New beaks for old


Vivien Aspey keeps hens and other animals for pleasure...

“If she lays an egg, I’ll have to get the camera”, splutters Dave, our long-suffering vet. Apparently unconcerned at the recent loss of a wing, the Wingless Wonder hops out of her cardboard box. She looks around, with those staccato head movements typical of hens, then deposits the remains of a morning’s foraging, neatly packaged, on a spotless examination table.As her owner, and owner also of the dog that helped himself to one live chicken wing, I feel a sense of responsibility.Dave, meanwhile, has noticed Wingless’ use of the exposed wing stump for balance. “As long as there’s no infection,” he says, “she could well be ok. I think we should leave her as she is.” Trusting his judgment completely, I nod as he injects an antibiotic. A light dusting of antiseptic powder, and lo! another hen that will never make it to the dining table. Even her eggs will be suspect for a few days, assuming she ever lays again after her traumatic encounter.  Driving home up our pot-holed track, I pass John, whose family has farmed nearby for generations. He stands back to let us pass. “Ah could’ve wrung its neck for nowt!” he offers, but his wry smile tells me he knows what my answer will be.As I settle Wingless in the utility room for the night, I think about the many lost animal causes we’ve won, about creatures that would never have survived had our interests been purely commercial. Like a growing number of people, my partner and I, both in full time employment at the time, left suburbia some eight years ago with the specific objective of keeping more animals, for pleasure rather than profit. Our smallholding, a converted barn with a modest amount of land in the Pennines, is now replete with geese, hens, three cockerels, two ponies, Guinea pigs, rabbits, numerous dogs and cats and, thanks to an admittedly eccentric passion of mine, 10 fancy rats. These last may not appeal to everyone, but apart from their obvious intelligence, cleanliness, sociability and sheer charm, they’ve given us valuable insight into how to manage the wild rat population rather than have to exterminate them every year.Most of our animals have been rescued in one way or another – adopted from the RSPCA, intercepted en route to one of many other rescue organisations, accepted from friends or neighbours whose circumstances have changed in ways affecting their ability to keep livestock, or just accommodated when they turned up in the garden.Smartie, our Shetland pony, came from the streets of Bradford where he was found literally wandering around and his ecstatic first meeting with our Welsh Mountain pony Dylan, once destined to become pet food, was the stuff of films. Years later, their obvious pleasure in each other’s company lightens even the most grey, drizzly Pennine morning. Horizontal rain was invented here, yet these ponies are suited to the climate and terrain and have settled in well.Moving inOur settling in to the local community has required rather more conscious thought. Not trying to change everything and keeping our heads out of other people’s business, while maintaining an informed and friendly interest, have proved crucial to being acceptable ‘incomers’. Mutual tolerance has been our motto so, for example, when we didn’t complain about our neighbour’s cows breaking through his fencing and blundering into our garden, he in turn didn’t complain when our ponies returned the compliment.Not that our arrival in the neighbourhood was auspicious. Soon after we moved in, on a dark and snowy November night, I got my car stuck in someone’s field. Then, only days later, one of our dogs acted completely out of character and mauled a pregnant ewe. It wasn’t simply our paying the vet bill, and the birth weeks later of two healthy lambs, that saved our reputation, it was also that our dogs are now walked on extending leads and never seen out unsupervised.Of course, disputes arise in every community, but our golden rule is to take an interest without taking sides. Generally, words and, very rarely, violence, rage over land, water, livestock or marital vows, in that order. But every New Year, most problems dissolve in the local hostelry where you need to preserve a degree of mental alertness to avoid emerging as the new owner of a pig or even a llama.Homeless duckIn our case, we tend to be targeted about animals in dire straits, which is how we came by Fergus, the gallant Welsh Harlequin drake, and his two ladies. They were homeless until we heard of their plight. Soon, they imprinted themselves in many ways on our household.Despite having been given board and lodging, Fergus’ behaviour had been far from gallant that day, when I looked out the back window and saw him flattening one of his ladies in the mud. Knowing how attentive to females drakes become in the breeding season, I thought little of it until 10 minutes later, they were both still scrabbling around, filthy. In spite of the cold and rain, I set off down the garden to investigate. A stench of more than just mud hit me as I bent down to Mrs Duck, now abandoned as Fergus quarrelled with me from a safe distance. I realised that her legs wouldn’t support her and that she must have spent the night rolling round the excremental floor of the duck hut. Fergus had misinterpreted her supine posture as a sexual invitation...During the trip to the vet, my rapid transit through the waiting room was accompanied by muffled greetings and averted faces. Even Dave looked unforgiving. I managed to communicate through the scarf round my face that the duck had ‘gone off her legs’. I’d heard this said of sheep and hoped it would lend my visit a degree of respectability.Dave quickly acclimatised to the stench and examined the big duck with admirable professionalism. He said her temperature was off the scale. “We need to get it down or she’s had it. Shame – she’s beautiful.” I wondered how he could tell. There followed the usual injections, feeding instructions, and advice to keep her very warm.On my way back from the vet, I was determined that Mrs Duck would recover, but if she had to stay in the house, then the essence of slurry pit would have to go. First I gave her a shower. I thought she’d take off in fright but she settled down in the shower tray and seemed to appreciate the warm water. Then, rather than up-end her in the shower and spoil her growing trust, I filled the wash hand basin and sat her in it to bathe her undercarriage. Finally, I towelled her as dry as I could, leaving only a faint aroma of clean duck.I converted the front porch into an intensive care unit, carpeted with thick layers of newspaper and maintained at a stifling temperature. The heat, of course, enhanced the whiff that even the cleanest duck generates. Some 10 days later, Mrs Duck seemed to be under the impression either that she was human or that I was a duck. She started to follow me around the house, quacking, and I decided it was time for her to rejoin Fergus.Very sadly, a year or so later, this delightful trio was killed by a fox after ill-judgement persuaded me to part with them to someone who kept poultry on a larger scale. Although losing birds to a fox is all too familiar, even to small scale enthusiasts, and can sometimes be difficult to prevent, ever since then, I’ve vowed that any animal that comes to me stays for life. And I prolong that for as long as is compatible with the animal’s quality of life.Homeless cockerelThis commitment has proved quite demanding as people in the neighbourhood have encountered problems with their livestock. We acquired Bernard, a Marans cockerel being bullied by another cockerel called Angela (see similar confusion below) in his yard of origin. A fine fellow, he came to us as the Biddable Bernard but now resides as Nasty Nardo. Being allowed to run with hens of his own was a cathartic experience for Bernard.Susceptibility to splendid male plumage must be why, around the same time, we decided to keep two Black Leghorn cockerels masquerading as gangly hens for the first few months of life (shades of Angela).At first, all went well between Bernard and the striplings, (re)named Jacob and Esau. All the same age and brood, unlike their Biblical counterparts, the brothers got on well. They looked up to Bernard as the patriarch. Inevitably, though, the passage of time began to tip the balance from patriarch to ageing rooster and increasingly, Jacob or Esau would square up to the older bird.Then I noticed Bernard having surprisingly little impact on the level of food in his hopper, despite pecking at it enthusiastically. When I looked more closely, his beak appeared to be stuck open. We waited till dark, to discover by torchlight that the top half of his beak had parted company with his head and was set at a crazy angle. Presumably during one of their battles, Bernard’s beak had proved unequal to the fight with Jacob or Esau. How could a bird cope without a beak? I was apprehensive.Next day, Dave was much more optimistic. I was astonished to learn that Bernard’s beak could be glued back together or artificially repaired under anaesthetic. We would keep him on antibiotics for a few days first, then he would be ready for surgery.So we fed him milk and bread pulped to a consistency that could be squirted down his throat with a syringe. Bearing in mind we were handling a full grown, still weighty cockerel with a Jekyll and Hyde personality, the process was energetic, noisy and unimaginably messy. The only consolation was that Bernard seemed to realise he was in difficulty and adapted quickly, so much so that when we took him back for his operation the vet was delighted: Bernard’s beak had started to grow back and no longer required surgery.Two weeks later we returned him to a harem of his own, separate from the young upstarts. Our reward is that, top of the pecking order again, he has reverted to type and we have to go armed with a dustbin lid to collect eggs. But at least we now know why.Sentimental?Some people would probably have consigned Bernard to the pot, and there are people living around us, mostly of traditional farming stock, who might describe our attitude towards animal husbandry as sentimental. However, one of the most pleasing aspects to us as ex-townies of our still relatively new country living experience is the fact that indigenous country dwellers have accommodated our attitudes without judgment. For our part, we recognise that the buying of farms and barns by people who don’t rely on the land and livestock for their livelihood has challenged ways of living that have lasted for centuries. Intentionally or not, we’re part of a wave of change that is altering the countryside and what can reasonably be assumed to be the views of those who live there. We try to play our part responsibly and with proper appreciation of the environment in which we are privileged to live, but the reality of living in places like this is complex.On the one hand, we have neighbours who are farmers and quite apprehensive about the impact of the Common Rights of Way Act, excessively so, it seems to us, as walkers. On the other hand, a farmer who for years has used large old lorry containers in his fields to store winter feed now finds himself on the receiving end of complaints to the council by incomers that the containers are an eyesore. To him, this seems unreasonable behaviour by people who haven’t lived in the area for even one generation. Now, all country dwellers are finding that nothing stays the same. Animal welfare legislation, for instance, will affect livestock farmers, but also have consequences for all keepers and breeders of birds and animals generally. One of the most seductive temptations we’ve encountered since moving here is to take a break from, if not actually give up completely, the attempt to understand the complexities of modern life, and just focus on looking after the animals and getting the best out of our vegetable patch.The two of course interact to become a very grounding experience, an opportunity to return to first principles of birth, life, death, the seasons coming and going and the waxing and the waning of light. We need no calendar to keep track of the year as egg laying rates increase and decrease, breeding seasons come and go, and the ponies’ coats change colour and thickness.Even if you work in the ‘real’ rest of the world, watching a goose incubate her eggs for 30 days, then abandon the ones developing in their shells to bring those that have hatched to maturity, restores a sense of proportion, context and sharp reality otherwise lost in modern living. The paradox is that, however sentimental our attitude, the experience of looking after our charges is an antidote – witness the geese in the rearing of their young, or the hundreds of tadpoles that hatch from frog spawn in the garden pond to grow into very few adult frogs, the rest providing fodder for birds and other foragers.We have much pleasure in a lifestyle that we know wouldn’t suit everyone. Although sometimes the tales we tell at work of our recent challenges cause people to shake their heads in disbelief, we enjoy a richness in life outside work that beckons more enticingly as each year passes, and our focus centres more and more on the many forms of life with which we share the planet.  This article is from the November 2006 issue of Country Smallholding magazine. << To order back issues click the link to the left.