Country Matters: Wanted - For murder most foul

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The Independent Culture
It was all too easy to see the line that the fox had taken when making off with its prey. A trail of white feathers, gradually petering out, revealed that our prize pullet had been carried away across the bottom of the lowest field. The raider had also killed her brother, a splendid cockerel, but, being unable to carry two bodies at once, had left his decapitated corpse in the farmyard.

Where were you, alpacas? When we bought Shadrach, Meshach and Abednigo, we were told they could be useful in driving off foxes, and several times in the past few months they have shown themselves to be conscientious sentries. They have advanced purposefully on foxes trying to launch daylight attacks, sometimes chasing them in fine style; but on that fateful morning they must have been high up under the wood, and it seems that the killer sneaked in undetected from below.

Murder in the farmyard always comes as a shock; but this raid was more than usually upsetting because the victims were the offspring of an exceptionally dedicated and skilful mother. She, a furry-footed Bramah, hatched three chicks in November - the worst time of the year to start a new family - and defeated heavy odds to bring them up. Cold, wet, cats, rats - she beat every hazard and reared a most handsome trio. The two pullets had almost reached maturity and were on the point of lay when an intruder at last got through our defences. For a couple of days the sole survivor hung around looking bewildered, before attaching herself to the rest of the flock.

Such minor tragedies blight our winter days. Yet there are also gains. At this time of year, when well-to-do friends disappear to Barbados or the Seychelles, those left behind on the land have to make the most of small-scale triumphs to raise their morale.

We got one such boost within a week of losing the chickens. Needing more hay, we drove off to fetch a load from the excellent Smith brothers who, as usual, managed to outwit the foul weather that persisted for most of the summer, and made a good crop late in July.

Back at our own hay-store, I shifted bales of straw so that we could stack our new intake satisfactorily. As we began to unload, I noticed Jemima, our young labrador, lying in Sphinx-like attitude in the middle of the yard, with an expression of huge self-satisfaction on her face. Closer inspection revealed that inside her mouth, intact, was an egg. We congratulated her, removed it and gave her a reward; but within a minute she was back with another treasure.

This time, using her like an outsize ferret, I went down on my knees and shoved my head along a tunnel created by removing a straw bale. There lay a secret nest containing 27 eggs, and beyond it, in the far recesses of the stack, another clutch of about a dozen, old enough - by the look of them - to excite a Chinese chef.

So this was what all the cackling had been about. For days we had heard and seen a hen emerging from the bales amid loud screeches, but repeated searches had failed to detect any hideaway, and we had started to write her off as an hysterical attention-seeker. Now we cleared the outer nest and put the eggs in a sinkful of water. None floated - if they do, it is a sure sign they are addled - and we have been enjoying bright-yellow scrambled eggs and omelettes ever since.

Another minor victory was to catch two rats simultaneously in the same spring-trap - a fluke that is not likely to recur. Because they were only half-grown, and fairly light, it needed their combined weight to trip the lever.

With the sky black and rain falling in torrents, it is easy to feel that you are under continuous assault - not only from the weather, but also from creatures great and small. It seems that if you drop your guard for a moment, disaster will strike.

So it was, when we let the sheep into the orchard to eat off the long grass. Too late, I noticed that they had knocked away a piece of wood that I had laid across the entrance of one of the beehives to act as a mouse-guard.

Heaps of debris on the flight-board showed that mice had got in and made themselves a comfortable nest among the combs in the brood-chamber. How they escaped being stung to death, I cannot make out; but I fear that their invasion has done for the colony.

Removing the top cover from another hive, I was disconcerted to find a scene of devastation inside. I had covered the brood-chamber with a sheet of expanded polystyrene, to act as insulation. Now, instead of a single piece, I found thousands of tiny bobbles. With incredible industry some animal had chewed the entire sheet into shreds - and even as I stared, the culprit, a minute shrew, erupted from the ruins, rushed to the edge and leapt into space.

Meanwhile, rabbits have excavated a burrow beneath the hive, badgers have forced their way under the orchard fence, and moles are running amok beneath the fields. In the vegetable patch unseen agents of destruction have stripped a whole row of parsley and eaten out the tops of the carrots.

We suspect the villains to be pigeons, and the pressing need now is to erect defences round the purple sprouting broccoli.

As I say, attacks seem to come from every side. It would cheer everyone up if a few hard frosts were to solidify the mud and made sodden ground easier to move over. But already winter is on the retreat. With the solstice a month behind us, daylight is stealthily increasing. I am still getting up in the dark, and sunrise may be only three minutes earlier each week, sunset three minutes later; but at this time of year every minute gained is a golden promise of better things to come.

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