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.
Yesterday, I lost the Eight Years’ War, in which, against overwhelming odds, I had doggedly fended off the suggestion that we should add equines of some sort to our vast and ever expanding menagerie. Horses. Ponies. Shetlands. Mules. Fallabellas. You name it, if it has four legs, a mane, hooves, and a face like a horse, then it’s been on the list. The blandishments have been many and inventive. I’ve been offered things I couldn’t possibly mention in a family publication if only we could just find room for these adorable little miniature horses or whatever.
But then George and Buttons arrived. Donkeys. About 4’ high at what I now know as the withers. Very charming looking chaps, with a stentorian bellow that echoes round the valley, and bottomless appetites for grass and carrots.
I have to say I can see the attraction, although I remain nervous around them – never have liked horses. Judging from the flood of responses to Sarah’s tweets and facebooking, most of the western world is aware that we now have donkeys, and what a wonderful thing it is we’ve done.
So I suppose I just have to share in some of the glory. My contribution is to have the most luxurious stable a donkey has ever owned built at the bottom of their field.
It turns out of course that there is a complication. There just had to be one. They are both what us equine owners call ‘intact’. And when a donkey’s intact you certainly know about it. Testicles like cannon balls, and a todger that brings sharply to life the phrase ‘hung like a donkey’. Unfortunately, the advice is that all this will have to change or we will have problems. I am pleased to say that this is Mrs B’s job not mine. I don’t mean she actually has to get down on her hands and knees with a scalpel and perform the operation herself (although with her obsession with all things veterinary it wouldn’t surprise me if she did), but it is nonetheless a complicated (and expensive) process.
Still – there is one upside. I won’t have to pay to have their 10 acre field harvested because their appetite for grass is monumental. And they seem to do a good job of hedge trimming too!
Hollywood A-listers would be envious of our life-style. Really. Get up. Feed the animals. Walk the dogs. Grumble about the weather. Charter an aircraft. Go to France for lunch. Get pissed. Fly back. Go straight to the pub. Get more pissed. Amaze the locals. Go home. Fall over. That’s us – mixing the best of the rural idyll with a truly Gatsbyesque approach to life.
And that’s what we did the other week. Lydd Airport – international aviation hub with acres of fabulous duty free shopping (acres of soggy grassland covered in damp sheep); a delicious breakfast in the executive lounge (instant coffee and a biscuit at the Caff presided over by Ena Sharples); boarding our executive jet with fully stocked drinks cupboard and on-board service (clambering through the broken door of a 35 year old Islander and cramming ourselves into seats with the foam stuffing bulging out of the edges); soaring into the cloudless sky, the soft purr of the Rolls Royce jets in the background (being jerked sickeningly sideways through a 40mph cross wind to the extraordinary height of 1,000 feet completely blanketed in cloud then thrown across the Channel with the windows banging open); a kiss sweet touch-down, into a private hangar and VIP fast track exit to a waiting limo, (slamming onto the ground so our breakfast landed later, screeching to a halt and falling onto the tarmac – most of us kissed it, walking dizzily through the horizontal rain into a deserted terminal with no cabs waiting).
And then to lunch at the Dunes au Loup – which was, genuinely, fabulous. Actually the flight was good fun too. I got to be co-pilot. Algy to the real pilot James’s Biggles.
The return trip was ‘such fun’ mainly because everyone had made a Herculean attempt to sample most of the restaurant’s copious cellar. And so was formed the Beckley Extreme Lunch, Conviviality, Humorous Entertainment, and Rudeness Society (BELCHERS). So stick that up your Beluga caviar, Cohiba cigar, Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne – George, Matt, Brad and Cate (the last A listers to visit the area). Beckley rocks!
If, 10 years ago, you had told me I would feel sad at the departure of a chicken, I wouldn’t have even thought it particularly funny. I might have thought you needed help. But here I am, mourning the removal of Mike as though my child had left home. Which, in a way, she has. (Mike is a girl, as you may know, but chicken naming is an imprecise art and no domesticated fowl should remain nameless until you can tell if they’re male or female. This would be like waiting to decide names for your children when they reach 16).
Two days ago, Mike moved out. Yes, she packed her water bowl, her bag of corn, tin whistle, train set, comfort blanket – well, maybe just the water bowl – and moved outside.
As an experienced chicken psychologist, I can tell you that if you were born motherless in a warm box, grew up in a cosy conservatory with lots of wood shavings, a heat lamp, and regular food, and the only other animals you had ever seen were a tortoise and a human hand, then the outside world is one hell of a shock. Think of the rush of unknown sensations: water dropping from the sky on your feathers; green stuff under your claws; the air suddenly really cold. And above all – the absence of your ‘brother’ the tortoise (if you’re a chicken who grew up with one then you firmly believe that you’re a tortoise too). Instead you find several really odd looking things with feathers, beaks and clawed feet that are far taller than your ‘brother’. And they move a lot faster. What’s worse, you don’t know anything about this until you wake up one morning stuck in a coop with these creatures because somehow, while you were soporific and sleepy the night before, someone moved you.
Given this trauma – I think you’d probably choose to stay in your hut for two days, and refuse to eat or drink. This is exactly what Mike did.
Her only comfort was that a couple of times a day, The Hand arrived and gave her a stroke. It brought chick crumb too, so she ate that. No sign of her low level brother though. Gone. For ever. You’d consider calling it a day and just lying down till it all ended wouldn’t you?
I’m glad to say Mike is made of sterner stuff. She’s emerged from the coop, and pecks about – and has slowly come to terms with the weird creatures she lives with now. The Hand is still a comfort from time to time. She’s discovered there are quite interesting things under her claws – grit, worms, grass.
I think Tonka’s quite pleased that his feathery friend has moved on. Sarah has tried to convince me that my chicken-parenting job is now done and Mike has successfully been re-chickenised after her Testudineous start to life. But I remain bereft.