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A Puff of Feathers

We have been delighted to get back into our routine: me being on the farm, Luke at school and Stephen at work on site. The week has its own ebb and flow. On the weeks when needed, I work a grocery shop into one morning when there are no other chores to be done. We have just one extracurricular class for Luke at the moment - drumming after school on a Thursday - and he plays soccer for an hour on a Saturday morning. Overall the week-to-week schedule is very manageable.

I rarely venture further than the local town which is about two kilometres away. Pandemic living has encouraged me to be more of a homebody, and I have delighted in it. Spring has come and I want to spend my time in the garden and polytunnel. I enjoy the company of my chickens and frequently will go out to sit with them as I drink my morning cup of coffee.

When Stephen announced to me on Thursday last that not only would he be working on Friday, but also on Saturday, I was not overly pleased. His work days start at about four in the morning and he is often not home until seven or eight o’clock in the evening. The risk of burnout is very real. In terms of the farm, I’m well able to keep things going during the week, but I always worry that I might miss something.

Overall, the week went well. I was able to plan out my days and achieve what was needed. I stayed on top of the washing, successfully froze a large batch of chicken stock, tended to the various animals and cooked dinners every night. Sheep were checked and moved from paddock to paddock as required. I even managed to shoehorn in a trip to Carlow for canning supplies on Friday morning.

One of the things that I was keeping an eye out for was a sick ewe that we have in a small group of other sheep behind our house: she lambed back in March and was doing a fine job as a mother, but was sickly and thin despite all of our efforts to bring her back to health. Every day I sought her out, coaxing her to get up when she was lying quietly in the ditch or under a tree. If I’m honest, I have no idea how she survived as long as she did, especially feeding her two babies.

I found her and talked to her on Saturday morning and she seemed her usual quiet self: very bedraggled and a bit miserable looking but still going about. Expecting a wet day, I went about the rest of my morning chores with Luke. We had a bit of fencing to mend and I was so grateful to have his help!

When I went to check on her later on that day, I was disgusted to find that not only had she died, but that scavengers had already made away with a large part of her. This angered me for two reasons: firstly, I had been keeping an eye on her so closely (- some would no doubt argue not closely enough -) and secondly, I had wanted to ask the vet to do a post-mortem on her so that we might determine the cause of her sickness. Given that she now was missing all of her internal organs (yes, you did read that correctly), that was now impossible.

On seeing her, my buoyant attitude dissolved. I had been feeling like I was having a really on-point week, like I was in control and getting stuff done. In an instant it was gone. And was about to get worse, because not too far away from her there was a puff of feathers.

Soft grey and unmistakeable, they belonged to one of my Bluebell chickens. My anger turned to fury.

Luke, who was happily playing on his Xbox, was rudely heaved away from his game as I rushed into the house and demanded he come and help me. To his credit, he limited his complaints. We went and got the tractor, loaded the poor ewe up and tipped her unceremoniously into our trailer, ready for a trip to the knacker’s yard bright and early on Monday morning.

Another reason that I was so furious, was that the week had gone so well, and then, in my eyes, it had all fallen asunder at the eleventh hour. Instead of telling Stephen the cause of her death, I got to tell him that I had not been paying enough attention when she died to remove her carcass in a timely fashion. It was a failure on my part.

When I found her, untouched parts of her were still warm so I gather that she had not in fact been dead too long. It being cubbing season, a mother fox probably had been keeping an eye on her too and had sprung into action and had brought home a hell of a prize to her family. I would bet that the fox had not been travelling alone either… hence the amount of damage that had been done. And of course the opportunistic snatching of my chicken.

Unfortunately, this is the reality of keeping animals, harsh though it may seem. At times like this, I have to remind myself that we are part of a much larger eco system, where we are surrounded by birds and bugs and of course, bloody foxes. Each plays its part, and without the delicate balance of Mother Nature, our beautiful and rich surroundings would not be so.

But the chicken is a particular loss for me. What it means for me is that the foxes are on to us and they have dined at our expense. Our chickens have been free-ranging in the field behind our house though they get locked into their coop every evening at dusk. They love it. They do have a large pen, but we have felt brave enough that we let them out to roam. They meander about eating insects and worms, and reward us by laying gorgeous, nutritious eggs with bright orange yolks. Those days may be numbered.

Now, it is likely that the foxes will return for their next meal. So, we will count our chickens every night at roost, even more carefully than before to monitor the situation.


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