Country Life: Sleep disturbed by sheep

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The Independent Online

Whoever it was who first decided that counting sheep was a good way of hastening the onset of sleep almost certainly didn't live in rural Herefordshire.

Whoever it was who first decided that counting sheep was a good way of hastening the onset of sleep almost certainly didn't live in rural Herefordshire. The field next to our house is full of them, and from twilight to dawn they make an extraordinary racket, knocking firmly on the head the notion that the countryside at night is more peaceful than the town or city, although I suppose if I'm going to be kept awake, rather noisy ewes than noisy youths.

During the day the sheep seem much quieter, though maybe that's because I'm not trying to get my head down. Unless I've had a couple of lunchtime pints of Dorothy Goodbody's ale, that is, in which case not even a field full of mechanical diggers could keep me awake. Now there's a horrible thought - a field full of mechanical diggers.

When we bought this house we were more or less assured by the vendor that the wonderful westerly view, unsullied for 100 years or more, was protected by the law, the SAS, the secretary-general of Nato and the Edict of Nantes. And in fairness, nothing has happened to suggest that it won't stay the same for the next 100 years.

All the same, I still feel twinges of Nimbyish anxiety, when I read, for example, that John Prescott has given the go-ahead for 300 caravan parks. Which is why it's reassuring when spring arrives and Mother Nature, the patron saint of continuity, gets her pinny on. She'll see off the developers with her rolling-pin.

In the meantime, you can't have a rural idyll without sheep, and even those who prefer their lamb with mint sauce would have been charmed by the spectacle I saw yesterday: two fluffy little guys playfully butting heads. Not for the first time I reflected on how unfair it is that adorable little lambs grow up - those that are given the opportunity - into daft, ugly sheep. But maybe they think the same about us.

The other way in which spring is making its presence felt round here concerns our chickens. We used to assume that it was the dark winter months when free-ranging chickens were most vulnerable to rampaging foxes, but apparently it's between March and May, when the vixens are feeding their young.

Last week, two of our bantams went missing, presumed dead. One was a Buff Rock and the other a Gold Sebright, which had gorgeous brown feathers edged with black. Visitors used to congratulate us on her plumage, as though we were responsible for it. So she's a sad loss, and we will miss her eggs, which were about the size of large grapes.

Still, at least our Cream Legbars have started laying. And their eggs are an amazing bluey-green, which look splendid against the standard-issue brown ones in the egg basket. I don't know much about interior design, but I did once read that the best designers, when matching colours, are inspired by nature. They should see our egg basket.

My wife recently spent a weekend in a Dorset cottage with her fashionable girlfriends from Crouch End and, since she was Saturday breakfast monitor, took a dozen of our eggs. The girls cooed over the Cream Legbar eggs as they might over a pair of Manolo Blahniks.

The Cream Legbars live with the Warrens and the Marans in a large run where foxes, in theory, cannot get at them. But if a fox wants to badly enough then I'm sure it will. I keep thinking back to the warning dolefully given us by a veteran poultry-keeper who had doubtless seen too many Clint Eastwood films. "The fox only has to get lucky once," he grunted. "You've got to get lucky every day."

Our friend Jane knows this only too well, having recently suffered the unpleasant experience of finding four of her chickens headless. A neighbour advised her to leave the corpses where they were because the fox would come back the following night and carry them off, which is exactly what happened. So in a way we count ourselves lucky that we didn't find grisly remains of the Buff Rock and the Gold Sebright. On the other hand, we might have been able to save enough of the Sebright to turn her into a cushion.

Maybe it's the amount of time I spend on First Great Western trains that makes me unusually alert to the sights and sounds around me. By the time you're spending your fifth hour of the day on a train, and your laptop's run out of battery, and you've read everything in the newspaper twice, and you've had a little kip between Kingham and Charlbury, there's nothing much to do but surreptitiously watch and listen to your fellow passengers.

Heading for Worcester Shrub Hill last week, I sat at a table with three jolly middle-aged women, two of whom had perfectly sensible names like Catherine and Sarah, and the third of whom was called Melons. I wasn't sure whether this was a pet name for Melanie or because she had a magnificent bosom - which, I confess I couldn't help noticing, she certainly did - but I loved the uninhibited way that Catherine and Sarah kept calling her Melons, and I loved, too, the slightly embarrassed but amused glances that another passenger, a young man in a surgical collar, kept shooting me when they did.