Country Matters: Alive and cheeping on a summer night

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The Independent Online
IF I HAD to nominate the Day of the Year - the weather winner of 1993 - I should look no farther than last Monday. From the instant the sun came over the rim of the valley at 6.15am, to the moment about 14 hours later when it dipped behind the Roman racecourse that encircles a prominent headland to the west, no cloud appeared in the sky.

Early in the morning a soft haze hung in the air, and grass fields were thickly silvered with dew, for, after the wettest May in living memory, there was still a prodigious amount of water in the ground, and now some of it was steaming to the surface. Then all the moisture evaporated, to leave the air as clear as glass.

It was the combination of damp ground, hot sun and brilliant air that made the day so memorable. As the heat built up, you could literally see plants growing. The feeling of fecundity was overpowering: roses opened before our eyes, French beans leapt from the ground, potato plants put on inches, lettuces suddenly became worth cutting, and the lawn, which I had mown only on Saturday, was offensively hirsute again by midday.

At this time of year, when we lived in County Tipperary, the farm manager was permanently worried about what he called 'de groat'. Every morning he would ask, 'Would you say it's warm enough for there to be any groat?' Well, on Monday we had growth that would have made Paddy feel 10 feet tall.

At mid-morning, just as the sun was threatening to become too fierce, a cool breeze stole down from the north, tempering the heat. Lucky the farmers who had cut their hay and had it lying out: never were conditions finer for drying. In the evening, when I took the dogs for a walk, we sat for a while high up the wood in the shade of the beeches, hoping for a glimpse of the roebuck that has taken up his territory there. As that blessed breeze came filtering through the trees, laden with the scent of hay, I reflected that if ever I had to explain to a foreigner what I meant by an ideal English summer's day, I should only have to bring him to that spot.

Nor was this all - for, as if to celebrate such splendour, the evening brought forth a miracle: a very small one, but a miracle none the less.

The day before, both our sitting hens had begun to hatch their eggs. We could tell from the maternal cluckings emanating from their coops that chicks were emerging beneath them; but although the hens were free to come out if they wanted, they remained on their nests all day, instinctively knowing that some eggs take longer to mature than others.

Then on the glorious Monday morning both hens brought out their broods. The Brahma - a large, whitish hen, with feathery legs - had four yellow chicks and one black, the bantam-like brown hen two yellow and one black. Both families established themselves happily in the outer farmyard, with the mothers showing protective instincts quite ferocious enough to keep the cats at bay.

Normally my wife is in charge of the poultry, but it so happened that she was away for the night, shifting sheep to Wiltshire. It fell to me to shut up the chickens that evening.

The Brahma was no problem. She had settled right outside her coop, with her chicks beneath her, and all I had to do was shovel her inside before setting the front panel in place and turning the latches to make the structure fox-proof.

The other hen had parked herself in a slot among some hay-bales. If I left her there, the fox would surely get her, babies and all. She had to be moved - but how? If I picked her up and carried her to the coop, the chicks might scuttle off into the bales and be lost. The best solution seemed to be to bring the coop to her, and bundle her into it from close quarters.

This I began to do; but as I picked up the coop, I realised there was still one whole egg among the shells, and suddenly, from this egg, I heard a very faint cheep. Looking closer in the dusk, I saw that the shell had a puncture, and that in the ragged opening was the beak of a chick, which had made a hole but had not had the strength to break free.

I picked the egg up, and in my hand it felt cold as a stone. Ten hours had passed since the hen had gone off the nest. It seemed incredible that the chick could still be alive. And yet it was. As I hesitated, it cheeped again.

Now what to do? The chances of it surviving seemed infinitesimal. Probably it was crippled or malformed in some way - which was why it had not managed to break out. Would not the kindest act be to throw it out into the field, where it would fade into unconsciousness, and then probably provide the fox with a tasty hors d'oeuvre during the night?

Another cheep. Some faint memory warned me that one should never peel the shell off an unhatched chick, as the bird's skin may be stuck to the inside of its container, and come away with it. Yet by no other means could this infant be saved.

I peeled gingerly. The shell came away cleanly, revealing a complete bird, packaged with extraordinary neatness, legs tucked up, head and neck curved round. Yet even if it were intact, it was also cold, wet, bloody and all-but dead.

Again I considered throwing it out. Then I thought, no - give it a chance. So I brought it in and put it on the Aga in a little wicker basket which, ironically enough, had originally contained a chocolate Easter egg. For a while it lay flat, eyes shut, apparently moribund, and again I thought it was doomed, so I draped a dishcloth over the top, to frustrate any passing cat, and pressed on with other things.

Yet by the time I had been out, cleaned up the coop and got the mother of three installed, there was a definite improvement. The cheeping gradually grew louder and more insistent, and every time I lifted the cloth to inspect the patient, it looked drier and more lively.

I cooked some spaghetti for supper and ate it in the kitchen, to an ever-growing chorus. By 9.30 the chick was fluffy and almost able to stand, but its rapid improvement put me in a new dilemma. Should I leave it all night on the Aga, or would that cook it? Would I do better to return it to the hen, or would she detect an impostor and kill it?

Deciding that natural remedies are best, I went out into the warm twilight at 10 o'clock and slipped the chick under its mother, sustaining one savage peck in the wrist as I did so. Soon afterwards I went to bed, feeling I had done all I could.

In the morning I opened the coop with some trepidation, fully expecting to find one small, squashed corpse. But no - out came not three but four toddlers. No 4 was a little unsteady on its feet, but after swallowing a few minute crumbs of oatmeal, this was a new chick. By mid-morning it was going as strong as any of the others, and by afternoon was fully established as one of the gang.

The incident was curiously moving. The tenacity with which that little creature had clung to life was astonishing. Had I saved it or created it? I could not quite decide. Either way, I feel sure its survival was due largely to the splendour of that perfect summer's day.

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