Few activities are less rewarding than feeding hens who give nothing back; and in a free- range flock it is always at the lowest point of the winter, when nights are longest and days darkest, that egg production stutters to a halt. The birds eat voraciously and look well enough; but, in the same way that the earth itself goes into hibernation, yielding no growth, so the chickens merely tick over until their vitality picks up again. Short-term changes in the weather do not seem to affect the issue, which is governed by some longer cycle.
When the hens do return to business, they are particularly secretive. It is as if they have spent the previous few weeks considering how best to outwit humans, and they site their new nests with great guile, in the most out-of-the-way corners. Thus, when we began to hear cackling again, after a long interval, we could not at first find anything to account for it, and only after prolonged searches of the farm buildings did we come upon a nest containing more than 20 eggs. Now things are settling down as the latest production run moves into gear.
We are not alone in missing eggs during the winter lay-off. Rats must feel equally deprived. Short of sustenance in fields and hedges, they draw into barns and byres, and although they live mainly on corn or spilt cattle feed, they also carry off eggs with gusto.
How they do this is still, after countless years, a matter of dispute. Some country folk claim that egg-stealing rats operate in pairs, one lying on its back and cradling the prize between its front legs, while another drags its colleague away upside-down, like a living sledge. I have never seen this, and many people dismiss the idea as an old wives' tale, claiming instead that rats simply roll eggs by trundling them along with their noses. This seems more likely, but in any case, eggs disappear from nests with surprising speed, and travel surprising distances.
The concentration of rodents in the hen barn means a bonanza for Jasper, the ace ratter among our three cats. Though fed to the eyeballs with liver and other delicacies, he can never resist a good hunt, and he substantially cuts our chicken-feed bills by his numerous kills. His worst failing is that he cannot rest content merely with laying a rat low: he must also win applause by bringing the trophy indoors and eating it there, or merely dumping it for humans to admire.
The moment we hear his giveaway triumph-song of moans and growls, we know where to look: behind the television is one favourite repository, under the sideboard in the dining- room another. Always, by the time we find it, the creature is dead, and usually it is headless, for the brains seem to be the most delicious part, and they get eaten first. Every now and then his victim turns out to be a squirrel - how he catches squirrels in winter, when they should be asleep in their dreys, is a minor mystery.
The remains of a corpse are easily removed, especially if one puts on a gardening glove to handle them, and were that the end of each little saga, things would not be too bad. Alas, Jasper's other failing is that he tends to overestimate his own internal capacity, with explosive results. Disposing of a dead rat, entire, is not too bad, but clearing up rat regurgitated is 10 times as disgusting.
What makes such episodes still more distasteful is the fact that he chooses extraordinary places in which to throw up. The other day I at last steeled myself to get rid of an obsolete computer, which had been standing on a window-sill for weeks. I had offered it free to the primary school headmaster, who had accepted it gratefully; but when I went to move it, I found that you-know-who had shot a load of partially digested rat or possibly squirrel all down the air vents at the back.
The only concession to winter made by Jasper's sister Rosie has been to grow an immensely thick coat. She has long tabby fur even in summer, but now she is almost completely spherical: when I privily laid a ruler over her as she lay asleep one evening, I found that she measured eight inches across the chops. So perfect a caricature of a fat cat has she become that I forgive her even her most maddening habit: that of coming in from outside and immediately parading up over my desk, so that every sheet of paper on it is stippled with muddy footprints.
While she snoozes with her back wedged against a radiator, the nights outside are full of barks and screams as foxes go about their rituals of procreation; yet, rash though it may be to record the fact, we have had no trouble from them lately. At night the hens are securely shut up, but during the day they come and go at will, and they put themselves at particular risk when dusk creeps down early, and they continue to forage about the hedges towards the wood on the hill.
This is where the foxes lurk - how many it is impossible to say, but certainly one or two at any given moment. Without making a special effort, I saw one every day for the first four days of the year, in the area immediately above the house.
Stand at the edge of our orchard as the light fades, and sooner or later you will see a dark shadow slip out of the wood beside the stile, to come gliding down the footpath that leads towards the village. Reynard's first call, nowadays, is always at a particular spot in the base of a hedge between two fences, beneath the tree known to us as the Jubilee Oak - for it is there, in an alfresco dining area just the right size for a fox, that my wife deposits any bones and bits of meat that are too tough or too high for human consumption.
So regular are the patrons of this establishment in their attendance that they have forced the sheep-wire up into tunnels at the points where they push under it, and the whole place reeks of their presence, day and night.
At first I was worried about the possible results of such largesse. Might it not lure more foxes into our immediate area, and positively encourage them to attack the chickens? In fact, it seems to have had the opposite effect. The hand-outs certainly draw foxes, but the chickens remain unscathed, perhaps because the edge is taken off the predators' hunger by the occasional pheasant carcase or venison bone.
And so, come wind, rain, snow or ice, life goes on. Already, a month past the winter solstice, the evenings are starting to draw out. Snowdrops are blooming in sheltered spots, and blackbirds pipe up lustily at first light. Like the chickens, wild birds know that the seasons are moving on; but nobody knows this better than our pregnant ewes, who have just gone on to their high-protein maternity rations.
One morning they had to make do with hay. The next, they found their troughs full of delicious muesli. 'Ah]' they said collectively, 'This is more like it' - and now they fall in for breakfast as eagerly as if spring had already come.Reuse content