30 December 2007

A Christmas offering

Yes, K did get the Maran she had wanted. I, too, had been keen to have a home-based producer of the lovely brown eggs of which The Farmer had given us two examples. In late September I answered an ad in the Hexham Courant, in time for a Haydon Bridge-based, personable-sounding lady to agree to reserve me her last two specimens until after my return from Bolivia, two weeks later. After my trip, it took several phone calls to arrange a viable collection time, partly because I was busy and partly due to the need to give the lady good notice so she could catch the hens. When the day came, the lady’s farm was not easy to find in the dark, particularly not after the first right turn off the road to Haydon Bridge led me, without any warning sign, up a dirt track and right up to the edge of a steep bank from which, had I not slammed the brakes in time, I would have plummeted to the bottom without any prospect of coming back up unassisted. But after that I got the right farm, found the personable lady waiting with the two Marans in a box, and I drove back listening to the subdued accompaniment of their sulky twitter coming from the back of the car. The lady had told me not to expect any eggs before Christmas. One of the new hens was for the Farmer, and he came to pick it up without delay. Fearing a hostile reception from the three older hens, I gave the Farmer the smaller one and kept the larger one, thinking her physical size would equip her better to face the bullying. We called her María.

It soon became clear that María was a different kind of animal. Her mistrust of humans knew no bounds; it was impossible to approach her without sending her into a wild run with loud squawking. This made it difficult to help her when she was being pecked at or forcibly excluded from meals. More critically for us, it made it impossible to herd her into the henhouse, or anywhere else. While Bob Johnson, Rocky and Delilah had always been happy to follow wherever you allured them with a handful of corn, María would not come anywhere near you, and would only bring herself near the other hens with the greatest caution and for short periods at a time. Had she had a traumatic childhood at Haydon Bridge? Or are all marans afflicted from birth by the same pathological shyness? The fact is that it was a very long time before María began to interact with other hens with a semblance of normality. About two months to be precise. By mid-December she was joining her seniors for meals and foraging. She had grown, she had become able to stand her ground, and she even managed to approach within four feet of you if you had some corn to offer, even if the movement of you throwing more corn on the ground would still cause her to run away, sometimes half-flying with her surprisingly nimble wings. The balance of power between the henly generations may also have shifted because Bob Johnson has be moulding for sometime, and at the moment she appears reduced to a pathetic wraith of a hen.

In the morning of 24 December something happened that was to change the hen dynamic in the household. When I went to check the nesting box I found the usual speckledy egg, but also a very small one, of a deeper shade of brown and with speckles similar to Delilah’s or Rocky’s. Only some of the hens are laying these wintry days, so it is hard to tell from numbers alone who was laying what.

On Christmas Day, alongside a normal egg was again an unusually tiny one, this time light-coloured and perfectly smooth, such as might have been produced by Bob Johnson. Was she emerging from her winter moulding and doing it with caution first? Or, more excitingly, was it possible that María the Maran had produced her first two? The thought was too attractive to rule out, and the unprecedentedly small size could be taken as evidence, albeit inconclusive. Later on, we noticed something strange about María: something was hanging out of her backside. On closer inspection, it was a pink, fleshy matter that clearly had come out of her inside, hanging heavily down almost to the ground. We tried not to think too much about it on this special day, and certainly not to look, but I was worried enough to phone the Farmer for advice. In reply to my message, he turned up on our doorstep. He looked at María and declared that nothing could be done for her. She would last another two days, he predicted. There was no fatalist air in these pronouncements; they were matter-of-fact. K reminded us of her uncle’s advice that we should avoid getting attached to hens.

On Boxing Day, the surprise egg was as small as the first two, but this one had no shell and was on the henhouse floor, not in a nest. María herself looked much better: the fleshy matter was not there anymore. We could not find a tasteful explanation for it, and a Boxing Day miracle would have seemed far fetched. We went to see the panto in Newcastle and forgot about María.

On 27 December María stayed in her nest. On 28 December I found her dead. I wrapped the hay she had nested in around her, dug a deep hole in the field and buried her.

María had a brief time in our midst and, unlike all the other animals, was not happy there. Her relationship with the world was uneasy at the best of times. She was more troublesome to keep than any of her peers and at times she caused some irritation. But she made an effort at Christmas time to show that she appreciated our care. The timing of her first two eggs could not have been better chosen. But the exertion proved too much for her. She was either too young or too weak inside to be productive. Gratitude killed her.

16 December 2007

16 December 2007

This incomparable corner of Northumberland is proving unique in more than one respect. As the rigours of winter bite, temperatures seem to reach lower nadirs than the official forecast, even those the BBC or Mozilla predict specifically for this particular postcode. After a diluvial November, the first fortnight of December brought welcome dry weather, but at a price: every day the frost gets sharper, the roads more slippery and the house more damn bitter cold.

Ensconced on the side of a hill and framed by the confluence of two rivers, the house is built into the hillside, some of its walls acting as a kind of rampart against it. Mysteriously, one of the downstairs walls has an arrow slit, even though there is nothing on the other side but the bowels of the hill. Was there no hill outside when the house was built? Hardly, since some of the upstairs is sculpted in, with concrete flooring laid directly onto the seemingly natural elevation. Only parts of the house have a downstairs as such at ground level.

This situation provides good shelter from the wind, but also puts us in the shade for much of the time, causing the ice to stay longer with us, sometimes not thawing at all. As to the squadron of builders, plumbers and electricians who once were part of the house’s ecosystem, they have taken their vibrant presences, colourful temperaments, musical propensities and sonorous voices elsewhere, presumably to a more pressing project, leaving us with drafty cracks unsealed, central heating unbalanced, and electricity very provisionally connected through a tangle of cables plugged into a socket at my feet in the study – not to mention the next stage of remedial houseworks we cannot afford to proceed to, such as tanking the said study, a room ‘unfit for human habitation’ according to the survey. And, believe me, the house is cold.

Even before any snow has fallen, the field is iced with a white coating that glistens under the moon and crackles underfoot with a satisfying sound, as if you were walking on corn flakes. Initially this experience would be available only on canine walks, first thing in the morning and last thing at night, but this week the cold has been such that the frost stays over the field all day. On the dirt drive, patio and paved areas the ice provides a treacherous rink where the postman’s van and any inadvertent visitors skate with unpredictable results.

I come out in the morning to find the henhouse all frosted over, and sometimes it is a struggle to open the door. The hens’ water freezes within half an hour, so we have begun to bring the dispenser into our house at night so the poor creatures will have fresh liquid water to drink in the morning. They now choose to lie in their nesting boxes, all huddled together. This unfortunate habit is not a result of the cold as you might expect, but an practice introduced by María, the Maran, who joined us in October. It was not cold then; the problem was that on her arrival the other three hens accorded her a fiercely hostile welcome, so vicious that at night the newcomer had to take refuge in the nesting boxes, away from the perching bars where the bullies lorded it over. Apart from sympathy for the underhen, this drama affected us in that the unusual amounts of hen droppings in the nesting hay forced us to replace the hay more frequently.