Regular readers will know that I am very fond of our lovely Chicken Ladies. Not only are they a source of beautiful, huge, tasty fresh eggs: they are also endearingly daft. Watching them charge toward the gate of their run when they see me approaching with their red ice cream tub of scraps is a simple and unfailing source of pleasure.
More of the new ladies now have names. Some have reasons, while others just happened. The roll call now is Parmesina and Celestine – two of our original ladies – Bebe and Cecille, raised from chicks along with Doodle Doo, Veronica – her comb falls over one eye in a very film star fashion – and Candelabra Badgerbum (thanks for that one, Becca!) The remaining two are lovely plump ladies, provisionally christened Clarrissa and Penelope. We shall have to see if the names stick.
Plans for raising birds for the table are on hold at them moment. I think I would find it distressing to know the name of my dinner, but I am sure I would have a sort of generalized fondness for them all, even if I could not afford to become very attached to them.
When we were picking more grapes than we could possibly eat, I took to giving the chickens any leftovers to enjoy most days. Hanging a bunch from the orange tree in their run gave them some exercise leaping for them, as well as giving me reason to chuckle. Chickens do not look very aerodynamic, but they can’t half jump!
Now the trees are covered in pomegranates, it is time for a different seasonal treat. The ladies enjoy picking the juicy seeds out, as long as I stomp on the fruit to crack them open first. They chortle and discuss their enjoyment in a sort of posh, doddery lady voice while Jonathan mutters that he would love to join in, but he will not risk getting close to me. (This is a pleasant change after Doodle Doo’s vicious attacks, although I do feel a little insulted that he should think me such an ogre.)
The other day, while I was working on clearing some more of the fallen stone wall in the vegetable patch, I found some nice juicy weeds and an old tomato plant with a couple of small, overripe tomatoes still clinging to it. I decided the ladies would like them, so I went to bestow my tatty bounty.
Once I was in the run, as usual, I got distracted by checking the nest boxes, filling in a couple of holes they had dug for dust bathing* and generally tidying up. Some movement caught my eye. Veronica was making her way to the gate, which I had somehow left ajar. Candelabra was debating whether to follow her.
I had already given them the treats I had for them, so I had nothing with which to lure them back. I tried to ooze around to head them off without spooking them, but they were having none of it. They legged it, dashed past Minnow, who was yapping at the fence of the dog pound, and straight into the vegetable patch.
I was shocked to see that Parmesina, Celestine, Bebe and Cecille were already there, scratching energetically at the potatoes I lovingly earthed up a couple of weeks ago. I must have been even more engrossed in my investigations of the nest boxes than I had realised.
I may have mentioned that the ladies love brassicas. Anything cabbagey or cauliflowery, sprouty or broccoli has them in a veritable feeding frenzy. Chuck them some calabrese and they become a herd of feathered, vegetarian, land-based piranhas.
Unfortunately for me, I only planted some winter veg plugs last weekend. Fortunately for me, they had not yet noticed them. The tiny brussel sprout plants were doing very nicely and looking very luscious. Cabbage, broccoli and cauliflowers were sporting a magnificent five or six leaves each. I had to get the ladies away from them before they trampled, ripped and chomped them into nothingness.
I tried shaking my hand, pretending I had something delicious to give them. They were not convinced. They were having far too much fun digging up the potatoes and eating the foliage. Phantom food was not going to lure them away from a gorgeous, soft, diggable patch of greenery.
I glanced over the fence to the nearest pomegranate tree. If I left them to go and find a bribe, they might notice the sprouts while I was away. What was I to do? I decided to nip back to the feeders in the run and grab a handful of feed.
Unfortunately, as soon as I opened the gate, Jonathan Livingstone Chicken bolted past me to find his ladies, leaving me with a handful of feed and an even bigger problem than I had before. To add insult to injury, none of them could have shown less interest in the feed I now had to offer.
There followed an unedifying episode of hopscotching over the potato rows, chasing the ladies and narrowly missing catching some of them several times. Parmesina clucked her irritation at me as she and Celestine executed a nifty avoidance manouevre. Jonathan stayed as far away from me as possible and Candelabra scooted in the direction of the Chicken Palace, taking a sneaky bite out of a sprout as she went.
Nobody had spotted the baby pea plants yet. It was only going to be a matter of time. I had a couple of options, neither of which was very attractive. If I chased them too vigorously, they might scarper up into the main part of the garden, from which it would be easier to get enough of a run up to take flight. If I left them to it and hoped for the best, they might return to the run, but only after they had flattened and eaten everything.
The third option was to try to catch the four tamest and then fetch something to bribe the others. I decided to try it.
Celestine was the first to succumb. I cornered her, scooped her up and gave her a firm talking to as I returned her to Clarissa and Penelope. She shook herself down and tucked into a squishy tomato as if she had not recently been misbehaving at all.
Parmesina was almost as simple to catch. She looked at me accusingly from under her floppy comb, but I could tell she knew it was a fair cop.
Bebe and Cecille scuttered about, scratching up as much of the potato earthworks as they could, by way of a protest. Chasing them while keeping a protective eye on the sprouts and peas was an undignified and sweaty procedure. The three orange trees and the moribund nispero were no obstacle to the chicken contingent, but I lumbered about trying not to trample anything vegetable, while also worrying that I might poke my eye out or get otherwise savaged by the trees. By the time I had them both safely back home, Veronica, Candelabra and Jonathan had legged it to the main garden, alarmed by the farcical goings on among the potatoes.
At least I now had an opportunity to go and pick a pomegranate without them doing very much damage. I nipped over to the lowest plant on Paco’s patch of neglected land and grabbed a large, slightly under ripe fruit. The chickens seem to prefer them while the seeds are a pale pinky cream colour and I was keen to make my offering as tempting as possible.
When I turned back to the garden, the chickens were nowhere to be seen. My first thought was that they had flown over the fence and out toward Maria’s land. This could be a nightmare, as there are so many nooks and crannies, outbuildings and water channels there. I hurried to see if I could spot them. The ladies would stay close to Jonathan, so if I could see one, I would probably see them all.
I need not have worried about them going far. The three of them had hopped down into the narrow gap between the dry stone retaining wall of the garden level and the wire fence of the chicken run. They were busily discussing how they could force their way through the chain link and weld mesh and rejoin the rest of the flock. (Have I mentioned that they are a tad dim?)
Luring Candelabra and Veronica out with the pomegranate was fairly straightforward, and by now they were relieved to be led back to the gate and restored to their friends. I threw most of the fruit in with them. Jonathan was going mad, trying to throw himself at the wire and force his way in. There was little point in trying to explain the error of his ways to him, so I went and fetched one of the dogs’ towels from the shed, confident that he would keep trying for a while. If I could corner him and throw the towel over him, I would.
There is no safe way for me to get down into the gap, which is a couple of feet deep and only a foot or so wide at the widest point. If I got down there, I would be unable to climb out holding a struggling rooster anyway.
I tried to encourage Jonathan to hop up out of the gap by waving the hoe at the far end and moving it toward him slowly. The vine that grows about halfway along was a nuisance, as were the various cactus planted in the bed I was trampling. Jonathan was very worried by the hoe, but I could not find a way to persuade him to stop leading me an uncomfortable dance back and forth through the cactus bed. He was determined to stay close to the ladies, even if he could not get through the wire.
More from desperation than as part of a formulated plan, I launched the towel at him. I now had a rooster and a towel in an inaccessible gap, a vine trying to scratch me to pieces, no idea what to do next and the start of a headache. I thought I heard laughter from next door. Surely they would not be enjoying watching my increasingly ridiculous struggle. Although, if the boot were on the other foot…
As I tried to fish the towel out with the hoe, Jonathan made a break for it. He leaped out of the hole, charged around the front of the Chicken Palace, down the path past Minnow, who was still going bonkers and threw himself at the gate. Teddy and Poppy joined Minnow, very interested to see Jonathan flapping and chattering his distress.
I am not sure who was most relieved when I pulled the bolt and allowed Jonathan to screech and flurry his way back to his harem. It is hard to read a chicken’s facial expressions.
I stomped away, wiping pomegranate juice and chicken fluff from my hands with the dog towel. Poppy, Minnow and Ted looked like disappointed rubberneckers in the vicinity of a non-fatal accident.
It did not take very long for my blood pressure to return to normal levels, and for me to see the silly side of the incident, but I have been very careful to shut the door properly these last couple of days.
* I do not usually interfere with their DIY modifications, but if they are undermining the concrete perimeter or making a trip hazard for me near the palace, I rescind their planning permission.