Category Archives: Farm, fur and fowl

A monthly(ish) ramble on whatever amused, irritated or intrigued me – taken from my old blog

The Loch Ness Moggy

We have a surplus of cats. I know there are people out there, living in a shoe box with a hundred cats, but even so, our four -plus-three count as a surplus.

We don’t necessarily see the plus-three that often. Thug, the ginger beast from a half mile down the hill has only visited us a few times in the last couple of months (most memorably with the four-foot tall “hedgehog” incident), whilst Willow from next door can often be seen mooching around the outbuildings, or strolling across a field. From time to time, Willow can also be heard debating ownership with Ginge, and I usually leave them to settle it between themselves – there’s a great deal of yowling and staring, and I try not to get in the way.

Then there is number three, the black cat. The first time I saw him, I assumed that it was Squeak, the little black cat who rarely leaves the house these days. It was only when I tried to walk over to Squeak and “she” ran away that I worked out it wasn’t her. So, he’s bigger, and not a she, but apart from that one black cat in the distance looks much like another.

Waving goodbye…

We see the black one occasionally, and normally at a distance, except for that memorable occasion when I left the back door open when I went to feed the chickens and he snuck in to hoover out the food bowls and do a little territorial marking in the kitchen. Tom-cat pee is another of those little gifts that just keeps on giving.

I think the only time I’ve actually been close to him is in the old cow shed. I walked in to fetch something, he was asleep on a shelf, and we were both very surprised when he woke up as I passed by. A startled cat can go from coma to the speed of fright in a fraction of a second. Since then, it’s been a distant glimpse, the occasional photo, and the passing wail in the night as he saunters past the house issuing the classic feline challenge to all comers. In response, all possible comers hunker down a bit, flatten their ears and mutter the feline equivalent of na-na-na-can’t-hear-you.

He is so elusive that if he weren’t a cat, you might wonder if he was real. There’s barely any more evidence for him than a few dodgy eye-witness accounts and some blurred photos. And a few seconds of video that looks exactly like Loch Ness Monster footage. Apart from the lack of water and Cornwall substituted for Scottish countryside.

I know the film is real because I took it on my camera, at dusk, at a distance of maybe fifty meters. The picture is grainy, the zoom on the phone is maxed out, and in the distance a black shape can be seen rolling around on the grass. Honestly, if you didn’t know it was a cat, it would be ripe for filing under Nuts and Conspiracy Theorists.

One day, our Loch Ness Moggy will be gone with only the most ephemeral evidence that he ever existed.

Or he’ll be sleeping on the sofa like those earlier Loch Ness Moggies, Oatmeal and Piper. At least then the photos might be in focus.

A Funny Smell

Not too long ago, I wrote about poo. Little did I realise that the topic had a future filled with vulgar humour. I was going to call this Poo Too – Papering Over The Cracks, and then I thought better of it.

So, barely had I written about the challenges of moving sheep poo when I encountered that time-honoured joke – there’s a funny smell and it keeps following me, but no matter how fast I turn around it’s always behind me. Well, I suppose it’s a joke. I struggled to see the humour when I got in from putting the chickens to bed and found there was a funny smell following me around.

Maybe funny is not the right word. Fowl, of course, and perhaps best described as vile with highlights of nausea, faint enough that it might just be my imagination, but strong enough to be annoying. It wasn’t just following me around, but it kept hiding, only to sneak back out when I wasn’t paying attention. The sort of smell that stands to your left, reaches round and taps you on the right shoulder.

I did all the usual things, starting with washing my hands again. Chicken poo comes in all sorts of interesting colours and odours, but there is a particular variety with a shade and texture akin to soft caramel, a stench to turn the stomach and a persistence that defies soap and water. Somehow, it just gets into the skin and lingers. I’ve stood with my hands in hot soapy water for ten minutes just trying to shift the last trace.

Washing my hands did not remove the smell, so maybe it wasn’t coming from my hands. It was that perfectly balanced intensity where one moment it seemed to have gone, and then seconds later it was back. Sniff hands once, fine. Sniff again, and there’s the smell. It was like an itch I couldn’t quite scratch and destined to drive me nuts.

I decided to ignore it, which lasted almost two minutes, but then there it was again. Move, turn, stand still, and eugh. There it was – untraceable, unbearable and unscratchable.

In desperation, I retreated to the bathroom and removed my trousers, just to check them over for the tell-tale smear of soft caramel. As it happened, the trousers were fine, so I took my jacket off. I had been wearing an outer jacket, but you never know – chicken poo appears to be able to magically reach anywhere and everywhere.

The jacket was fine.

I removed my clothes methodically and found no trace of chicken poo, but the smell was still with me. Sudden movements made it go away, but as soon as I stood still, there it was, wafting about my head.

By a process of elimination I found the source – I had chicken poo in my hair. I even worked out how it happened – bending down to stare into a nest box where one of the older hens had decided to snooze for the night. Of course, where exactly in my hair was a trickier question – I have a lot of hair. The thing is, when you go looking for a needle in a haystack, unless the needle is a desperately valuable family heirloom, who cares if you don’t find it? When I have poo in my hair, finding and removing is all I care about.

At least I was in the bathroom. I stepped into the shower and shampooed my hair. And then again. And again. That stinky caramel-texture poo is persistent stuff, so I was taking no chances.

Last time I wrote about poo, I mentioned AA Milne. Sorry about that, but here I go again.

This cycle of wash-rinse-repeat until I felt clean was really winnowing the poo.

Brush Off Your Chickens

The youngest four of last year’s chicks (two from Honey and two from Horus aka Mama Flake) have taken to hanging out together. They are most assuredly the bottom of the pecking order, and finding them a space in the shed at night is a challenge. The other hens get there first and won’t share nicely, so the only way the youngsters can get in is after dark when the other birds can’t tell what’s going on. This a variant on something I wrote about a couple of years back – Chickens In The Dark.

I herd the youngsters in and then wait around with a torch to provide enough light for them to get on to the perches. It’s a finely balanced thing – too much light and the other hens can see a target to peck at, or even decide to jump down and hunt the shed floor for food, but too little light and the youngsters won’t make the leap up. There’s an old pallet set up as a ladder to help them – they’re big enough now that they don’t really need it, but at least if they’re a few rungs up I know they’re headed in the right direction.

This dodgy system has been working well until recently. I did my usual head-count and came up short. This happens from time-to-time when a hen decides to brood a batch of eggs in some obscure spot, or is simply really late turning up. Sometimes being a hen short just means I need to work on my counting skills, and occasionally it means a bird has met a fox. Whatever the reason, when I’m a bird short, and several re-counts have made no difference, I go hunting.

So far, this year, we have had one broody hen and I found her in the hay barn. A week earlier and I wouldn’t have spotted her, but by the time she decided to sit her eggs, enough hay was gone to expose the nest. I’ve had two rounds of counting failure, which is easy to do in the gloom, and turning on too many lights wakes them up and sets them moving around. So far, no foxes. However, that’s for one missing bird. Four missing was a bit of a puzzle.

After a lot of recounting and turning on too many lights, I worked out that I was missing the youngsters, so I went hunting. They’re too young to be laying, but perfectly capable of staying out late and it seemed unlikely that a fox might have picked off exactly the four youngsters. After a tour of the nearest fields and the orchard, I was still four chickens short, and had seen no signs of the feather explosion that marks a fox kill, so I closed the shed door and went to find a better torch.

Strictly speaking, I started to close the door and stopped at the sounds of protest and wing-flapping. All four missing birds were perched on the top of the open door, tucked under the eaves, alive and well, and very annoying. I’d walked past them several times without noticing.

There are so many reasons why this is not a good place to stay for the night. It’s not even remotely fox-safe, it means I can’t shut the door for the rest of the birds, and it leaves the youngsters perfectly lined up to poop on the door bolt. The trouble is, how to get four chickens off the top of the door? If I just close it slowly there’s the chance of crush injuries, and if I reach up I might get pecked or even chicken poop up the inside of my sleeve. It’s amazing just how many yucky things can happen that I’d never have thought of before we had chickens.

Instead, I choose to give them the brush-off, scooting them along the top of the door with the bristly end of the yard broom until they flew down. After that, the broom is perfect to herd four stressed and excitable birds into the shed for the performance with the torch.

Now I have to do the routine every night. You would think that they would learn, but all four get up there and refuse to come down until the broom comes their way. I now have an alarm set to remind me to brush them off at just the right time of day. Too late, and it takes forever to herd them in the dark, but too early and they just fly back up to the top of the door.

It’s easy to fall into painting analogies when dealing with the birds. It’s a matter of finding just the right light, getting them up on the palet(te) and perfecting my brushwork until they’re properly perched if not actually posed.

By The Bucket Load

It’s time to talk about an insensitive topic – poo. Everything in life has consequences, and with livestock there comes poo. Or manure, if you prefer. And the more livestock you have, the more poo you get, by the heap, by the bucketful or by the trailer load. Forget birds, bees and educated fleas, let alone falling in love, and think chickens, geese and sheep doing it all over the landscape. (OK, so technically chickens and geese are birds.)

It doesn’t look so bad from this angle

Even poo has consequences. Firstly, inevitably there are jokes. (Do you put manure on your rhubarb? Really? We eat ours with custard.) And secondly, it’s never in the right place. Take the broody hen who perched on top of the recycling bin yesterday – not quite poo on the handle, but definitely in need of washing off before using the bin. The thing is, broody hens only poo once a day, a single stinky, festering heap all of its own. And, as we learn from reading AA Milne, poo sticks.

Now, as it happens, the rhubarb joke and poo in the wrong place are important. We don’t actually have rhubarb any more, but we do have fruit trees, and would very much like some of our manure supply to be in the orchard, contributing to the next apple crop. We also have a winter shelter for the sheep, some distance away, which has quite a collection of poo. It would be so much easier if the sheep were in with the fruit trees, delivering directly to the doorstep, so to speak. However, one of the other challenges with our livestock is stopping the sheep from from eating trees.

Yes that really is me, and yes that really is a bucket of goose poo

You thought sheep ate grass, right? Well, of course they do, but just like I have a weakness for chocolate, and the cats go berserk if we’re having fish, our Soay sheep like their treats. A nice leaf or two here, a bit of bark perhaps, and my doesn’t it come off the fruit trees in lovely long strips…

Anyway, back to the poo, by the bag, bucket and heap, over in the field shelter. The sheep leave it small heaps, mix in the dodgy bits of hay they don’t fancy, give it a good trample, and perhaps go to sleep on it. Over time, it forms an amazingly robust composite which has to be broken up with a fork (spades and shovels just bounce off) and then heaved outside into a new heap.

Is there any for us?

Finally, that new heap can be transferred to bags and buckets, under the watchful eye of the sheep, and carted away to enhance the orchard. I don’t think the sheep know or care that I’m cleaning up their mess, they just like to keep an eye on their people. Or, it may be because as well as buckets I’m also packing poo into empty feed sacks. The sheep definitely recognise those.

There’s a phrase that recurs whilst shovelling poo – pass me another bucket, this one’s full. Of course, that doesn’t work when I’m working on my own. I can say the words, but I have to go fetch the bucket myself. Or sacks once the buckets run out. It’s amazing just how many buckets are needed for one small manure heap.

Oddly enough, as I was moving a heap of poo a week or two back, my thoughts drifted sideways. I fetched another bucket and remembered something interesting – this month’s prompt from #BlogBattle happens to be bucket.

Out of a pile of poo a story grows. You see? It’s not just good for fruit trees.

This was written for the January #BlogBattle prompt of Bucket, and because I had things to get off my chest, boots, probably some in my hair…

Who? Me?

I’ve been here for hours – it’s one of the natural lies that any cat can present shamelessly, and effortlessly, even if the trail of yuck from the cat flap to current location is so fresh that hasn’t even dried enough that a spider could walk across without getting its feet wet. There’s a second expression of routine feline innocence which follows on so perfectly, particularly when that trail of yuk is still flowing and spreading – Who? Me? No.

Courtesy of Piper, we have a new spreading trail – wood shavings. In the last week or two he has established a whole new list of perfect sleeping places, one of which is in the top of the currently open bag of wood shavings in one of the sheds. It’s just the right size, the shavings can be adjusted for comfort, and no-one bothers him there, except the chickens when I open the door to get their feed out. However, that bag of shavings is still three quarters full, so Piper is out of immediate chicken reach. If only those shaving wouldn’t get caught up in his fur…

Piper has gained weight lately. On his last visit to the vet he had hit the seven kilo mark, which makes the cat-flap a very snug fit. You would think every last trace of wood shavings would be scraped off, but it just doesn’t work like that. Whatever has clung on during the walk down from the shed now treats the cat-flap as the jump master on a parachuting team, so the shavings fling themselves off in sequence throughout the kitchen.

Of course, there’s always one who gets nervous, or needs a little push. Or perhaps mistakenly thinks that the lounge ought to be the drop zone.

Piper doesn’t care. He thinks his new bed is perfect and when I mention to him the regularly maintained sprinkle of wood shavings through the kitchen, dropping in his wake, he just gives me that look of feline innocence – Who? Me?

And then, of course, he turns the question around – where’s my treats?

In the evening, Piper has taken to sleeping on my desk, and enforcing a clear-desk policy by the simple expedient of pushing everything off. Naturally, when I turn up and ask pointed questions like where have you put my mouse? Piper delivers the casual response – Mouse? What mouse? It can’t have been me. I’ve been here for hours and there was no mouse when I arrived.

A large part of sleeping on the desk is clearly to get attention. Squeak, the small black cat, stands in front of the computer screens, slaps me round the face with her tail, and squeaks. I think it means I’ve been here for hours and no-one has stroked me. It might be my food bowl is empty, or even my water bowl is empty. It’s best to check all possibilities.

Piper takes a more direct approach. He sleeps on the desk, waits for me to step in range, and reaches for my throat.

Claws out? Me? No.

Mostly he doesn’t reach quite as far as my throat, just settles his claws into my sweatshirt at chest level, heaves himself up and waits for the requisite shoulder rub. There may be an extra heave or two, if I’m missing the spot.

Claws? What claws? Left a bit.

And finally, when he’s had enough, the claws ease off, the cat sinks down, and now all I have to do is stay very still because whilst he is sleeping on the desk, I am cast in the role of head-rest.

There may now be purring. Or snoring. It can be hard to tell.

The meaning is clear.

Who? Me? Make trouble? No.

I’ve been here for hours. Sleeping.

This was written because Piper was in the way, and because of the December #BlogBattle writing prompt of Innocent.

Ginger It Up

Thug, aka The Purring Death, hasn’t been by for months, which lulled us into a false sense of security. Piper has been strolling around outside without a care and we’ve been leaving windows open. Last year I built a “box” to fit one of our casement windows, just so that it could be left open but with the only cat access through a microchip-sensing catflap. It worked well, and Ginge really appreciated the arrangement, but honestly she prefers a plain and simple open window.

A few nights back I heard a fuss, and found Piper watching the outside world through the catflap in the front door. I’m not sure how much he could see because it was dark out there, but clearly he knew something was on the prowl. I mean, if he had just turned around, he would have seen Thug, inside the house, on the window cill behind him. Fortunately for Piper, Thug has mellowed in middle-age and was more interested in hoovering out a bowl of food.

Thug is still a glorious, adorable and adoring cat, and it was very nice to see him, but that’s a sentiment not shared by any of our cats.

The truly amazing thing is that even after so many months, Thug still remembers the routine. I opened the front door, Piper chose to be elsewhere, and Thug followed me down the path, got in the van and I drove him home as he ate kitty nibbles.

We didn’t think anything more of it, until last night. Thug arrived again, and Piper was clearly aware that something was amiss. He sat on the doormat at the back door, staring out into the darkness. He does this during the day, watching the rain come down, part of the the routine which my partner referred to as looking for the door into summer. (She was quoting the title of a novel by Robert Heinlein, in turn prompted by his wife commenting on their cat checking the weather out of every door, in the search for the door into summer…) Of course there is no summer to be had, only Thug, and he was already inside. As with a few nights previous, if Piper had just turned round…

Once again, Thug was more interested in the food bowl and then obligingly followed me out for me to drive him home.

The problem, as ever, is getting him to stay home. Thug isn’t really interested in being driven home as such, because he fully subscribes to the principle that is is not arriving that matters, but the journey itself. If I walk to his owners’ house, he follows, but then he follows me back to the van. The only way to make him stay put (unless their door is open) is a pile of kitty nibbles on their doorstep to distract him long enough for me to make my escape. In winter, in the dark, it’s quite a challenging exercise following the path to their door without tripping over Thug. For extra excitement, as I shuffled carefully along, there was the farty raspberry sounds that could surely only be a hedgehog on the move. You don’t want to trip over one of those in the dark.

Then the farty raspberry repeated, right beside my elbow. Damn, but that’s a really tall hedgehog. My next, most rational instinct was to run screaming for the van and hope that I wasn’t the opening-credits victim of the newly-risen monster. A modest cardio workout is supposed to be good for you… Then I remembered the neighbours mentioning providing a retirement home to a pony. I’ve no idea what the pony actually looks like, because I’ve only ever heard it in the dark, but it’s nose is about level with my elbow and it doesn’t have a taste for kitty nibbles. That, or it’s a fiend running late for Halloween, but well-disposed towards people who drive a cat home.

Whatever. Taking Thug home certainly spiced up my evening.

# # #

Post Script

I didn’t get as far as posting this yesterday because we went to Plymouth – medical appointments, shopping, that sort of thing. The evening plan was simple. As soon as we got back, turn the oven on, put the chickens to bed, collect the eggs in the dark, heat a pizza, and relax.

Thug was on the drive when we got back, upset that no windows were open. My partner went in to turn the oven on, whilst I drove Thug home, with the pizza still in the van.

Of course, it was early, barely dark, and I got chatting to the neighbours, got mugged for kitty nibbles by Thug’s sister, even failed to notice my phone chiming with a text Pizza come home.

At least the pony didn’t stalk me this time.

Psycho, Honey and Momma Flake

Our hen numbers are declining, due to old age rather than foxes, so we decided to hatch a few eggs this year. We now have six near-adult sized birds, but four of them are cockerels and no matter how hard they try, the lads aren’t much use in the egg-laying game. Late in the year, we decided to hatch a few more.

Meet Psycho, bloody mayhem to her enemies, or anyone just getting too close, the hen putting the aggression back into motherhood. She hatched another round and now has four six week old chicks in tow. She’s not the perfect mother, does have the occasional ditsy moment and forgets that they can’t fly as high as she can, but overall Psycho is the prime candidate for future egg hatching.

That was supposed to be it for the year. Roll the dice and hope there are at least a couple of hens in the Psycho family. That was until a hen called Pale Horus built a nest in the top of the Cornish hedge without mentioning it to anyone. She laid fifteen eggs in a shallow dip with nothing more than a few blades of grass and a prevailing breeze to hold them in, and settled down to brood them in a prime spot to be taken by any passing fox.

At this point we had a decision to make – block the nest and put her in with the rest of the hens over night or move the nest and Pale Horus to somewhere safe. As it happened, Psycho was about ready to bring her chicks out of the end of the greenhouse, so I set up the spare nest box in there, moved the eggs and put Pale Horus on top, after dark.

I thought it was a perfect arrangement. Pale Horus threw a total hissy fit and refused to sit on the eggs. Having decided to try to hatch them, we split them into two groups and popped them under two hens who had been broody for a week or more and were determinedly keeping the hay warm in a pair of empty nest boxes.

Meet Honey, who perhaps ought to be called Psycho II – a sequel, but not quite as good as the original. She hatched four out of seven eggs and quickly demonstrated some wacky behaviour. All the Psycho aggression is there, but poorly coordinated. She will spin wildly on the spot, wings fluffed out, looking for a target and doing a fine impression of a dying Dalek that’s just had a sonic screwdriver shoved up where the sun don’t shine.

In the first week or two, it was clear that Honey was a bit of a flop in the motherhood department. Unlike Horus (not to be confused with Pale Horus), who hatched six out of eight eggs and focussed on the job of teaching her chicks to peck and explore the world. No crazy aggression (or rather, no more than the average hen), just getting on the with job of being a mother.

First impressions with hens can be so misleading. Honey, the Psycho Sequel, has settled down, her chicks are doing well, and now that they are out and about, free-ranging, she keeps them close, keeps an eye on them and is proving to be an exemplary mother.

Horus, on the other hand, now that the chicks are a bit older, is not doing so well. We’ve had one chick spending its days in a box, in the bath, under a heat-lamp. At first we assumed that it was just a weak chick that needed a bit more care, but it’s increasingly obvious that the problem is Horus. She no longer pays attention. She wanders off without checking the chicks are following. There’s one that always keeps up, another couple who struggle, and then the stragglers who are left completely behind and getting chilled. Unlike Honey, Horus doesn’t pause to do the feather-down umbrella routine for her chicks to take shelter and warm up underneath.

We actually tried fostering the weaker chicks onto Honey, but they were nearly three weeks old and she could tell the difference. No free-loaders in the Honey family.

There’s two ways to go about raising chicks – hatch them in an incubator or under a hen. There’s more control with the former approach, but the advantage of the hen is that she does all the hard work of looking after the chicks, teaching them how to find food and take cover from outdoor threats. That’s not been working so well with Horus – I’ve had a timer running on my phone to go and check on the Horus brood, every fifteen minutes. Just so that the chicks who really can’t cope get moved to the bathroom to warm up before they go back out again.

We’ve had chickens in a box in the bath before, even had a sick sheep in there, but it really makes it tricky to use the shower.

Frankly, Horus needs a new name. In my head it’s Momma Flake. We’ve moved her and the chicks back into the greenhouse for a week or two because her chicks clearly need to be bigger and fitter before they get exposed to the Cornish Autumn. They can all come out when her chicks can cope with the bird-brain performance of Momma Flake.

The Outreach Programme

Protect your plate. Shield your supper. Watch those damned chickens, like a hawk. This is the opening of the essential mantra for eating outdoors. A determined hen can do a vertical launch and have your food off the plate before you can blink. Of course, chickens aren’t the only threat and, as the summer fades and eating out becomes rarer, other meal-time predators come to dominate.

Breakfast is a challenge all year round as the small, black cat we call Squeak likes her lap-time and dances in a circle to get the best orientation whilst I hold my bowl of cereal above head height. To be fair, she’s not really after the food, but is still perfectly capable of arcing her tail over and using the tip to stir my muesli. No harm done, really, because doesn’t muesli have small black flecks anyway? And what’s a hair or two between friends? Or between my teeth?

All of the cats can be trouble when there’s food to be had, although the rarest offender is Ginge. I think perhaps we have a general understanding there – I don’t steal her mouse, she leaves my lunch alone. This works well since I really don’t fancy raw rodent and Ginge isn’t usually around at lunch time.

Unless there’s tuna. That changes everything. Or it is completely outside the scope of any understanding.

The essential summary of my existing food-boundary agreements, Squeak stirs my breakfast, the two toms Piper and Oatmeal loom close and stare hard on the understanding that when I’ve finished eating there will be something still on the plate, and Ginge has no interest unless there’s tuna, and we’ve not really explored that particular boundary very far since she’s so rarely around at meal times.

Simple. What could possibly go wrong? Even in the face of testing the limits of the tuna treaty, there’s still the tactic of holding the plate above head level.

Nothing is ever simple where cats are involved, and there’s another detail that needs to be factored in. Squeak failed her Basic Cat qualifications several times and frequently has to blag her way through simple acts of agility – yes I meant to land like that, no I didn’t just fall off, three attempts is normal for any cat. The toms are both too heavy to do anything clever – Oatmeal has the build and agility of a barrel and Piper has a distinct and growing bulge where his waist ought to be (no judgements here), so the above head height trick works. Ginge, however, is small, agile, the archetypal cat who walks along impossibly narrow branches and balances on the top of fence posts that aren’t big enough to take all four of her dainty paws at once.

When Ginge appeared out of nowhere (another cat skill) and took an interest in my tuna-related supper, I held the plate up high. In response, Ginge climbed up my chest and tried to reach, but couldn’t quite. Even so, she only needed a little more height, so perhaps climbing my beard…

No. No way. I’m not having that. Those paws might be dainty but it still tingles if she shoves her claws up my nose. I did the only thing I could think of and reached my arm out to the side, away from my face.

Idiot. That’s like a branch. The cat-equivalent of a multi-lane road that Ginge could walk along in her sleep. So, I held my arm out and up, but that made no difference. We’re still in tree-analogy territory here. Horizontal, forty-five degrees, what’s the difference? In the Ginge world, trees have branches and trunks, and she treats them as interchangeable. Yes, those slightly vertical ones might need a bit of extra claw, but what’s all the fuss about? Just walk, because that’s what those paws are meant for, as well as sending small rodents to meet their maker (some reassembly required). Up, down, underneath, it’s all the same, just one paw in front of the other… wait one whilst I scratch my ear…

The only thing that saved my supper was my sleeve, slipping and sliding on my arm and making for a very uncertain grip. Ginge didn’t actually give up and I think she would have continued exploring the possibilities until my arm got too tired. Eventually I had to accept that it was a no-win hostage situation. Either I gave her some of the tuna or neither of us got to eat.

So remember the mantra. Protect your plate. Shield your supper. Watch those damned chickens, like a hawk. Beware of the cat. Beware of the other cat… And finally accept that sometimes, no matter what you do, the enemy gets past every defence, so just pay the ransom and get on with supper.

Or get longer arms.

# # #

This was written for the September 2019 #BlogBattle  prompt of Shield.

That Ratchet Cat

It’s summer, if you ignore the rain, the storms and the plummeting temperatures. It’s the time of year when cats laze outside and most of them have the sense to do that out of the rain. Ginge, who spends much of the winter sleeping on the bed between the pillows, is only seen once or twice a day at the moment. That’s usually about seven in the morning when she pops in for breakfast and near dusk when she hangs around near the kitchen in search of treats.

Piper’s current favourites are snoozing behind the planters in the morning, warm but shielded from the direct heat, and then sunning himself on the wood-pile in the late afternoon. However, a few days ago he shifted to winter behaviour with no warning or notice.

We had barely gone to bed and turned the lights out when I heard odd noises. Some careful listening narrowed it down to a cat sneaking around the bedroom and I immediately suspected that perhaps the dreaded Thug had found another way to break into the house. I turned the light on to confirm, but it was just Piper.

I turned the light out. Piper pounced. I grunted. When seven kilos of ex-feral tom cat lands on me, some expression of distress is called for. Piper used to be nearer six kilos, but he’s been gaining weight.

Without a care for which bits of a human are safely load-bearing, Piper walked over me, sniffed my partner and settled into Ginge’s favoured spot between the pillows. Then he started to wash.

Is this my best angle?

I find it remarkably difficult to get to sleep when seven kilos of cat braces a firm paw against my shoulder and starts rocking vigorously. And this wasn’t a quick freshen-up, but a full-blown scrub everything, which just goes on and on, rocking me to wakefulness. Finally, it was all over and he leant his full weight against my shoulder, eased down, curled up and went to sleep.

And then got up, turned round and settled in a more comfortable position. Then again, a bit of a shuffle and re-settle. Somehow, in amongst the movement, I dozed off, blissfully unaware of the ratchet process that was just getting started.

I woke, perhaps an hour later, precariously close to the edge of the bed with Piper wedged firmly against my shoulder. Of course, since I was awake, he had to look up, have a little shuffle and push me another paw-length. In response, I got up and went to bathroom – you never know when Piper might follow to deliver helpful hints like please top up my food bowl.

Piper declined. Apparently he was perfectly comfortable on the bed. However, when I got back, he had settled himself back somewhere between the pillows, miraculously leaving me plenty of space in the bed. You see? Cats can show consideration.

Silly me. As soon as there was a nice warm human to snuggle up to, Piper resumed the slow ratcheting pressure to ease me over the side.

Welcome to the power of the catnap. I know it’s supposed to be a brief sleep, and potentially invigorating. Piper’s version is positively exhausting.

Stable Configuration

We hatched six chicks earlier this year, two hens raised three each, about three weeks apart, which led to some logistical challenges. We like to keep the chicks in for a few weeks until they’ve got some decent, weather-proofing hard feathers and understand the idea of keeping up with mum – it makes them more cat-resistant. We only have one area for keeping the chicks and it turned out that the second hen, now renamed Psycho, is not inclined to share… but that’s another story.

A few months later…

The first three chicks have moved out of the kindergarten to sleep in the stables with the adult hens. Yes, I know it’s more common to keep horses in a stable, but we don’t have horses.

We were here first

What we do have is the second set of chicks deciding that it’s time to join the flock.

Not doing nuffin

The older trio did it in stages, hanging around the stables like a trio of juvenile delinquents, waiting for the older birds to go to bed. So far as we can tell, night-sight in chickens worsens quite rapidly as they get older, so the youngsters wait for the darkness-advantage before venturing in.

It’s important to remember (and I’ve mentioned this before in Second Best and Chickens In The Dark) that the main cause of screaming chickens is chicken-on-chicken violence. The whole pecking order thing is not a metaphor for chickens, it’s establishing superiority through force of impact.

The older youngsters took a week or more to move in, testing the violence quotient, working out where they might be allowed to hang out. As it happens, there is a pair of pillars made of stacked concrete blocks, previously the supports for a perch that needs repairing. The older three got themselves on the stack nearest the door and, over the space of a week, migrated to the one further in, almost but not quite members of the flock.

I thought that this was a perfect arrangement, leaving a whole pillar for the younger three. My perfect plan.


The next set of youngsters did the “hanging around” routine for a few days, retreating to the kindergarten (or greenhouse, as it’s known) by nightfall. Finally, they made that tiny leap towards flockhood, but rather than perch on top of the pillar, they hunkered down on the floor.


There are rats around, you know?

Fortunately, my night-sight is good enough to stalk young chickens in the semi-dark. I picked up the first one (cue desperate screaming, the monster got me, the monster got me, help, help, help …) and put it on top the pillar. Then I caught the next one, but as I placed it beside the first, the movement in the gloom and terrified shrieking (I’m dying I’m dying I’m dying…) panicked the first who jumped back down.

I repeated the cycle – catch a chicken, put on the pillar, catch another, lose the first. And again… until I got wise. I got one on the pillar and caught the other two together. Perfect. Except they screamed when I caught them (help, help, it’s the monster, save us, save us…) and the one on the pillar jumped down to find out what all the noise was about.

Idiot. The chicken, I mean, not me. After all that frantic business of run away, why on earth did it suddenly chose run towards?

So, I put the two birds on the perch and went to catch the third. By the time I returned to the pillar, one of the first two had jumped down.

Somehow, those undergraduate lectures on quantum mechanics suddenly make sense. Two electrons in the same orbit can be stable, but not a third, or something like that. It makes nearly as much sense as chickens.

However, forget the physics analogies – this time I practised a controlled placing of the bird I had, waiting for the screams (the big monster has caught me, I’m dying, I’m dying, run way, run away, run towards, oh, no no no no not that way…) to go silent and then advancing very slowly so as not to spook the chick already in place. There was a bad moment when the bird on the pillar thought about moving, but then the one I had just delivered made happy chirps (the monster didn’t kill me, didn’t kill me, didn’t… ooh… don’t I know you?)

Now that I had a system, I went and caught the third bird again and repeated the slow approach. The trouble is, chickens shuffle, trying to find a better position (ooh, hello again, can I cuddle up, if I just put one wing here…) but there’s only room for about four chicks that size on top of the pillar, so not a lot of shuffle space (Hello? Hello? Which way did you go?). Before I could ease number three into place, number one got nudged off. OK, maybe it was number two who fell. It’s hard to tell in the dark.

It’s like one of those puzzles with three holes and three small balls. With a lot of care and patience, you can get all three in at once. I didn’t have time for care and patience. I was racing the light, because at some point it would be so dark that my night-sight wouldn’t be up to it and if I turned the stable lights on, the little devils would see me coming – game-over.

Finally, I had all three, on a perch, shuffling done, cuddling up complete, quiet little chicks in a vaguely stable configuration. Perfect. Until the next night.

If you dispense feed from a weird container that a chicken has never seen before, it will instantly associate said weird container with food forever. Show three chicks a nice, safe perch and the amnesia sets in.

The second night, I left it a bit later and darker, just so they didn’t see it coming.

Four nights in, and it’s all fine. They’ve decided they hate the pillar and perch on the roof of one of the nest boxes.

I don’t care. The situation is stable enough.