Farming Life: The cock on the brink of death, saved by spending a night in the Aga

The chickens are reprieved and it’s keep calm and carry on with the calving, says our resident farming columnist Jamie Blackett.

There is very little good to report at the moment, but we can celebrate the news that Faith, Hope, Charity, Grace, Humility, Patience, Prudence and Chastity have had their lives saved as a result of coronavirus. These are our new hens (Chastity drew the short straw at the naming).

They were due to meet a sticky end, being coated in barbecue sauce in ready meals, after their egg-laying curves had started dipping, when the Quarter-master General returned from an unfulfilled visit to the supermarket and decreed that we need to get back into egg production pronto.

‘And, while you’re at it, you need to dig over the vegetable garden so we can get those seeds in.’ We have had to close the B&B and the holiday cottages until further notice, so it’s goodbye Basil and Sybil and hello Tom and Barbara.

We gave up keeping hens when the children left home, but now they’re back with us — when not conducting video-conference calls from the drawing room — the eggs are very necessary.

I had forgotten the calming influence of chickens. If I’m ever in a coma, they should play me recordings from the hen run of their contented mewing and clucking. I think I must find it comforting because my earliest memories are of going to collect the eggs at my grandparents’ farm with Mary, a wonderful eccentric from Co Mayo who had come to live in a caravan as a land girl in the Second World War and never left.

“I love hearing the sound of a cockerel calling above the dawn chorus, competing with the cock pheasants cock-cocking and beating their chests; it’s like adding a classical saxophone to the orchestra”

Memories of our children’s early life are also closely woven with chickens. They started in an Army quarter in Wilton. The chooks arrived — and promptly flew off, as I’d forgotten the old keeper’s trick of clipping one wing. Retrieving them from other people’s gardens was a very good way of meeting the neighbours.

Later, we had Pekin bantams, Napoleon and Josephine. Napoleon had a close shave when my sister came to lunch with her border terrier. The cockerel had a hell of a scrap protecting his family from the dog and ended up plucked, half oven-ready and badly chewed. After 48 hours in intensive care in the warmer drawer of the Aga, he pulled through, only to die the following year when he attacked his reflection in the water trough and drowned.

I mused about getting a rooster to keep the new hens company. I love hearing the sound of a cockerel calling above the dawn chorus, competing with the cock pheasants cock-cocking and beating their chests; it’s like adding a classical saxophone to the orchestra. And I like the way they strut about asserting masculine values.

The Quartermaster General was dismissive of this idea and said that the hens didn’t want to be bothered. I was rather hurt.

One member of the family who needs to be isolated from the chickens is our Norfolk-Lucas cross terrier, Pippin (left). Chickens must be the stupidest members of the avian world. Any intelligence has been domesticated out of them. Wild birds are much brighter and even display a sense of humour. The crows love teasing Pippin by flapping off to land just out of her reach and repeating it several times, causing her to flare across the beach barking.

“The contingency plan is to keep calm and carry on. We can always use the old remedy and drink colostrum”

Calving is one thing that has not been halted by Covid-19. Thankfully, none of us has succumbed so far, as the chances of finding someone else to come and work the calving jack are remote in the extreme. The contingency plan is to keep calm and carry on. We can always use the old remedy and drink colostrum, which is one thing that isn’t in short supply around here.

As I stand in the calving pen watching a cow eating pink-and-purple spaghetti, I ponder when it was that human mothers ceased to eat afterbirth. Presumably when nutrients became more readily available and we no longer had to hide births from predators — from too yummy to munch to too posh to push in how many millennia?

The last jaunt before lockdown — a distant memory now — was to Yorkshire to speak at the Bedale Hunt end-of-season dinner. I was reassured by how the farmers spoke highly of their local MP, one Rishi Sunak.

After being elected, he was put on a crash course in farming by some of the elders of Wensleydale. They say he passed with flying colours. But the highest praise came from my old friend, Trots, recently retired district commissioner of the Bedale branch of the Pony Club. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is apparently a top Pony Club Dad who mucks in and is always there at the end of a rally to put the jumps away. You don’t get a better reference than that.

Jamie Blackett farms in Dumfriesshire and is author of ‘Red Rag to a Bull — Rural Life in an Urban Age’.


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