addict to give up heroin than it is for any of us over a certain age to become more tolerant.”  Hmmmm.

Alas, he may have a valid point.  Day one of 2020.   It was a foggy holiday morning and we are enjoying a leisurely breakfast.  The morning air is chilly and there is a moody fog across the valley.   I’ve already built a fire and we are both looking forward to a long walk with the dogs after we finish a few chores.   It’s a lovely start to the new year and so far so good with our non-resolution resolutions.   Traditionally, on this day many people set out on a walk.  Eight-thirty a.m. and we could see we were in for a busy day on the footpath past our house.  Still, we were feeling positive about the new year ahead.

Suddenly, Roger flies out of his chair and shouts, “There’s a dog running in the yard!”

We are outside faster than imaginable.  Millie and Brock bark with excitement but are quickly stunned into silence when Roger roars, “NO!” at a black springer spaniel who had captured and killed our Wee-Cockerel Tommy.

We rescued Tommy several years ago.  He was a Bantam Cockerel, and about half the size of our hens.  Never once did he miss crowing his start of the day at 4:30 a.m.  Never once did he get up and about before 8:00 a.m., having woken everyone else.  When first introduced to our flock of hens, he stood his ground despite his size disadvantage.  A twenty-minute power struggle ensued between Tommy and the top hen.  After much chest thumping and chicken growling, the challenge ended.  Not clear who was the winner, but Tommy earned his wings and respect from the existing flock and us.  He was graced with black and iridescent green feathers, which upon first appearance rendered him rather drab – yet when the sunlight hit just so, he shone resplendently.  Always friendly toward us, the dogs, and our flock of hens, he never bullied, and was a sensitive little chap.   We always knew when we had a chicken who wasn’t feeling well as Tommy would not leave her side.  He was courteous and served his duty to his flock of hens with honour.  He also was fun to watch when he ran, swinging his feathered spurs left and right from under his body in a pirate like swagger. He has been a friend to all of us and to our hens and we’ll miss him terribly.

The encounter with the couple and their dog cut short our tolerance goal for the new year.     We had no patience for endless apologies.  We had no patience for explanations about how they were “unaware we had chickens,” their dog had “never done anything like this before,” and “we had no idea he could climb a fenced wall.”   No, we plummeted into resolution failure.  Our newly resolved patience as measured through limiting the use of colourful language was a fail.  We out Samuel L. Jackson-ed the man himself.

It’s true, eighty percent of people lose their resolve to making changes within the first six weeks of the year.  Some of us in less time than that.  Tommy the Wee Cockerel was murdered by our front door by an unsupervised dog who jumped our fence.  Roger and I failed with our first effort at improving our tolerance.  Given the circumstances, it was a big ask.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stoat Your Day Off Right

The other morning, I walked past Roger as he stood stock still and quiet in the back doorway.  His focused gaze clear.  Shhh.  Walk softly past.  I’m waiting to see something come out of that wall.

This particular wall is home to an abundance of life.  The rabbits who make quick get-aways when the dogs are outside.  Small birds making their nest homes among the narrow little cracks.  No doubt, the wall teams with bugs, worms, toads and loads of things we can’t easily see.   It must be an ongoing rave of tiny movements between the rocks and the mosses.  While Millie is chasing a ball, Brock is frequently sniffing parts of this wall, telling us there is a good deal more than meets the eye.  The plant life is spectacular.  Such a variety of mosses and lichen covering the rock surfaces it could easily impress a Japanese Zen gardener at Saihoji in Kyoto.

Crockern Farm Wall

It’s fair to say, Roger spots the majority of wildlife.  I may see it, but am often at a loss at identifying and naming. Roger sees, hears, and can identify the type of bird, animal and plant life easily.  It’s a skill I seek, but am most often off the mark.  Just when I think I can name the birds around Crockern, Roger will casually declare, “I just spotted a long-tailed blahdy-blah-blah”.  Lacking his skill set, who am I to question?

As Roger stood quietly in the doorway, his own wildlife hide, I crept up slowly to see what captured his attention.   He whispered coordinates of where to cast my view.   Just to the right of the Ash tree, down four stones and next to the tuft of ferns.  Do you see it?  There is a small, horizontal gap.   Watch that area.  This break in the wall, so easily unnoticed, suddenly was clear as day. The moss worn at the bottom of a decent sized opening.  Here is a faint, mini trail leading from the base of the hole out onto the yard.   Why hadn’t I taken notice before?  Millie and Brock frequently go sniffing about there. And while I chastised my untrained eyes, Roger pointed out the small movement in that particular void in the wall. I focused my attention and saw something.  A leaf caught in a clump of moss and fluttering in the breeze?  Then it happened again.  It was not a fluttering leaf, but a head busily poking in and out from the wall.  I too spied what Roger and the dogs already knew.  We have a Stoat!

Why this wall?  It seems a little close to the house.  Then again, we had a badger a few years ago burrowing about 30 feet from the front door. Unlike the badger or rabbit, a Stoat doesn’t dig its own burrow.  It’s opportunistic and will move throughout all the burrows and hideaways looking for prey. After it finds its prey, a Stoat will assume the home of the rodent it killed going so far as to decorate its new home with the skins and fur of said-dead-prey.  C-R-E-E-P-Y. That said, I suppose it is the ultimate in up-cycling.  With any number of stacks of logs, cracks in the walls, rock piles and the like, we’ve probably had a family of Stoats for some time.

Despite their approach to decorating their homes, they are adorable.  Those long and bendy bodies covered in a light brown fur on its back and a creamy white throat and belly.  Their tails tipped in black.  Cute they may be, this small little predator is just that, a predator. My thrill in spotting it was immediately offset with concern for our chickens.

Stoats are known for being well suited to hunting small rodents and rabbits. Bring it on little Stoat!  I just spent two days repairing the fourth of our six vegetable beds from rabbit damage.  Our local bunnies had burrowed up into the raised bed, despite a barrier beneath the soil.  I wouldn’t mind a small cull in this abundant population.

Our chickens are large hens, so should be okay with a Stoat moving into their neighbourhood.  And as long as there is an ample supply of rats, mice and other rodents, a stoat should be happy moving in and out of the wall’s hidden burrows.   Watching the activity at the bird feeders each morning, confirms a happy balance of supply and demand at Crockern.  Our chickens should be safely out of harm’s way.

One concern is stoats are known to eat eggs, but I’m not too worried about that since Brock occasionally does the same thing.  In Brock’s early puppy days, we witnessed him gingerly carrying an egg from the hens’ nest to the top of the hill.  Situating himself with a view, he would delicately position the egg between his paws .  Next, he would surgically make a small hole at the top of the egg, keeping the shell otherwise intact before slurp, slurp, slurping away at the raw egg.  Brock’s care in his thievery is impressive, as is his glossy coat.  Consequently, Roger and I check for eggs about ten times a day.  Brock and stoats be damned.

To encounter a Stoat before setting out on a journey is bad luck, or so goes the myth. As we stand in Roger’s make-shift observation spot, we both feel rather lucky to have spotted this Stoat and welcome yet another member to the diverse collective at Crockern.

What’s in a name?

’Tis but thy name that is mine enemy:
What’s Montague? It is not hand nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose,
By any other name would smell as sweet.

 

So sayeth Juliette, from her balcony, fully aware of the power behind a name as she poses this question to Romeo.  I can say, all these years later, her question of what’s in a name? remains.  And if she and Romeo had lived long enough to have a puppy, would they have struggled as we did to agree upon a name?

Nearly a year ago, April 2018, Roger and I brought home a puppy to join our Crockern family.  He is now fully grown into a beautiful, strong, affectionate and silly dog.

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But for weeks, we struggled to agree upon a name.   Dale Carnegie famously said, “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”  Now, I don’t know about that, but I do know names are powerful stuff, including a dog’s. It reflects personality.  It needs to be easy to shout across a field for recall.  But more, it says a lot about you.   Consider Fang v. Fluffy.

As a dedicated list maker, I was more than happy to create pages of name ideas in the weeks before bringing our puff ball home (no that’s not his name).   Roger and I considered each and promptly rejected most, and then all by the next day.  Hoping for some manner of inspiration we sought lists for dog names.  We dug deeper and consulted books on our shelves with Latin or local names for trees, plants, animals and birds.  One afternoon, I ran through an on-line list of baby names.  When that bore no fruit, I started looking at the names of authors, musicians, actors, you name it.  Briefly, each idea seemed pretty good until we thought about saying something like, “Sit (fill-in-the-blank-using-anything-from-our-really-endless-list-of-ideas)”.

How do people who have children do this?  How do they come up with names that will shape a personality, or certainly affect first impressions?  It is an onerous task.

Days before Roger and I picked up our puppy, I had returned from a visit to see my Dad.  My sister extended her visit as we were both increasingly concerned about Dad’s health and safety.  My Dad, known to many as Tom, knew Roger and I were going to pick up a puppy and had yet to select a name.   While chatting over the phone one night with my sister, our Dad proudly chimed in with the suggestion, “Name him Tommy!”  What could I say but, “Great Idea.  But Dad, do you really want a dog named after you?”  “Of course I do!”

But how could I? Roger and I have a Bantam cockerel named Tommy.  How could I name two animals in our lives the same thing?  That shows a complete lack of imagination.  Still, how could I let my Dad down?  Facing this dilemma I did the only thing I could, I lied.

Every time we spoke, my Dad would ask, “How’s Tommy?”  And I would say, “He’s great, Dad.  You’d love him.”  I couldn’t tell my Dad we didn’t have a name for the puppy yet. Our hope of inspiration upon bringing him home failed us.  With an energetic puppy with no name, I continued to tell my father “Tommy” was cute as could be and sent photos to prove the point.

We made an initial vet appointment and began to feel the pressure of not yet having a name for our young puppy.   The vet would want to know what to call him.  Puppy socialisation and training would need to begin soon.  We needed a name.

Our vet is a tall man and relatively young.  He worked for many years on farms with large animals before making the shift to the world of domestic animals (standing on a dry floor rather than in mud was a driving force as I see it).  He has an easy-going demeanour, floppy, curly hair, and a gentle giant way with animals. Roger and I both like and trust him with our dogs.  At this first appointment, he asked, “What’s this lad’s name?”  We confessed our inability to come up with anything. Without any hesitation he says, “I’d name him Brock.  He’s going to be a big boy.”

And just like that, we had a name:  Brock. It felt right, inspired in fact.  We didn’t need several lists, we just needed someone else to have an excellent idea.  I’d like to say Brock perked up his little ears and wagged his tail with delight with his new found identity.  Instead, he was blissfully unaware and tried to chew my zipper.

When we selected Brock, we thought he’d be a similar size to Millie.  And this is where the differences begin.  Millie never chewed.  Brock chews everything.  Millie loves to chase toys.  Brock loves to chase Millie’s tail.  Millie rushes out the door at night, barking away any evening predators.  Brock doesn’t bark at night, seeming cautious and a little uncertain; instead, he reserves his voice for the daylight hours when he tells every dog who passes the house to go away.  We have two very different dogs.

Turns out Brock (brocc, broc, broc’h) is Old English of Celtic origin.  I like that.  It also means Badger, and our Brock has a broad white strip up his nose.  He’s strong and, like a badger,  he has powerful legs and paws and loves to dig as evidenced by the state of our garden.  Millie chases balls and Brock chases the scent of all the subterranean life in the yard.

Up until my Dad died in August, he would ask after “Tommy.”  I gave all the training updates, and also included the truth.  I told my Dad we had given the puppy a longer name,  like a stage name for a cabaret performer:  Mr. Tommy Brock.  To keep it easy, we were calling him Brock for short.  My Dad gave a smile and said, “I like that name.”

 

 

 

 

 

Great Eggspectations

This ain’t no chick flick filled with love and romance, it’s a block-buster disaster at Crockern!  Our hens are not laying eggs.  They haven’t slowed production, they have stopped.  Even our new point-of-lay hens which I picked up about a month ago, haven’t produced a single egg.  In real terms:  No omelettes, no soft-boiled eggs, no cakes, no nothing.  Production is one big-fat-goose egg.

We have a mixed flock, not just breeds, but ages.  On average, each of our hens is capable of 250-300 eggs per year.  Our eldest hen, who is about 7 years old, may have slowed to one or two eggs a month, but she’s fed us well for over 5 years.  Our other 9 hens range in age from 7 months to 4 years.  On the low end of expected production, that is 3-5 eggs a day for a flock this size.  So where are the eggs?

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Over five years of keeping chickens, and we’ve never had this.  We have had broody hens, flighty hens, friendly hens and darn right angry hens.  We have nursed hens with coughs, bound eggs and uterine prolapse.  We have lost hens to natural causes and grisly fox, badger and dog attacks.   Our hens have laid soft eggs, weirdly shaped eggs, and the most beautiful, delicious eggs.  But we have never had weeks of no eggs.  Like any hard-boiled detective, I turn to our chicken library in search of plausible reasons for hens to stop laying.  Where is that book, bok, bok, booook?

The most common reason cited is diet.  But, we haven’t made any changes.   We are feeding the same pellets as in the past.  Our hens get plenty of bugs and worms as they free range all over the yard, including a drive-by feeding at the bird feeders.   And they have ample access to water.  For heaven sakes, we’re on Dartmoor!

We know three are busy moulting, but the others have all their feathers.  A quick examination shows all to have clear eyes, healthy coombs and behaving in chicken-y ways, indicating tip-top health.   None are sitting on the nest all day being broody.  In fact, none seem to be heading toward a nest at all.

Could it be daylight?  The experts say chickens need 14 -16 hours of natural daylight.  Okay, so in winter I appreciate the laying slows.  But this has been going on for months, beginning in the long days of summer.  We could put in some artificial light into their coop, but we won’t do that. The chickens love to roam all over the yard and I don’t want to force them into some sort of egg-laying drudgery with a light therapy box in the corner of the roost.  Being a chicken should be fun!

Two months ago, faced with a future of no eggs, I brought home six point-of-lay hens to up the egg game. When we introduced the new hens, we removed the electric fence since the rabbits had chewed through it.  The experts claim chickens love routine and a slight disruption can cause them to stop laying for a brief period. Do our hens really remember a month ago?  Two months ago?  How developed is a chicken’s memory?  Have our hens forgotten how to lay eggs?  Is this even possible?

Fed up with not having eggs, we hatched a plan and examined every inch of property.  We looked under fallen branches, up in the rafters of the barn, behind shrubs and even in the obvious nests boxes.  Searching high and low for eggs, we came up empty.  Ome-not-letting it slide and for two days, I spied on the chickens.  I watched their every move – worms eaten, dust baths taken, preening completed — to see if they have a hidden, special spot for a quiet bit of egg-laying.   Sadly, there are no secret nests filled with dozens of eggs, but their daily routines are poultry in motion.

I can hardly say I’ve cracked it, but when I mentioned to my friend Joanne that I thought they were on strike, she quipped, “Are they French?”  We are unaware of any problems with worker rights, hours or conditions, but we do seem to have la solidarité du poulet.

Roger and I are scrambling for an answer and it may be all in the timing:  Winter is coming; our point of lay hens may just not be ready yet; and, the old hens are on vacation.  If we were tougher, we’d be making chicken stew.  Instead, we’ll carry on providing food and shelter, keeping them safe from predators, looking for eggs in all areas of the yard, singing and chatting to them when we are out in the garden, and giving them a winter’s rest.  In the meantime, I’m keeping my sunny side up in hope we’ll have some eggs in the new year.

Atta Boy!

The other day, I collected Sam’s ashes from the vet.  They are in a “spreading tube” inside a box which is now sitting on top of a desk.  At the foot of this desk is a rug where Sam spent many hours sleeping each day.

Two weeks ago while I was away, Roger called to tell me Sam had collapsed at the bottom of the hill and was unable to stand.  His back legs failed and his quality of life rapidly diminished.  We made the difficult decision to put Sam to sleep the following day.

To know Sam was to know that he was a good dog.  He was a Border collie mix with long black fur, except for his little white tuxedo chest.  His eyes were a golden brown and could will you to open the treat jar.  He was a Jedi warrior!  Well behaved, polite to strangers, loyal beyond belief and in his earlier years, an all-around amazing athlete able to jump a five-foot fence rather than being lifted over it.  He could negotiate rocks, water, and other tricky terrain with ease.   Sam ignored the sheep, watched over the chickens and loved his walks.  He also welcomed and protected Millie and her endless supply of puppy energy.

He wasn’t always like this.  Before we rescued him eight years ago, he had a rough life.  He was found on the street and was scheduled to be put to sleep because he wouldn’t let anyone near him.  He had a long scar on the side of his body, and an insecure, cautious approach to meeting other dogs, people and situations.

When we moved to Crockern, Sam grew in confidence.  He loved his walks across the moors, and the open landscape helped him settle.  Just this summer, he took two ribbons in a local dog show.

We are intending to have our own ceremony to release Sam’s ashes.  The when and where are yet to be decided, but certainly on a dry and still day.  I don’t wish to be standing upwind as ashes swirl about on a strong breeze.  Roger and I need to decide whether we release all of him in one location?  Or, will we have several locations over several days?  Twenty years ago, I scattered the ashes of my dog Scratch in the bay at Provincetown.  He loved it there, having spent several summers swimming in those waters.  Even now, I remember my “ceremony” was all over too quickly.

Nothing prepares you for the loss of a pet, even as the eventuality of it creeps upon you with their decline.  This next step of planning how we will release Sam’s ashes is heavy as it will open our grief again.  As I walk past the box on top of the desk, I know that tube does not contain soft ashes as if from a campfire, but instead it holds a plastic bag of coarse sand with shards of bone.  There is nothing romantic nor the least bit comforting in this thought; but, that doesn’t stop me from saying “Atta Boy Sam!” each time I pass.

 

Best in Show

Roger and I don’t have children.  We have dogs.  We have chickens.  We have projects. We have different activities.  We have fun.  Never before have we taken the dogs to a dog show, but when our friend Ann came to visit from Taiwan with her six-year old daughter Luna, the local village dog show seemed a fun way to spend an afternoon.

“Everyone’s a winner!” has got to be the theme.  It’s a village dog show, not Crufts.  It’s a fundraiser, so I’m feeling relaxed about Millie and Sam’s performance.  Still, to up our game, I give them both a little brushing before we head out for the afternoon.

Scanning the village green, we see some friends, a handful of dogs, and the day ahead looks relaxed.  There are several categories, and I start our day by entering Millie in “Best Dog Under 18 Months.”  Millie is friendly when greeting the judge who looks at her teeth, eyes and ears. Millie doesn’t jump up, but she doesn’t stand up either; instead, she snuggles into the judge for a little cuddle.  I feel my heart swell with love for our little dog and think, “Way to go Millie, that’s how to score points with the judge.”  But, when we go to do the required walk around the ring, Millie jumps up on me, tangles my legs and we are nothing less than a disaster.  I console myself: “It’s just a village dog show.”

There are several dog breeds and sizes competing. The people – known as handlers – also vary.  Some of these people hold the leads up straight and do a little trot with their dogs, just like they do at Westminster.  Who knew we were supposed to do that?  I notice a woman providing treats as she moves through the ring, which borders on treasonous cheating if you ask me.  A feeling of competition is seeping into my relaxed approach and I’m questioning our game plan, or lack of one.  Why did we go first?  I should have observed, taken notes, copied a few of the more seasoned competitors.  Should I have spent more time teaching Millie how to walk while attached to the lead?  Why are there suddenly so many dogs in this competition?  Still, Millie is cute and well behaved, so we’re surely in with a chance.

That is, until a butterfly makes itself known.

The judge has now met all the dogs, she looks around at each of the competitors.  Several are sitting up straight, looking directly at the judge.   One handler, adjusts her dog’s front legs and tail.  I’m trusting our honest, down-home approach will prevail and Millie will walk away with one of those ribbons.  Before making her final decision, the judge scans the ring giving each dog one last look.  When the judge considers Millie, she turns her head and looks AWAY to watch the butterfly.  What is she doing, trying to blow her chances?

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Millie distracted by a butterfly.

Evidently yes.  Moments later, the first dog – a handsome and well behaved retriever – is called to receive his award.  Then the next dog, and another until all six places are awarded.  Mille, still watching the butterfly, is blissfully unaware of defeat.

All who meet Millie say she is beautiful and well behaved.  Such unsolicited endorsements have us believing she must be exceptional.  As Millie and I exit the ring with the other losers, I’m convinced this entire village dog show is rigged.  How could so many people who meet Millie be so wrong?  Still, it’s a fundraiser, and part of that word is FUN, so we press on.

Next up, Sam.  I enter him in the “Best Re-homed” category.  He’s clearly going to win something having had an unknown and difficult start before he landed on all four paws with us.  I look around, and there are just two or three rather average looking dogs in the ring.  My competitive nature in full swing, I tell his back story to the judge.  “He was scheduled to be put to sleep when we rescued him…. scar on his side body…took him a while to gain in confidence….”  Lilly well and truly gilded, I’m feeling quietly confident.

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Sam doing his best to be excited.

But horror of horrors, what was a ring of four or five dogs, is now about fifteen!  Where did all these other dogs and their handlers come?  Can you enter the ring once the competition has started?  Isn’t there a cut off?  And what’s with this little dog wearing a sweater to cover up its skin condition from being in the pound?  Where was that three-legged dog hiding?  And the one with the missing eye?  Still, we were in with a fighting chance.

Sadly, not.  Sam didn’t win anything.  We have two dogs who haven’t claimed even 6th place.  Deep breath.  Notes to self:  It’s a fundraiser.  Bigger purpose.  It’s not about the winning, it’s participating that’s important.

Next category: “Best Dog Over 7 Years.”  Since Sam can’t walk well these days, we stay in place and pay another pound coin to enter this round.  No need to repeat anything to the judge as she has just heard it all.  Now gone are those other rescued dogs with harder-luck stories than Sam, replaced by a range of dogs over seven years old.  Unlike Sam, the other competitors easily walk and stand.   At this point, I too am watching a butterfly and resolved to having donated another pound to charity when Sam receives second place.  Second place!

Before I know it, there is someone asking me all sorts of questions about Sam.  What’s going on, am I being interviewed?  No, Sam takes another prize! “Oldest dog in the show.”  Well I’ll be damned, my old boy dog just jumped ahead in the medals table.

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Oldest dog in the show!

Resting on our laurels and crafting a strategy to build on our successes, we sit out a few rounds:  best pedigreed sporting dog, best groomed, and best movement (This is about gait, not poop).  Up comes, “Cutest Eyes” and I enter Millie.  She takes second place!  We’re on a roll now, eh?  She next takes a respectable fifth in “Pedigreed Non-Sporting”.   I don’t even know what this category is about, but who cares, two dogs, four ribbons and I’m feeling proud, proud, proud!

I was wrong about everyone being a winner.   We tasted loss and it wasn’t as sweet as the rosettes we received which will soon find their way into a box.  With or without these ribbons, Roger and I know our dogs are best in show.  And in my hot pursuit to have our dogs reign supreme, we supported a local charity.

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Hey, look at our ribbons!

A Small Gathering

Sometimes, you just need a holiday.  It’s not necessary that it be a great distance, an exotic location, or even an extended period.  A few nights away, visiting friends is enough to help relax and restore.  And that is just what we did.

With our chickens secured for the weekend, Roger and I packed our overnight bags, Sam and Millie’s belongings, and a few gifts of flowers, wine and snacks into the car and headed out for a two-night stay with friends.   Road Trip!

Ian and Carol have a wonderful set up, living and working on twelve acres in a lovely house.  We arrived in time for drinks, dinner and an evening of catching up and sharing laughs.  The following morning was cool and sunny so we set out with the dogs and walked along the old Roman wall of Silchester, which is near their home.  Often on walks in England, I will think of who travelled along that route before.  Was it Jane Austen in Bath imagining bumping into Mr. Darcy?  Or perhaps, was it an Edwardian farmer gathering gorse on the moors to feed to her horses?  In this instance, I found myself considering the Roman Centurion who protected the homes along these walls.

According to English Heritage, Silchester is considered one of the best preserved Roman towns in Britain.  Growing up in Ohio, we didn’t have such things, suffice it to say, I’m excited.  These ancient ruins were the centre of an Iron Age kingdom from the late 1st century BC where once there would have been a significant town with houses, public buildings and public baths.  There is an old Roman amphitheatre, too.  The wall we are walking along would have been part of the ancient town’s defences.  But now, along parts of the path are hedges bursting with blackberries, sloes, and rosehips.

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Last year on our visit, we gathered bags of wind fallen apples and plums, returning home to make jam.  This year, we filled our bags with perfectly ripe blackberries and barely ripe sloes.  There is something appealing about foraging.  The idea of gathering food from the hedges, while the dogs run up and down the path, helps to accelerate the relaxing effects of a get-away weekend.   It slows us down, it connects us with the abundance of food on offer for free.  And, being out and about, soaking up vitamin D and eating several juicy blackberries lifts our spirits.  Glancing up at Roger, who is tall and can pick the higher berries, I laugh to myself with the image of him in a Roman outfit and helmet.  “Now, conjugate the verb ‘to go’.”

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As the day unfolds, Roger and Ian head over to a local farm to see the recently hatched turkey chicks, soon to grow to size for Christmas tables across the region.  Meanwhile, Carol and I take to pruning some of the garden.  It is a massive garden, and our few hours of cutting back the shrubs and deadheading the roses worked wonders, but maintaining this garden will require several days a week.  Sensibly, we call it quits and head to the pub.

English pubs remain one of my favourite places.  They are filled with people sharing a drink, perhaps a bite of food, and conversation.  No loud music or multiple TV screens showing sports.  Dogs are welcome.  And if the weather suits, sitting outside in a garden nursing a drink.  Honestly, it doesn’t get better than this.

Before leaving, Carol and I pick beans (we cannot successfully grow them where we are as it is too windy) and then head to the chicken coop to select a cockerel.  Roger and I have never had a cockerel as they can sometimes be mean.  Besides, hens can organize themselves just fine.  But Carol and Ian have three cockerels, and that is too many.  We select a Bantam who appears confident and friendly.  He’s beautifully coloured with head feathers about the ears making him look like he’s wearing headphones.  I’ve named him Tommy.

It’s a three-hour drive home, if we don’t hit traffic.  Our bags and bounty are packed in the car:  beans, berries, sloes and Tommy are all in the car with Sam, Millie and the two of us.  We make our way back to Crockern and strategize just exactly how we are going to introduce this small cockerel to our rather large hens.  He was fine at Carol and Ian’s, where they have a crazy collection of large hens, Bantams, geese and something that looked to me like a cross between a chicken and a pheasant.  We are hoping Tommy respectfully asserts himself in his new setting in Dartmoor.  Meanwhile, we can get on with making a crumble, some sloe gin, and putting some beans on the table to go with the rest of our dinner.

Now well rested, tomorrow we’ll get back to work.