All posts by Mark Hj

Cat-whisperer; writer of SciFi and fantasy.

The Pursuit Of Green Wellies

Green wellies was a disparaging term when I was a student, a short-hand for people studying land management, as opposed to a real subject. A few decades on, and not only do I own and wear a pair of green wellies, I have multiple old pairs in the shed, and manage eighteen acres with all the benefit of a PhD in physics. Green wellies are a part of my life, along with animal excrement in various stages of decomposition and an interest in the weather forecast I would never have expected when I was a student.

Green wellies have a curious property – they are a magnet for young chicks (the feathered variety), and it starts around three or four days from hatching. Wellies on, step out of the back door and find yourself surrounded by an insane mob of proto-hens and Sunday lunches.

The first time, it looks cute – little fluffy bundles zooming around your feet. Now try to take a step forwards… oops… no… mind that chick. They move fast in pursuit of the green wellies, rushing unerringly to where your foot is about to come down. When they are a little older, they perch on the toe of the welly if you stand still too long, then its off for another round of zooming as you step away.

The pursuit of green wellies always puts me in mind of the scarab beetles in ‘The Mummy’. A fast-flowing tide of small shapes. Fortunately chicks don’t try to eat you alive, not until they grow a bit bigger.

I’m sure this behaviour sounds bizarre. Why would chicks chase after green wellies? The answer is food, of course. After three or four days of a pair of green wellies turning up and putting food down, the chicks are programmed. When they get older, forget the green wellies, the adult chicken learns to recognise the measuring pot for the feed. I know I sounds incredible – these are chickens we are talking about – but seriously, see it once and they remember, twice and the memory is set indelibly in the little brains.

This year (so far) we have had a solitary chick. Until recently, the owning (she hatched it, but who knowns who laid the egg?) hen has been looking after the chick. Now she is a bit distracted and the chick has to fend for itself (Go and play, dear, Mummy is laying an egg). Abandoned and about the size of a fist, the chick turned back to the pursuit of the green welly. If Mum is not going to point out food, or provide shelter from the breeze, perhaps those green wellies will do it.

The pursuit of green wellies can be amusing, interesting and down-right annoying. The reasons behind it seem simple enough. All of the livestock do it to some extent, and the pattern varies. Lambs shun the green wellies until they are old enough to take an interest in sheep-nuts, pelleted sugar beet or any of the other scrummy things that the green wellies might have in their pockets. As for geese, they are little more than psychopaths with feathers, hell-bent on assaulting green wellies… unless there is a tub of grain on offer.

Watching the chick and trying to dodge around, my mind wandered – do I have pursuit of green welly behaviour? I know I don’t follow people who toss handfuls of mixed poultry corn on the ground, but the green welly chase is really about getting something you want. All of the livestock are heavily oriented towards finding food, and their behaviour is the repetition of a successful strategy. Realistically, it’s something which rarely pays off, but when it happens it’s worth it.

When I put it like that, I can see that my life is just another example of the pursuit of green wellies. I can tell myself that it is more complex, more sophisticated, but I do keep repeating the actions that get me what I want. Even the things that rarely work, if the reward is great enough. The only obvious exception is cleaning out the goose hut – I keep doing it, but I am very fuzzy on the actual reward.

I also don’t play the lottery. Not every welly is greener on the other side of the fence.

Another One Bites The Dust

We lost a chicken the other day – Titch-Black (one of our blue-egg laying Araucana crosses) died of natural causes, as opposed to a local predator for a change. I went into the chicken shed and there she was, apparently sleeping in the indoor dust-bath. She had looked a bit ‘off’ for a few days, but lively enough when food was about, so I didn’t pay too much attention. Losing them to a predator is definitely more upsetting… but seriously, how attached can you get to a chicken? Just because we have known them since they were an egg, seen them grow up, develop character and irritating habits…

It prompted me to consider how we treat our animals in general, and the mind-boggling contradiction of looking after the oven-ready. Before going any further, I ought to warn those of a sensitive disposition – we have been known to eat our livestock.

On the topic of eating animals (eating-animals?), we have an injured cockerel living in the greenhouse. He was attacked by something (probably rat or weasel) that injured one leg and one wing – if we were a commercial operation, we would have snapped his neck there and then. But we’re not, so we checked him over, made sure he wasn’t in any major distress, and treated the open wounds. We have a simple rule of thumb with chickens – if they are sick they do one of two things: get better or die. You can influence that by keeping them warm, keeping them drinking water, keeping a bit of food going in to them (unless you want to get technical with things like sour-crop). So, we have a cockerel in the greenhouse – recovered, able to fly up on to a perch, but not agile enough to cope outside, and some day soon he will be a chicken dinner. He was a youngster when he was hurt, too young for us to determine whether he was a hen or cockerel (there are usually ways to tell, but our chickens are random mongrels, which really confuses the issue) – so would we have taken such care if we had known that there was no career of egg-laying ahead? Based on our record, yes.

I know it sounds crazy, but that’s just the start of the really nuts…

There is a second chicken in the greenhouse and she is called Leopard Neck, on account of her markings. Year before last, she was droopy and not eating, but had no other symptoms, so we brought her in, trickled glucose and water carefully into her beak, then kept her warm in the house in a big dog cage (absolute pain in the lounge), and when she started eating for herself and generally perked up we’d give her a couple more days of convalescence and then put her back outside on a nice day. Within hours she would need to come back in – on and off we had her indoors for almost two months (I did say this was nuts) so then we moved her out into the greenhouse where it was warm, dry and safe from predators (including other chickens!).

Chickens in the lounge really is only a short-term business, although Leopard Neck was one of the better housemates. Our first cockerel, Hairbrush, had a run-in with another young cockerel recently taken on by our neighbours – younger, fitter and faster. We had Hairbrush in the lounge (big cage again) for several weeks whilst he recovered from his injuries, and once he was feeling better (only a matter of several days) he started crowing. The only thing I can think of as comparable was a Burn’s night celebration in a one-bed flat complete with piper. Bag-pipes and crowing cockerels simply do not belong in confined spaces.

Leopard Neck has now recovered, but her eye-sight has gradually deteriorated and now she is almost blind. If we were focused on profit… but we aren’t, so Leopard Neck gets to live out her days in comfort in the greenhouse, eating grain and laying the occasional egg.

So, chickens in the greenhouse, even in the lounge… it can’t get any crazier than that, can it? Except for the sheep in the bath.

In the run-up to lambing last year, one of our smaller ewes took sick, in the cold weather. We carried her to the greenhouse (warm, dry and already had Leopard Neck in residence) and went through all the standard treatments for things like twin-lamb disease and calcium deficiency, which matched the symptoms and benefit from prompt treatment. When this clearly wasn’t the answer, we moved on to antibiotics from the vet. After that, the essentials were to keep her hydrated and taking the sheep-equivalent of high-energy sports drinks. The weather was turning worse, the light was going, and our ewe really needed caring for through the night. The best answer we could think of was to take her into the house and put her in the bath, which kept her relatively confined since she couldn’t stand at that point. It was the perfect place to be able to keep her warm, whilst feeding water and high-energy drenches through the night. Sadly, she died, but the next time we have a poorly sheep who needs nursing through the night, it will be in the bath again.

It makes the final hours of Bitsy the cat seem perfectly normal. He was 18 years old and ill, booked in to see the vet first thing in the morning for what we were certain would be the final visit. By breakfast time he was so far gone, in no evident distress, and apparently comfortable so that the stress of being put in the cage and a car journey would have been unkind. I sat on the sofa for the morning, with him curled up on my lap, until he died just before lunch. We have had numerous cats over the years take that final trip to the vet and I don’t think this way was any less stressful for me, but Bitsy went peacefully.

Household pets or lunches-in-waiting, we look after our animals. Whether you know each individual by name, or just one out of a herd, it’s always unpleasant when another one bites the dust, a horrible business when you have to call the vet in to put an animal down.

Reached the Top – Butch and You

Some songs don’t so much get stuck in my head as lurk in the background and wait for their moment. This week’s hit is from the Disney Jungle Book: I’ve Reached the Top and Had to Stop…

Now, if this were a movie, the dialogue would be ‘It’s a guy thing.’ In the testosterone driven world of livestock, its just the way things are. Once you reach the top, there is nowhere else to go except down – just hold on as long as possible until the newcomer knocks you off your perch (possibly literally).

All this was prompted by You, our Number One Cockerel. I will admit that it is confusing having a chicken called You when we also have a flock of ewes, but names here often happen by accident. We do a head-count on the chickens each night (certain idiot hens have been known to go broody and settle down any old place, rather than in the fox-proof hen house) and when we only had a few birds, that was easy. Then the count got up in the region of twenty and they will not stand still, so the process was to count by colour: eight white, seven brown, five black, etc… and You – the multi-coloured cockerel.

You is a splendid bird, mostly black but with iridescent blue highlights and golden-yellow flashes on his wings. The hens like him, he pays attention, he watches for predators, he doesn’t pursue them across the paddock as if trying to emulate Usain Bolt but finishing with a flying ****. The competition is Mosaic, a mostly white chap with brown patterning, and a year or two younger. To be fair, some of the hens do like him, but he is inclined to the fast pursuit and sudden mount finish. (Or the sudden last-minute jink to a hen who didn’t even know she was in the race.)

The relationship between You and Mosaic wassimple – You chased, Mosaic ran away.
Not any more. You is getting older and slower, and now Mosaic has taken his chance. We have a new Number One Cockerel, and now You needs to learn the art of running away. That’s not so easy for a bird who’s been top of the pile for so long.

It’s the same with Butch, the first lamb born here, a solid piece of proto-mutton. At one point we started to regret calling him Butch, because a vigorous and chunky lamb grew into a skinny, leggy sheep, but in his second year he filled out into a woolly tank and very much the alpha male. We have a small flock of rams and until last autumn, everyone got out of Butch’s way.

Butch has a half-brother, Monk (very much the number two ram), and a son Pad (by Lily two years back) who has been working his way up the ranks. Butch and Monk have sparred all their lives, and Pad is not really a match for Dad (yet), but mistakes happen. Butch decided to take them both on at once.

The interesting thing is that when there is a change at the top, the former alpha male does not move down a notch or two, he goes to the bottom. Even the youngest ram, barely half-grown at nine months old, was suddenly prepared to (cautiously) test his horns with the Old Man, whenever Butch was prepared to come out the gorse clump he hid in.

When you reach the top, the only way is down. All the way down. There is no retirement on a golden-handshake pension, just a one-way trip to the bottom of the pile.

Feral Conversation

Ginger-And-White is a big, feral tom cat, with the sort of expression that says “extra garlic with my babies for breakfast.” He was a minor character in last-year’s retelling of the classic love-triangle, Romeos and Oubliette (I love you… No, I love you… Forget it, both of you…)

G&W now lives in our barn. I put some food out for him morning and evening – any additional snacks are his business to catch.

He has been a regular resident for a few months, but with no set routine until a few weeks back when he started hanging around, waiting for breakfast. Now we have a regular morning conversation as I walk in to the barn:

G&W jumps off the hay bales, retreats a safe distance and hisses at me.
I tell him “that’s not very nice.”
G&W meows at me with a tone of voice that says: “Watch it, writer. I invent worlds as well. Worlds of hurt and bloodshed…”
I tell him “that’s better.”
G&W blinks at me.
I blink back and put the food down.
It’s a relationship of sorts.

Relationships evolve. For the last few days, we have skipped the whole hiss and meow bit. G&W just watches me from the far side of the hay bale. There’s still the promise of hurt and bloodshed if I push my luck, and he waits until I am outside the door before checking out breakfast.

The cat whisperer strikes again.