I was feeding the animals at an early hour yesterday when it suddenly got (even) colder and (even) darker and started to sleet. This was bad enough, but then it began to snow, great white blankets of the stuff. The hen said ‘blow this for a lark’ and went straight back to bed. The geese seemed unaffected, their orange rubber legs must contain some sort of antifreeze, and they trundled around the orchard as usual looking for apples beneath the snow. The sheep seemed quite pleased, it reminded them of their ancestral roots in the Shetland Islands. And the dogs did the goofy Labrador thing, and jumped about with snow on their noses being cheerful.
But I thought “OH NO! NOT ALREADY!!” I’ve never got used to winter. I know that it’s the time when the earth can rest, and we can rush about in bobble hats throwing snowballs and singing cheerful songs, but I just hate being cold. My experience of winter is that the fields turn into mud, and the water troughs freeze, and my fingers want to fall off. I love spring/summer/autumn but you can keep winter. For two joyful years we lived in Australia, and there they just missed it out completely. In Melbourne we went from autumn to spring in one easy movement, and it felt great.
I rushed indoors and lit a woodburning stove and put on my seasonal Nordic jumper, the one with knitted stags in it, and tried to get into the winter vibe. But then the sun came out, surprisingly warm, and melted all the snow. The hens re-emerged, the geese chased the hens, the Labradors had more jolly fun jumping in puddles and I felt too hot in my Nordic jumper.
We’ve been reprieved for the moment. But only for the moment. Winter is on its way alright, and I’ve got my annual desire to emigrate back to Oz which only wears off in March.
Out all day yesterday and back in the dark. And returning late to a smallholding full of resentful livestock in February can be a tricky business. I started with the sheep, who are normally the ovine equivalent of Labradors – soppy, friendly, love to be stroked. I put out their food and shone a torch to find four horrified woolly faces staring back at me – I was obviously the Mad Midnight Axe Man that their mummies told them about when they were little lambs. With one accord they did a starburst and fled into the night. I rattled a bucket, and tried to call them back but not a chance. I left their buckets on the ground and hoped for the best. The horses, after thought, decided that they would rather be fed by the Mad Midnight Axe Man than not at all, so although we had plenty of snorting and saucer-like eyes, they got their regulated calorie intake. The dogs were thrilled with starlight feeding, and zoomed about invisibly, getting in the way and discovering (and eating with crunching noises) all the eggs that the hens had spent a busy day leaving around the place. The geese were growling around the back door, wanting to go to bed (though won’t ever go there without an escort). They waddled in a wobbly line up to their house, and just for once were the easy ones. Some of the hens were in the hen house so that was OK. Duffy and Precious had perched high up in the apple tree, and are entirely streetwise, so that was OK. Beatrice, Eugenie and the Aga Chick (who was born on the Aga) were perched on a very low branch and that wasn’t OK at all. The early morning fox patrol would be guaranteed to spot them and polish them off in three lavish, hungry mouthfuls. So I grabbed Beatrice, always the trickiest, but this alerted the other two who hurled themselves into the gloom like a pair of feathery projectiles. The next hour was spent tracking them down to the (completely impractical) places in which they had crash landed, and returning them to their saner sisters in the hen house. And finally we had supper, which was cold, and wondered whether going out for the day in winter was actually worth it …
The cold snap (and my goodness it’s cold here this morning) has brought the animals’ feeding habits into sharp relief. Come to that it’s brought the surrounding humans’ feeding habits into sharp relief too. Slip is normally a shy and retiring personality, but he stands his ground against the sheep at feeding time. But if Harry even looks at him with a Special Look Slip backs off straight away and presents his food to Harry. Harry, who in another life was a buffalo, can make Slip go away any time he wants with body language but has no defences against the sheep. If I put his bucket down before his nose is securely in it, the sheep ram their bullet heads in first and then all Harry can do is look at a row of woolly backs. So he goes and bites Slip, but as I’ve said before all he gets is a mouthful of Slip’s very thick rug, which isn’t much of a substitute. So I have to feed all parties separately. Slip where Harry can’t get him (though no probs with sheep), Harry where he can’t get Slip and where the sheep can’t get him and the sheep where they can get Slip but can’t get Harry. It’s all most wearing. And then I get indoors to find that the builders are keenly waiting for their first cuppa of the day, and every single one has a different coffee/tea/sugar/milk combo and they are all indoors because it’s cold outdoors. I’m with them all the way there, but they are such a presence. I am writing this against a background noise of drilling/hammering/tapping and I just know that they are thinking it would be nice to have a second cuppa around about now. And I bet the hens water has frozen again already and they will be giving me the slitted eye “if you think we will lay eggs in these conditions you can think again” look. Roll on the thaw!
The hens and me reached an impasse this morning. It’s very cold here – somehow the bitter wind makes it feel even colder than last winter, when we had snow. I thought the hens should have a nice warm mash with boiled veg peel in it, like chickens used to enjoy when I was a gel. So at some considerable inconvenience I went and bought a bag of layers’ mash, made it up with hot water, served it out and waited for grateful thanks from the hen run. It didn’t happen. My hens are from a fast food generation and they like their pellets. They looked as disapproving as only a hen can (something to do with their beaks) and gave me to understand that if I thought they’d lay any eggs under these conditions I could think again. In fact I could whistle for them. And didn’t eat a grain of the mash. So there they were, cold and hungry, with a steaming pile of despised mash in their trough. Actually it isn’t an impasse, they’ve won hands down. I’m just off to buy another bag of pellets, and I’ll give the mash to the geese, who are already demanding it with menaces from outside the hen run.