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Saturday, 4 August 2018

Inglorious Mud

In defence of the gentlemen concerned, before you begin rolling your eyes in despair at this account, it’s only fair to assure you that they are all expert off-road drivers. No really, they are…

So far we’ve had a funny old year weather-wise. As many of you know, the heavens opened in our pocket of south-west France in mid-December and forgot to stop. Flash floods, deluges, mud slides, we had the lot.

Crops were threatened, giving farmers reason to moan more than usual, which put the wind up insurance companies. They retaliated by reaching for their small print disclaimers stating: sorry, no payout for Acts of God. This fuelled Jack’s (my grumpy husband) conviction that there exists an even tinier print which reads: we find a way not to pay whatever the circumstances.

By the second week in June we were understandably a bit cheesed off with constantly wading through our clay-based mud. Take a bucket of that lot home and I’m sure I could have knocked up a couple of decent kiln-ready pots in no time at all.

Happily there were one or two respite days. The sun shone down, sizzling sodden crops, reminding us that it really does get pretty hot here at this time of year. It was on one such day we decided to spend the evening nature watching.

With Jack at the wheel of our aging 4x4, we shimmied and skidded into the forest to my favourite observation hide. He temporarily left me to unpack our picnic and drove on to complete his deer food dispensing rounds.

I watched as the car slewed from side to side, taking its own route through deeply bevelled, muddy tracks. As it disappeared from view, sideways, I heaved a sigh of relief that it wasn’t me driving. There’s no doubt Jack really does know how to handle these conditions, I’d have had us in a ditch in no time at all.

With the final feed done, Jack was on his way back via another innocuous-looking trail. I glanced over and was surprised to see he had stopped on open ground. This was strange. I quickly realised why. Mud spats, glistening in the evening sun, were flying up either side of the car. The tyres were spinning on the level surface – but there was no forward movement at all.

I peered through binoculars, secretly grateful I wasn’t there to hear Jack’s commentary. (To say my husband is easily frustrated would be a mild understatement. Okay – gross understatement.) It took him about ten minutes, working the gears, before he finally managed to get the car moving.

Jack reversed back to the deer feeding point and took a new route via the meadow edge. This seemed sensible. The undergrowth is high and should have had root systems to provide firmer going. Not so. The car ploughed ahead a short distance and stopped again. This wasn’t a good sign.

With growing tension I watched Jack amongst the weeds battling the conditions, but the car wasn’t going anywhere. There wasn’t much point in me spending the evening gawping through my binoculars so I climbed out of the hide and walked the short distance to join him.

Sticky stuff, clay-based soil. The more Jack tried to free it, the more the car glued itself to the mud. To add insult to injured pride, a roving mushroom picker popped out of the woods.

Gilles, a neighbouring farmer, when not moaning about failed crops is ever so chirpy. He kindly offered to fetch his tractor to tow us out. Nooooo, that was far too simple. Jack, puffing out his chest, thanked him and refused. He’d had an alternative idea. We complimented Gilles on his magnificent fungi and he disappeared back into the woods to find his lost wife.

Jack’s masterful scheme was to use the Jobber’s (mini truck) winch to pull it out. But the Jobber was back at the house – a long way away.

Sometime later, as night was chasing in, we were organised. The Jobber winch hook was snugly wrapped around a tree and tow rope attached to the car. Point of information here: Range Rovers are very heavy vehicles.

As the tow rope and winch cable took up the strain it was clear something had to give. It wasn’t the Range Rover, or the tree. A rifle crack twang signified the end of the cable as the hawser snapped. This was an awkward moment. I looked nervously at Jack, assuming he was ready to blow.

“H’m, thought that might happen,” he mused, sounding remarkably balanced under the circumstances.

With nothing else to try, we abandoned the car to the forces of nature overnight.

The following day brought Nathan, our French forester and all round treasure. We explained the situation.

Pas de problème,” he quietly murmured. Nathan was practically born on his tractor, has spent years wielding it around the forest pathways and was supremely confident it would drag the car out in no time at all.

That afternoon we traipsed back into the forest. Jack and I in the Jobber, our dogs, Aby and Max, galloping joyfully alongside. Nathan trundled along behind in his prehistoric tractor.

We weren’t overly surprised to find that the car was a little lower in the ground, but at least it hadn’t been mauled by a wild boar. The men surveyed the site – evidently deciding it was going to be a cinch.

Nathan attached a long towing line to the car and planted his forester’s winch blade deeply into the ground as an extra brake. Jack fired up the Range Rover and the rescue attempt began. Mud flew, engines roared and tempers flared, but no progress was made. Instead, the car was now tilting backwards where the rear tyres had sunk even deeper into the mud.

Temporarily foiled, but never defeated, we eyeballed the damage. Max tested out nearby ruts to confirm that they were deep – no need, Max, we knew they were. Soon a new plan of attack was hatched, it was a simple case of physics. To avoid dragging the car deeper into the mud the tractor had to pull the vehicle upwards. Easy-peasy, Nathan had a lovely big chain that would yank it out in moments.

The dogs were dismissed to the Jobber tailgate for bad behaviour. I joined them and we watched as the tractor took up its new position. More engine screams, ash clouds of mud filled the air, as did expletives while both vehicles laboured under the strain. All too soon it became clear what was going to happen. Nothing positive.

Engines were cut.  Nathan got out of his cab, and Jack climbed out of the window as the door rim was below the ground now.

Merde!” (bit sweary), Nathan exclaimed, morosely surveying his sunken charger. The tractor had joined the fate of the Range Rover and was well and truly stuck. Now we were in a pickle. We had nothing else that could attempt a tow and were fast running out of vehicles.

To avoid exposing any macho embarrassment, I stared at my toes while the dogs looked away, busying themselves with rabbit spotting. Resigned to the inevitable, the men concluded the only way forward was to dig out the vehicles. Brilliant. They went to fetch excavation tools while the dogs and I tested the site for further wet spots. There were lots.

This time Nathan returned on a quad bike. I’m still not sure why. All we needed was the tractor mower and we’d have the complete mechanical portfolio out. We spent the next half hour splashing around with spades, pieces of wood, branches, anything to enable the tractor tyres to gain purchase. Those babies weren’t having any of it.

Wheels with no visible tread spun gaily in the mud. Meanwhile, the Range Rover was gently sinking.

It may have been a touch emasculating, but there we are. We were well and truly scuppered. The guttingly awful truth had to be faced. We needed Gilles after all.

Gilles was telephoned.

Ah oui bien sûr,” he cried, thrilled to be invited to save the day. He was shopping but he and his tractor would be with us within the hour.

We reassembled to the sounds of distant rumbling. Out into the clearing came Gilles in his tractor. It was positively enormous. Pulling up into the carpark of assorted vehicles and dogs, he threw open the cab door and zoomed down the ladder. Wearing his customary ’70’s shorts and wellies, I couldn’t help wondering whether he had stopped off to change en route from shopping. Probably not.

Absolute gent that he is, Gilles condoled about the general merde-ness of the conditions, it could have happened to anyone. We all sagely nodded in agreement. He continued by assuring us he’d have our vehicles on terra firma in no time at all. And he did.

New lengths of tow rope were attached to Nathan’s tractor, which now looked like a Dinky toy. Gilles gently eased the gears of his magnificent monster and plucked it out of the ground to safety. Now it was the Range Rover’s turn. This wasn’t quite so simple as it was semi-submerged, or at least well and truly planted.

My girlie concerns that the chassis might become detached from the rest of the vehicle with one good yank were dismissed as a new angle of attack was established. Gilles’ mighty machine scored another blinder by gently easing the car out of its mud bath and pulling it onto the hard stuff. What a relief.

Finally we had all our two vehicles operational and it was all thanks to Gilles in those dashing ’70’s shorts. Who would have thought an innocent open forest track could be the cause of so much hassle. That’s inglorious mud for you!

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Baby Birds!

June turned out to be quite a baby bird-filled month for us. It started with one of our Reeves hen pheasants. What a good lass, I thought, delighted when she produced a clutch of eggs in her pen. Shame about the timing though.

We were dealing with the worst period of bad weather most of our French farmer pals can remember. (As most of these gents are knocking-on ninety, that’s a pretty long time.) Nevertheless, she refused to budge, bravely resisting the driving rain hammering against the nesting partition.

I was on countdown, hopelessly excited at the prospect of nurturing and releasing a new home-grown batch of poults into the forest. The due date came. Went. This was disappointing, although mum was still in situ. Was anything going on?

“That’s pheasants for you, dim as ditch water. She’s probably sitting on a pile of duds,” said a morose Jack, my husband, when I reported a potential nil return.

I wasn’t so sure. I’m convinced birds have a knack of sensing life early on in an egg.

A couple of days later under threatening skies, I was trying to complete my feed rounds before the next storm hit. I found our girl dashing around agitatedly. Had she abandoned her eggs at the critical moment? I didn’t want to prove Jack right, but it’s true – pheasants are famously poor mothers. Fearing the worst, I crept in to have a look.

Rain started falling as I scanned about. I checked the clutch and found a mess of broken and unbroken eggs. Amongst the shattered debris there was a chick halfway out of its shell. Faint tweeting elsewhere alerted me.

I spun around to find three tiny chicks pottering around pathetically, looking for their mum. Apparently dismayed at having produced them, mum had deserted her brood. Typical!

Raindrops bonked the little ones’ beaks as they wandered around, totally lost. The temperature was dropping as the weather deteriorated. If they stood any chance of survival I had to do something.

 I tore back to the house, grabbed a box and yelled at Jack to sort out the nursery. I knew he’d know what that meant so ignored the barrage of complaints coming from the study and returned to the pen.

The unhatched eggs were stone cold so there wasn’t much hope there. The half born chick was still alive, but also cold. I gathered them up and hunted down the chicks. Still by themselves forlornly peeping in the lashing rain, I gathered them into my box and hurried to the courtyard and hatching equipment.

Jack had started the incubator and lit the infrared light in the chick pen. He looked after the eggs and half-born while I snuggled the three little ones under the warm lamp. With nothing more we could usefully do, we left them to warm through.

Of the nine eggs, four were infertile. Sadly not all of the remaining chicks made it, but we ended up with three. Had our rescue attempts been worth it? Of course. It’s always worth trying to save a life. As you can see, our remaining chicks, Aramis, Athos and Porthos, are thriving and will no doubt develop into beautiful birds equally as nutty as their mum.

I mentioned bad weather didn’t I? After a long hot summer and autumn, unusually for our part of south-west France, the heavens opened in mid-December – and forgot to stop. It rained incessantly until mid-June. The constant wet weather took its toll on the wildlife and one little group that came to our attention. 

It was during my daily feed rounds when I noticed a dark, soggy form at the base of a skinny tree. I knelt down to have a look and was amazed to find a leafy nest full of chicks. Very new to the world, these tiny fragile mites were damp but apparently unharmed.

I assumed the nest had slipped from the branches above in the wet weather and somehow remained intact. Knowing we wouldn’t be able to nurture them successfully, I did the only thing I could think of at the time.

I placed the nest on an upturned feed bin and surrounded it with wood shavings as insulation. I left quickly, hoping against hope that mum would return to her brood. But I wasn’t optimistic.

The next day I was astonished to find that not only had they lived, but they were fluffed up and looked ready for a meal. In sharp contrast to the Reeve’s pheasant, their mum, a pretty starling, was doing a sterling job. The moment I retreated a safe distance, she zoomed in with a tasty morsel, flitting off on her perpetual mission to feed her brood.

As their progress continued, Jack and I became increasingly concerned about their position. The reality was they would make very pleasant canapes for a furry by-passer. We decided to reposition the nest (I say ‘we’ – I stood at the bottom of the ladder and offered helpful advice to a moaning husband) in the tree. Are they still all fine? It’s hard to say, although we have spotted the occasional bobbing head which suggests some at least are thriving.

My third baby bird encounter involved a different species altogether.

You may remember my sister, Di, and I traipsing off to the Gers in pursuit of a pair of peacocks to buy for her neighbour’s Birthday. Silly idea? Yep, it turned out to be just that, although we did have a lovely day.

Still determined to buy birds that were just that little bit different, we sought advice from my pal Monsieur Sarot, a mushroom picking fanatic and bird fancier.
His eyes lit up at the avian challenge – he knew just the species for us. It had to be une oie. Now, I like a goose as much as the next person, but they don’t strike me as being terribly exotic compared to peacocks. That, he assured me, was where I was so wrong.

Monsieur Sarot knew a lady who bred magnifique Egyptian geese. These sounded intriguing. I asked him to describe the animals. Multi-coloured with showy crests, he said they were the most striking geese he had ever seen. Bought young enough, they would follow their new master around like faithful hounds.

It was obvious, these were the ones for us. I briefed Di.

“Is he on commission? They sound too good to be true.”

“I don’t think so. He gets almost as enthusiastic when he’s discovered a new variety of mushroom – he’s just a bit keen that way.”

“Oh right, sounds genuine then. I reckon David would like a fancy goose or two.”

“Shall we do it?”

“Yep, let’s do it!”

I arranged a visit. We decided to buy goslings, one gander and three geese. Monsieur was a bit vague about the size so I loaded the puppy cage, which I assumed would be about right.

We drove in convoy on a sunny day towards the famously beautiful Lauzerte. It’s a medieval hilltop village which was made a bastide town in 1241 by the Counts of Toulouse because of its strategic importance. It’s now a hit with tourists and fairly bristles with Brits in the summer.

The countryside transformed from our alluvial plain landscapes into a new world of limestone outcrops, spiky hills and arable fields. Our journey should have been tranquil as the scenery, but it wasn’t.

Following Monsieur Sarot’s car presented its usual challenges as the French don’t like to trouble the indicator stalk on their steering columns. Their brake lights rarely work either. Several emergency braking situations and sisterly squabbles later, we skidded off a country road onto a dirt track and madame’s domaine.

The homestead was a fascinating collection of ramshackle wooden barns surrounding a rickety old farmhouse. As we pulled up, madame, a swarthy lady with a great smile and tell-tale stem of straw sticking out of her hair, appeared from a shed. Ready to do business, she took us into the first barn.

As we struggled through the splintered, rotten doorframe I started feeling apprehensive about the quality of her stock. If it was in the same state as her physical surroundings, we might be in trouble. We followed the sounds of cheeps, our eyes gradually acclimatising from the sun’s glare to the gloomy interior.

Voici le premier groupe,” said madame, pointing towards a cluster of small things.

Masses of goslings were waddling around on a deep bed of clean, sweet-smelling straw. Fluffy, tubby, with strange little knobbly heads and teeny-tiny wings, they were beyond adorable. After several coos and ahhs, I left Di to have a bash at conversing in French with madame, and followed Monsieur Sarot, who was beckoning me to have a look in the adjoining barn.

This was bigger and housed two even larger groups of goslings. It was impossible to count the closely-packed mini-honkers, but there must have been hundreds of them. The farthest cluster were only a few days old, he explained, and had heat lamps for warmth. I stood, gaping at these wonderfully healthy animals. It was clear where madame spent her money.

Music piped out of an ancient radio perched on a manger. It was to get the goslings used to human voices, he said. I wasn’t certain they would hear many French love songs around here, but one never knows.

We re-joined madame, and Di, who was now looking rather anxious.

“We’ve got ours. Erm, she grabbed them by their necks and stuck them in this box. Hope they’re okay.”

“Oh right, well, perhaps that’s the way they should be handled.”

“You’ll have to ask about how to look after them, I haven’t got a clue what she said.”

I peered into the box at four indignant, knobbly-headed shriekers and discussed husbandry requirements with madame. She had selected 10-day old chicks, and they were already whoppers, nicely chubby and covered in yellow and buff-coloured down. They were going to be perfect.

Sensing we were instant fans, madame took us to see their assorted parents. A flock of geese were free-roaming in the field closest to her house. Some were lolloping around in a pond, others grazing or preening. We stood and admired these magnificent birds.

It’s just as well we were already smitten as it was very clear that monsieur was not a goose expert. At all. There was nothing remotely Egyptian, nothing even slightly crested about these incongruously knobbly-headed creatures. I asked madame the species, a question which proved to be a toughey. She sucked her teeth, knitting her brow in thought.

Oooh, Tarn peut-être?” she suggested.

I’m not an expert either, but I have never heard of a Tarn goose.

She pointed at a large one at the base of a tree. It was a female sitting on her egg.
Voulez-vous voir l’oeuf?” she said, asking if we wanted to see it. We shook our heads, not wanting to upset the scary-looking mother-to-be, especially since she was hissing quite loudly now.

Madame wasn’t having any of it, she was determined to show us every element of the process. She produced a floppy length of rubber hose and gave the goose a gentle thwack with the end. The goose clamped onto the tube in a deft Rottweiler-esque movement, which enabled madame to pluck the egg from its nest.

Voilà!” she proudly cried, holding up the white beauty. This one was destined for the incubator.

Concerned our goslings might be starting to roast, we decided to take our leave. On the way to our car, madame paused to show us her other passion. Renovating machines. We would have loved to rummage through her magnificent graveyard of rusty gems but time was against us. It was probably just as well as she was beginning to look rather lustfully at Monsieur Sarot’s old car.

The purchase of our new goslings coincided perfectly with David’s Birthday. We housed them overnight in one of our pheasant chick nurseries while Di broke the news to him. She had already plotted with Sue, his wife, so felt things should be fine, but we had a contingency plan in place in case he was horrified at the idea. (I quite fancy a goose or two swimming around in our moat).

Luckily David was enchanted by the whole idea (phew). He spent most of the following day building a remarkably complex nursery to house them, incorporating the heat lamp and litter kit we had supplied. He came to collect his presents that evening.

The look of happiness on David’s face was enough to make a grown man cry. To say he was charmed by his surprise gifts was an understatement. Satisfied he had done enough to make sure they would be comfortable and safe, he whisked them away to join his quirky entourage of chickens, llamas and a herd of rescued cats.

The goslings have now been in their new home for about three weeks. They are growing like mad and stretching David’s carpentry skills to the max. They have progressed from daytime grazing in an enclosure on the lawn with nights in a cosy infrared lamp heated cabin, to joining the chickens in their pasture and shed.  

Early concerns that the hens might savage them were allayed as the girls had a team panic attack at the sight of the waddling yellow perils. They are now firm friends. The llamas are still in conference about them and are likely to pass judgement soon. As for the cats, well, they’re not stupid. They’ve seen the size of those beaks and are keeping a healthy distance.

As the goslings continue to flourish, so do David’s small-holding ideas. Next on his list of animal-friendly jobs is to create a pond. Once that’s complete, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see his small flock joined by a new group of goslings and perhaps, even a proper Egyptian variety. He’s that kind of animal-loving chap.  

It has been a very happy end to our birthday bird buying quest. And as for the animals, are they lucky to live here under the dedicated care of David and Sue? Absolutely!