Thursday, 22 March 2012

March Madness

Spring has arrived in our part of Dorset. We were spared a hard winter this year, so the transition was nearly imperceptible, unless you take notice of the signs. Like cock pheasants sparring - usually in the middle of the road, oblivious to cars bearing down on them. And the dawn chorus which has been amazing, though the closing act is a bit of a let-down: our little bantam cockerel crowing his high-pitched squeak.

Partridge are pairing up. Hares are moving too; the phrase ‘mad as a march hare’ refers to their boxing competition for breeding rights. Our hare population is so small, there appears to be room for everybody, so no fighting is necessary.

Our pheasants have started laying too - 3,000 of them. We picked up eggs for the first time today, and we’ll set our first hatch on the 30th. Egg collecting causes a kind of madness. Seven days a week, rain or shine, for the next three months. Mike has already poured me a large gin and tonic to help ease my trauma

It’s not just the animals that are pairing up. Our young underkeeper has a new girlfriend. The local farmer-oracle summed it up: “T’will pull a man farther than gunpowder will blow ‘im”.

I finished digging over the vegetable patch this morning, and then joined the throngs of gardeners at the feed store to buy my seeds and compost. We’ve used up all our overwintered onions, and have only a few potatoes left which are edible but starting to sprout. Home-grown vegetables are off the menu now until my early lettuces are ready. Dinner tonight is a leg of our home-produced lamb, and swedes which I stole harvested from a farmer friend’s field. He plants it to feed his sheep, but a few find their way into our kitchen. The same farmer has helped me solve Eudora’s chronic foot problem, and looked over all this year's lambs for me. I traded him a dozen eggs for his services, but between the shepherding help and the root vegetables, I think I at least owe him a cake.

This is Meaty. He's going to Ice Camp.

Eudora's daughter, Matilda, who I raised by hand. She's grown on fine, and is doing great.

Besides egg picking, the other spring chore on the gamekeeper’s calendar is vermin control. We have traps set for magpies, moles, crows, rats, grey squirrels, and foxes. I have a personal vendetta against the rats. Rats ate my entire garlic harvest last year and a good percentage of my potato harvest straight out of the garden. B*stards. They snack with impunity out of our chicken feeders and, most unforgivably, they have eaten the clutch of blackbird eggs out of the nest in our log pile.

This caught magpie is going to another trap, to lure in yet more magpies

Now I am on an unstoppable, one-woman rat annihilation mission: poison, rat traps, shovelling in holes. I even had a .410 laid out on the picnic table while I was digging over my vegetable garden because a rat kept peeking out from beneath a hedge. I got a shot at it and missed, though I think I scared an extra dozen eggs out of the chickens with the noise.

Gotcha! One down, about a bajillion to go...

Mike is trying to teach me to set snares for foxes. Snares are legal as long as they haven't got a self-locking mechanism. That way, if something harmless finds its way into the snare, it's easy to loose the wire and let it go. Podge the cocker spaniel can attest to this.

A fox in a snare has to be shot. Last Sunday morning I was in the shower when the phone rang. I answered it in case it was Mike. It was. He needed a shot gun to dispatch a fox. I got out of the shower, still wet, and pulled on the nearest clothing - flannel pyjama bottoms with cartoon reindeer on them and a fleece from our feed merchant with FLUBENVET embroidered in big letters on the front. A woolly hat on my head completed the look, and I drove up to the field, shot the fox, came home, put the gun in the cabinet, and got back in the shower to wash soap out of my hair.

What do I have to do to get one civilised Sunday morning with croissants and a newspaper?! Not be married to a gamekeeper, that's what. Although, now I have the unique distinction of having shot a fox in my underwear AND in my pyjamas. How they got in there, I'll never know...(aaaand rim shot! Thank you, Groucho.). It's March madness I tell you.

Friday, 9 March 2012

I'll have to ring you back...

Retrievers are wonderful dogs. In fact, I have three: two Labradors and a Flat coated Retriever. To say that I both love them as companions and rely on them as workers is a fair statement. They live up to their name, and will retrieve anything.

Spud, the Flat coat, in particular feels compelled to share all her treasures with me. Spud can be counted on to find anything and bring it back. A friend once dropped her favourite faux-fur hat without realising it, but Spud knew. Spud must have gone back for the hat. She came galloping up behind us, hat in her mouth, and presented it to my friend.

While Spud is fantastic at retrieving almost anything from shot game to ladies' accessories, mobile phones are not her best retrieve.  My phone fell out of my pocket when we were out walking. Spud sniffed it out in the long grass and even brought it back -

Well, what was left of it after a short time in her mouth. Why she's so gentle with game and so hard on phones is a mystery.

My "dead phone count" now stands at three: run over with mower, drowned in trough, eaten by overenthusiastic Flat coat. Who's got a great story to share about how their own phone died?

Thursday, 8 March 2012


We have our first sitter of the season -

Our little Japanese bantam has taken possession a clutch of eight eggs, laid by other bantam hens. We weren't looking to hatch any more bantams but this little hen has decided otherwise.

During my morning chores, I saw a blackbird sat on the nest she made in our log pile. It confirmed my nest identification skills to see her there. This afternoon, she was gone, but I found out what was keeping her busy this morning -

Rather than disturb her, we've abandoned the log store for the rest of the winter. Tomorrow, I'll go out and cut some fallen timber and stack it in the front porch, and cross my fingers that the swallows don't return to nest there before the last frost has passed.

We found another nest - inside the headlight of our Land Rover. The left light kept shorting out, and when the mechanic investigated, he found a tiny nest built in the frame, incorporating the wiring.

Sorry bird, but you'll have to find somewhere else to built your nest. The other side of our log store is free. Help yourself.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Back in Black(birds)

Spring has arrived, and taken up residence in our log pile -

Well, a pair of blackbirds (Turdus merula) have. And they've built a nest -

I always feel perversely proud when a bird chooses somewhere in our yard to nest and raise chicks. It raises the status of my unkempt garden and overgrown hedge to 'habitat'.

And I never get tired of watching a pair of wild birds rear their offspring. A common garden bird maybe, but the biology of pairing up, building a nest, laying and tending eggs, feeding offspring, which then fledge and go on to form their own breeding pairs next year, is extraordinary to me.

Expect update posts, if I can do so without disturbing the birds. I hope you like baby pictures.