Spectator: Quailing in my boots

The children want a new animal.

The conversation started like this: ‘Shall we get some sheep?’ ‘No.’ ‘Cows?’ ‘No.’ ‘Donkeys?’ ‘No.’ ‘A goat? I’ve always wanted a goat.’ I am walking with Will, who is now on his gap year.

I’m not really ready for a second gap year, having only just completed Olive’s, and we’re going through the same early months: failed driving test, attempts to find a job, endless research into long-haul flights and an empty fridge. The only major difference is that Extreme Fishing with Robson Green has replaced Friends as the television programme of choice.

‘What about an alpaca?’ ‘NO.’ ‘An ostrich?’ These are apparently as feed efficient as pigs or poultry, with protein-rich meat. He’s reading off a website. ‘NO.’

Yesterday, the cat caught a partridge and a badger killed two of the chickens.  More bird death was only averted because Zam heard the commotion in the chicken run and grabbed a torch. The badger ran off instead of trying to bite Zam’s leg, which is fortunate, because I’m told that one must always put a stick in your gumboot if you’re going to take on a badger, which will only let go when it hears the bone break. The stick is in lieu of your tibia. Zam was barefoot.

We are now down to seven chickens, a guinea pig, a cat, a dog and a wasp’s nest. I feel this is quite enough, but I need to be on my toes. Will can be very persuasive.

‘Look at this.’ He is now googling emus. ‘You get meat, eggs, skins and feathers… and emu oil is a great moisturiser.’ I leave the room.

In order to get a step ahead, I visit the local livestock auction, just to see how much a calf costs and what you get for your money. I take a friend who isn’t an animal lover and who won’t be taken in by charming eyes and wet noses. We stand for as long as we dare while the animals are sold, but we’re terrified that we’ll somehow come home with a blue heifer, because they seem to be sold in the blink of an eye. Literally. We can see no other body movements at all.

I tell Will that I’ve done thorough research and my findings are that sheep need to have their bottoms cleaned and you can’t have a single cow, but need two, in a cycle that is never ending. A goat will jump into the neighbours’ garden, dislikes being tethered and, as a herd animal, would like a companion.

Although I have read somewhere that, worldwide, more people now drink goat’s milk than cow’s milk, we are not those people. I am not going to weave scarves from alpaca wool. And we are definitely not going to get an emu.

‘Quail?’ I hesitate, because I love quail’s eggs. Further research is worryingly positive: the birds are easy to raise and lay prolifically, the eggs are full of vitamin D and antioxidants, they need little space, eat the same as the chickens… I can’t find anything to put the brakes on this idea, apart from the fact that they’re timid and, if spooked, will fly straight upwards and are impossible to catch. They get a bonus point for thriving on a drop of cider vinegar in their water—God knows, we’ve got enough of that.

About the only negative aspect of keeping quail is that the eggs are fiddly to peel, which doesn’t seem like a deal-breaker. I ring a friend who I know has kept quail before, hoping for some ammunition for the No campaign. ‘Do let me know where you get yours,’ she says. ‘I’m definitely getting some more.’ I ask her for the downsides. ‘Can’t think of any,’ she replies. I keep this information to myself. Will and I go to shut in the hens and stare at the field beyond them. ‘What do you think we need?’ he asks. ‘Daffodils,’ I reply. ‘And a job.’

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