I’ll start with the funeral. A month ago we buried our beloved, beautiful and so loving boxer dog Dottie. To lose such an important member of our animal family was absolutely devastating, and the tears continue. She is buried under a mound at Dot’s Spot – the patch of grass outside our kitchen door where she used to sit in the sunshine and check out the view. She’ll be there for ever in our memories and in spirit.
The weddings are looming – James and Hannah have chosen Swallowtail Hill as the venue for their festival style wedding with glamping guests here this summer. The other bride will be Annie – my daughter and Sarah’s step daughter – who has decided to take the entire farm over for a week in September to marry her fiancé Tim. This is as it should be. Annie was one of the very first animals to live at Swallowtail Hill, being only four when it first became our family home.
Meanwhile Spring is springing, albeit with tantalising slowness. The hedges are touched with tiny green buds here and there, the tips of the bluebells and wood anemones are emerging in the woodland, the glutinous mud of winter is showing signs of hardening up, and the cabins and cottages have been painted, cleaned, chimney swept and generally refreshed for the start of glamping season. Mandy the Gardening Goddess and her new assistant Young George have worked wonders with the veg garden, while Chloe the Chef has delivered vast quantities of the new range of Swallowtail Hill preserves, which are of course cluttering up the kitchen. That is an overt commercial break – we don’t normally accept advertising in this blog, but we make an exception for goods and services of unusual quality.
On the animal front, Tonka spent the whole winter in the fridge. This worked really well, except for Sarah, who had to share his hibernation accommodation in her office. I don’t mean, of course, that Sarah also spent the winter in the fridge. That’s just silly. The fridge lives in her office. Tonka woke up last week. The encouraging sign was that a) his working eye opened (sometime tortoise eyes get frostbitten during hibernation – that’s how Tonka lost the use of his other eye prior to moving in with us), b) he ate, and c) he peed copiously (so would you after three months). The disappointment is that he hasn’t had a poo yet, and woken up tortoises are supposed to. He is, instead, walking in a way we can only describe as constipated. To understand how a constipated tortoise walks, close your eyes, imagine you haven’t been for 90 days, get on all fours, put a large box on your back, and use your imagination. I will report back, with photographs.
One of the pet rabbits also had tapeworm. This is apparently highly unusual. At least a tapeworm with a rabbit as a definitive host rather than an intermediate host (I’ve no idea what this means but Anna-the-vet and Sarah appear to have a range of disgusting photos to support their findings and Sarah has spent way too long on some veterinary websites). As a consequence the rabbits have been wormed extensively. Sarah then decided to worm everyone else just to be belt and braces about it. I’m pretty sure she wormed me too – there were copious amounts of medicine around and dinner tasted funny one night last week….. Anna-the-vet – worn out with Sarah’s endless questions – has suggested I put some kind of parental-lock on the computer to prevent Sarah spending too much time feeding her obsession for all things veterinary.
Back to dogs. Mabel, Dottie’s companion for life, was badly confused by Dottie’s death. How do you explain that to a dog? So we’ve been as normal as is possible under the circumstances, and I’m glad to report she’s getting back on form. Dogs do grieve; we’re both certain of it. However, when the Anna-the-vet vet decided it was time for Mabel’s anal glands to be dealt with, I suddenly had urgent business in London. There are limits, even to my compassion.
Anna-the-vet is in a permanent state of near hysteria in dealing with Sarah. Sarah is unapologetic – she says Anna-the-vet likes the variety of conditions she’s presented with on a single visit to Swallowtail Hill. Where else could she enjoy an afternoon of dealing with Mabel’s anal glands, rabbits with tapeworm and a constipated tortoise!
Tonka is in the fridge. Actually, he’s in his own fridge, bought specially for him. He’s the only tortoise in the world who spends his nine waking months in a conservatory, and the other three in a custom fridge. We’ve never put him in a fridge to hibernate before and the research was substantial. But hey, we’ve all got to adapt to climate change, and Tonka is no exception. Unusually wild temperature fluctuations in winter mean his normal hibernation quarters – a large box with torn up newspaper in the unheated utility room – mean he wakes up when he shouldn’t. I won’t go into all the details, but basically he has to sleep for three months at a temperature of no more than 10 degrees and no less than five. This is much more easily achieved by using a fridge otherwise – we’ve discovered – you end up moving his box around the house in an endless search for a warmer/cooler place. So he’s got a fridge. And a customised Tupperware box to rest in, surrounded by newspaper.
The donkeys are not in a fridge, but they might as well be. We’ve had two weeks of zero at night so Sarah undertook (with the expert help of our local donkey-whisperer – Mandy) to get them used to wearing rugs. You’d think they’d appreciate that but they were distinctly unimpressed and it took about a fortnight to get them used to thermals. And my bank account about a month to get used to the cost of three pairs of different tog level rugs – one for rain, one for quite cold, one for freezing. The barn – space for man stuff in which, as you will remember, has been slowly been eroded by Sarah’s ever expanding need for camping kit – now has a very good workbench completely dominated by donkey blankets, donkey treats, halters, lead reins, chaff, oh, and the cat food for some reason.
On the positive side, we are now close to being able to have our own nativity. We have a stable, which the donkeys stand in when it’s truly perishing. And they live with the sheep. The shepherd pops in every now and then. I am not a hugely skilled carpenter but I could pass for one with my plane and my saw. Sarah would make a good virgin. All we need is a crib, a baby, and some wise men. We could find the first two, but Beckley is short of wise men.
So happy Christmas from the Swallowtail Hill menagerie.
Well, strictly speaking, the rabbit and the tortoise.
We have a lovely conservatory. Oak framed, filled with light, perfect for summer dining as the sun sinks over the western horizon, a balmy breeze flowing in through the French doors, candles casting a gentle glow over the table.
That was the plan. The truth is it has become the world’s most luxurious animal hospital. It has housed chicks by the dozen, abandoned lambs, soggy rabbits, and a sick goat. It is also, for the nine months of the year that he’s awake, Tonka the tortoise’s home. Tonka doesn’t like outdoors. He likes his heat lamp, his sleeping box, and an occasional career around the walls scratching the paint off neatly at four inches above floor level. He can’t be bothered to eat, mainly because he’s only got one working eye and the other one is of limited use so he often misses his mouth when aiming for his dinner and after a while he just can’t be bothered trying any more. So he has to be fed by hand and this requires considerable skill. He only eats dandelions, and a mush we make up from dried grasses and herbs. You have to tempt him with a sludgy morsel, wait till he opens his mouth wide, then aim straight and chuck a mouthful of food in. For every five shots on target you get about three in his mouth if you’re lucky. Feeding him takes twice as long and is eight times as messy as feeding a weaning baby. Added to this – as he consumes his food and the energy courses through his system he gets increasingly aggressive. The consequence of this is several sharp tortoise bites for the feeder. Me. Come to think of it this is again very reminiscent of feeding my children when they were teething (although for the record I didn’t feed them dandelions).
Once fed, he rockets around the place banging into chair legs. It’s a tortoise sugar-high in action.
He now has a companion, in the form of Mopsy (don’t wince – she was named by Sarah – do I really need to say more?). Mopsy, in spite of being vaccinated against Myxomatosis still managed to catch it – presumably by fraternising with the local wild rabbit population when she oughtn’t to have been. Looking as though her number was probably up I drove Mopsy to the vet to do the kindest thing, but it was decided that a course of antibiotics might shift the secondary lung infection and that she stood a chance. The vet asked if I’d like to give the injections. Ha! I am not Sarah. I have absolutely no wish to treat animals with anything. In fact it makes me feel deeply unwell and close to fainting. I assured the vet that Sarah would rise to the challenge – loving nothing better than playing vet.
Back home Mopsy has taken up residence with Tonka while she convalesces. Tonka has taken to chasing her round the conservatory. If he catches up with her he gives her a bite on the bum. She’s taken to hopping up onto one of the dining chairs to escape his attentions. It certainly seems as though he’s trying to woo Mopsy. Not sure how that’s going to work out for him. Is he envisaging baby tortoises with fluffy shells? Poor thing. Having spent a life in solitude it seems that it’s a case of love the one you’re with.
I can only hope Mopsy gets well soon and returns to her sisters outside where she will regale them with tales of the randy, aggressive, speedy one-eyed tortoise she shared her recuperation with.
I have hysterics every August. You may find the thought of family holidays stressful: elbows out for a seat on the no frills airline, the beach towel battle of the sunbeds vs the German tourists, being on permanent look-out for the children as they make friends with the most feral kids in the hotel pool, spending at least one morning of your hols in the loo after too much ouzo. That’s nothing. I get hysterics about hay.
Wild flower meadows are rare and enchanting, and ours are both in spades. But the one part of their management – hay making – is agonising. First, we have to cut the hay long after everyone else has cut theirs, so the seed heads have dropped. This means finding a contractor who is prepared to re-hitch up all his haymaking equipment just when he thought it was time to stop harvesting and go hedge cutting. Then we have to round up about ten young men for two days hard labour – loading, driving, and stacking the bales in the hay barns. In between we worry constantly about rain, and – bless the BBC and the Met Office – they don’t always get it right. Then we have to pay for it all, knowing full well we will only get a fraction of the cost back because posh horsey people with delicate thoroughbreds are fussy about rich, herby, (healthy!), stalky hay (see previous rants).
So my first anxiety starts in early August when I am frantic to empty last year’s leftover hay from the barns to make way for the new – so I pretty much give it away – in my haste to make space. But that was the easy bit this year….
I thought I had done a brilliant deal. I found a chap who wanted haylage. (That’s hay, wrapped in black plastic, slightly fermented, high in sugar and fed to cattle over winter). He seemed to have no problems harvesting late, no problems with the hay being full of herbs. No problems with money – none would change hands. No problems hiring humping labour. No problems full-stop.
Except….he did a bunk half way through the harvest leaving two thirds of the fields uncut, and one third rotting on the ground – in the pouring rain.
Cue hair tearing, crying, head banging, shouting, furious text messages.
And now we’re into September. This could be a real disaster – 25 years in the making, one winter to destroy.
So I’m currently waiting for a neighbouring farmer to let me know if he can take over this awful botch. If he does, I will love him for ever, adopt his children, get him elected to Parliament, you name it. If not – well, who knows.
Meantime – hope you enjoyed your holidays!
Having lost the Eight Years War (see last post), and with a couple of months of donkey experience behind me, I feel a sense of overwhelming self-righteousness. I am so smug I almost don’t like me. Donkeys are far harder to look after than I was led to believe. And they are about ten times more expensive. Here’s a list:
- 400 metres of electric fencing
- A contractor to cut and clear their field of grass as a matter of urgency
- More contractors to stock fence 350 metres to divide the field into two parts
- Someone to build them a stable
- Dividing up part of a barn so they have a ‘safe haven’ in our yard
- Head collars, crops, reins, leads and all manner of leather stuff
- A large library of books called ‘Know your Donkey’ and ‘How to cope with laminitis’
- A massive vet’s bill for castration and after-care
- Someone to come in frequently to train them (and us)
- A farrier every two months because their hooves grow so fast
I won’t tell you what this lot cost, but private education for one’s children would be cheaper.
Basically it turns out you can’t just leave a pair of donkeys in a field with their testicles intact to get on with life, in spite of the fact that that’s what they’ve been doing for the last four years. Testosterone makes them aggressive (who’d have thought?); too much grass gives them a terminal disease (their natural habitat is desert); the weather here is wholly inappropriate for donkeys so they need shelter (their coats are not waterproof); Mrs B has a burning urge to add to her extensive collection of veterinary textbooks; she also likes buying leather things on-line; vets are very well paid…and so on.
Donkeys are also extremely smart. It took them five minutes to work out how to circumnavigate the electric fence. They know, even from a distance of several hundred yards, if you’re calling them into the yard for a treat or for an injection. With obvious consequences. They never defecate in their stable (unlike horses, which apparently just dump anywhere). They they know that humans almost always have carrots in their pockets.
So I am smug but poor. And the donkeys are now in donkey heaven. And Sarah is happy browsing through her library and reading out all the Latin names for illnesses that donkeys get – and which will require the endless services of the vet.