Birds and booze


Obscure skills you didn’t know you didn’t have but wouldn’t mind being good at the next time these things are handed out: No. 19) Chicken-whispering. It isn’t as easy as it looks. Just fending off the little buggers’ murderous attacks, even though you have nothing but love in your heart, is pretty difficult. Last weekend I was down in Sussex with some friends, ‘helping’ hen-, goat- and dog-sit, which – in the planning stages at least – was almost indistinguishable from turning up at a nice house for a weekend of wine, chats and country walks.

We arrived down at Saturday lunchtime trying to look primed with rural lore and wisdom, but once you’ve thrown some beans over the fence at the goats and asked your host 500 times when you can go and collect eggs, that’s pretty much it on the animal husbandry front. Which leaves the rest of the afternoon free to amble along lanes, urge the dog into muddy rivers and hoover the hedges for blackberries.

Morning and evening are the real high points in the chicken-sitter’s day, I discovered. In the evening you just go and shut them up in their coops, whence they have happily repaired under their own steam with the going down of the sun. In the morning, you’re talking a very different kettle of fish. In the morning you hasten out in your nightie and wellies, you and your two best ladychums, with an unintelligibly written list of instructions and a warning shouted from the kitchen window: ‘Watch out for the bantam cock – he’s a vicious little bastard.’

For those who don’t know, a bantam cock is roughly the size of a pint of milk. They’re nasty anyway, but put them beside monster chicks like yer average, amiable Light Sussex, and it’s small-man syndrome to the max. A kind of Bantam Begbie, if Begbie liked flying with beak and claw into people’s faces. Pal Lucy was wise to the ways of the VLB having been attacked the day before, and confidently armed herself with the broken plastic rake that lives propped up by the gate. Thus prepared, in we crept, bunched and wary like a trio of Elmer Fudds hunting wabbit.

We spent a few minutes making neither head nor tail of the list and periodically shouting, ‘Where’s that little psycho?’ because he was small enough to hide in the longish grass, until we’d approximately fed, watered and let them all out to roam free. Back we thundered to the kitchen, only to be told that I’d missed a bit from the Bewildering List of WhatDoesThatSay.

The rules of sisterhood clearly state that you don’t let another woman’s chickens wilt, so out I went again. Alone.

It seems that from that particular kitchen window you can get a reasonably good view of someone – perhaps sporting an alluring, Jethro-dun-a-bad-thing, pyjamas-and-wellies combo – capering about the field wildly waving a broken rake and apparently shouting at the ground, which is good to know. Still, nine eggs and no one blinded; that’s a pretty successful weekend in my book.


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