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Saturday, 7 September 2019

Born to Live

Jack, my husband, and I, had one of our animal chats. They can be tricky. This one started way back in January.

“Jack, how about raising a small group of pheasants this year?”

“Are you mad? We’ve got far too much to do as it is.”

“Don’t worry, everything’s under control, but I’m concerned our forest group is dwindling.”

“Hang on a minute, I’m constantly being attacked by one of the swines, why do we need more?”

“Honestly, Jack, that’s just one. Anyway, it’s only because you keep invading his territory.”

“Charming! In that case, the sod can feed himself. Mind you, I suppose we do have too many males…”

“Oh, yes, absolutely. Loads of males. If we’re going to keep the population going, we definitely need more females.”

“Huh, and I suppose you’ll want me to use the incubating machines then? They’ll need renovating and recalibrating.”

“Of course. Thank goodness one of us is technically minded. That would be marvellous, thanks. I’ll start collecting eggs once they start laying.

Deal done.

Romance was in the air with the arrival of spring. Imbued with a sense of amour, our group of penned adult pheasants began courting. A production line of eggs soon followed, which I enthusiastically collected and handed over to Jack for incubating.

Meanwhile, not to be outdone by a bunch of hair-brained pheasants, a couple of our chooks became decidedly broody. This was frustrating. Refusing to budge off their eggs, I was attacked every time I tried to remove them, neatly reminding me that one should never mess with a broody hen. They’re fiendish. Ironically, help was at hand.

By this stage, our incubators were reaching capacity. I donned a gardening glove, sneakily slipped a handful of pheasant eggs under the girls while removing the clutch in situ. Voilà! Poached eggs on toast reappeared on the breakfast menu.

We were incubating a mix of Melanistic and Reeve’s pheasants. Melanistic cock birds are a dark teal with iridescent blue plumage and black-barred tails. The females have a lustrous, almost black plumage. For a species with strong nitwit tendencies, the Melanistic variety is reasonably calm. Big tick there, the downside is they have a tendency to wander. This is a worry with trigger-happy hunters patrolling our boundaries. In spite of this, we decided to breed a small number to help calm the nervy Reeve’s.

Reeve’s pheasants are forest dwellers so ideal for our setting. The adult males are unashamedly flamboyant with bandit face markings and extra-long, flashy tails. The females’ feathering is appropriately discreet. Soft, browny shades meld into a beautiful camo plumage. All absolutely gorgeous, visually, it’s their personalities that sometimes let them down.

These birds definitely need a diet of chill pills. They’re apt to be skittish when immature, and when they reach adulthood some of the males become so territorial they’ll attack humans – like Jack. And, to be fair, nobody likes an aerial attack from a furious, whirring demon with a two-metre tail and sharp spurs.

Right on time, eggs started moving and cracks appeared. It’s like watching a magic trick. Out popped chicks who immediately started waddling around: small, perfectly formed fluffy dumplings. Sadly, as is the way of things, it wasn’t all plain sailing, and some got stuck. Luckily for them we had Jack, the midwife, on hand.

For a man who professes to dislike animals intensely, he does a remarkable job at saving so many. The chick unzipping kit was unfurled, on went two pairs of specs – one pair apparently wouldn’t do, and Jack successfully brought every stuck chick into the world.

The incubators were cleaned and put to bed, enabling Jack to return to his far more important work. Machine maintenance and associated oily tasks were on his to-do list. Meanwhile, we had a nursery full of baby birds. They’re mucky, they’re naughty, and they eat and poo copious amounts. It was my job to look after them.

Day by day, I watched as ping-pong ball-sized newborns developed tiny feathers. Aside from oversized feet, everything was still miniature at this stage, although their growth rate was incredible.

While this was going on, we had a happy event in the chicken run. Good as gold, our surrogate mums produced a mini clutch of baby pheasants. They may have been slightly mystified at their appearance, but that didn’t faze them. Instinct took over, and they protected their broods with typically fierce behaviour.

By early summer the chicks had transformed. Downy fluff had been replaced by starter feathers, and the Melanistics were looking like a congregation of vicars with their incongruous white collars. At this stage, it was still hard to tell the difference between males and females, although the bumptious behaviour of a handful suggested we certainly had a bunch of lads on our hands.  

The time had come for the youngsters to be moved from their cosy nursery to an enclosed rearing pen next to their parents. To do this, they had to be caught and popped into animal crates. Sounds ever so simple, doesn’t it? It was, in theory.

I have a serial fear of accidentally squashing the birds in mid grab, so ‘big-hands’ Jack was drafted in to do the job. A couple of issues to point out here.

The conditions for capturing a bird are cramped as one has to reach down and fish around inside the nursery for a suitable subject. There is even less room for the crate holder. Me. It was a boiling hot day. Jack has no patience at all.

“Hell’s teeth, what have you been feeding them on? Obviously the wrong stuff, this lot are crazy!”

Rhetorical question.

Arrgh! Hold that crate properly, would you? Nooo. Look! Now it’s out again.”

An anguished fumble ensued as we both tried to pin down escapee junior who was in the process of finding out what wings were for. This scenario was repeated several times.

Sometime later, all 54 were successfully boxed and ready to go. And us? We weren’t a pretty sight. I was liberally covered in droppings and I have no idea how that happened. Jack was leaking from several superficial wounds caused by multiple bashes against the nursery edges. As he mopped a bleeding elbow, out came another morose remark.

“I remember why I hate raising birds now.”

Despite their traumatic morning, our teenage flock seemed positively diverted by their new surroundings. And why not? Exciting green stalky stuff had to be examined. Unusual hard surfaces that sounded crunchy and moved weirdly when walked on. They were fun. Then there were horizontal poles. What on earth would they be for?  

With the forest on one side, parent bird pens adjacent, and hens nearby, the newcomers had lots of stuff going on. Their introduction to new things didn’t stop there. Evidently intrigued, Tripod, a three-legged wild boar we have nurtured since he was a nipper, ambled up to his side of the fence with his family to see what the tweeting hubbub was all about. Interesting for the younglings, but only for a moment. Very quickly they got bored with the smelly, grunting beasts and returned to foraging and flying practice.

Over the following weeks, my twice daily husbandry visits were made even more enjoyable by the happy arrival of a new batch of chicks from a Melanistic mum next door. I watched them thrive in the hot summer temperatures while I completed my tasks with the teenagers, who were about to learn a first valuable lesson in survival. And it came from an unexpected source.  

Every time a bird of prey flew overhead, one of the cockerels would crow to raise the alarm. The hens rushed to his side and took cover, but then something else happened. His cries instinctively caused the poults to stop in their tracks and pivot their heads skywards. I don’t know how they knew to do this, but Jack and I had seen it before and knew what we would do.

We were now in the middle of August and it was time to release our young charges to a one hectare (2.5 acres) open-top pen in the forest. Here, they would be safe from furred predators until they had improved their flying skills. They would continue to benefit from a sustained supply of feed and water and have ample roosting cover.  

A couple of days before the final transfer, much to their disgust, I caught up our guardian cockerel and his three girls. He’s massive, and they were all grumpy. It was a struggle. I drove them to the forest enclosure and gently deposited them in a smaller pen in the middle. What a transformation! If chickens could smile, they would have beamed. The moment they stepped out of the cages, they started happily clucking as they pecked at fresh grass and scratched for insects. Heaven.

With everything going to plan, it was the pheasants' turn. This can be a tricky process. The birds were now a few months old, healthy and very agile. They had to be netted and boxed. It was likely to be another test of Jack’s patience.

And it was.

It’s one of those times when I was mightly relieved we have no close neighbours. The sight and sounds of a swearing Jack sprinting around the pen with a net in hot pursuit of a panicking poult are not elegant.

I ignored the howls of, “This is a waste of time, they’re all bloody males. You do realise that, don’t you?”

They weren’t.

I also ignored the, “For crying out loud, do I have to do everything myself? I said, herd them towards me, not away!”

I was.

I nearly managed not to giggle when, breathless, he finally stopped and threw his net on the ground in a tantrum. It was a magnificent moment, one I so wish I’d caught on camera. Instead, I mildly suggested it might be my turn to net, and we eventually caught up the last of the feathery crew.

Several trips later all the crates were in the open-top pen. We opened the lids, left them to it and crossed our fingers. This is always a horribly tense time. All that work, those cute little fluff balls now beautiful young things. Our kids. Were they going to survive?

The following day I only saw a couple of pheasants. It’s a big area, so I expected that. I checked the feeders then opened the little pen door. Out came Monsieur le cockerel with his girls ready to examine his new territory.

Fast forward two weeks and, goodness, how things have altered. It’s impossible to count them, but it looks as though most of the pheasants have now made their home in the open-top pen. As always, they have gravitated to the fencing where they patrol and fly in and out as they wish. Better still, every time I have checked, the cockerel has been in the centre of his greater flock, and I know very well that if he sounds the alarm they will all run for cover.

Our pheasants were born to live. We’ve tried everything we can to make sure that happens with a continued supply of food, water and hope. If they successfully integrate with the existing small group, our job is done. Aside from the odd ambush (poor Jack), having these birds grace our forest is like living with birds of paradise. Fabulous.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Al Fresco in France

So what’s been occurring in our parts over the past few weeks? Lots, actually.

The forest is wide awake and bursting with vigour. Apples and grapes are taking form in the orchards and vineyards, and sunflowers are starting to beam in the meadows. Then there’s the wildlife. Young animals, born just this season are playing trampoline on freshly cut grass or tag among the trees. The summer is a blissful time of year for us humans too.

Villages and towns are in full flow with markets and fêtes a regular feature. Hustle, bustle, goods and produce along with alluring aromas wafting from street food are all incredibly enticing. As was the invitation we received from our English pals, Pat and David.

Pat is a super chef and really knows her onions when it comes to putting together a meal. She and David had invited us to supper, which we enthusiastically accepted. As usual, it was delicious, the crowning glory of which was Pat’s Vietnamese wrap canapés. Succulent bundles of heavenliness, they were flawlessly handcrafted using a variety of fillings that zinged off the palate and caused havoc with our taste buds. Such was the success of these little beauties we pleaded with Pat to hold a masterclass at a later date.

Word got round in the run-up to the evening. Numbers increased from a discrete three ladies to four couples. Except it didn’t quite turn out like that. Being a nuts and bolts sort of a chap, Jack, my husband, loftily refused to have anything to do with a cookery class. Then again, he was reluctant to pass up an opportunity to sample more of Pat’s cuisine. He was stymied. The magnanimous solution was that he’d crack on with his latest engine repair and join us later. I’ve seen Jack battling in the kitchen, it was a sensible decision.

On a sultry evening, I set off for their home. Hidden down a lane so secret it has grass growing down the middle, it nestles in a dip protected by woods and meadows. Dappled light filtered through the green canopy as I drove along. My destination was ahead in a clearing. Golden sunrays dazzled me as I drew up to their gorgeous farmhouse. (You can see what a jewel it is from this pic taken earlier in the year.)

French, British with the possible hint of Italian descent thrown in, our international crew turned up bearing homegrown produce and liquid gifts. True to their natures as consummate hosts, Pat and David welcomed us with warm hugs and glasses already filled with apéritifs.

Pat being Pat, she had everything beautifully organised. Plates of ingredients filled with minuscule-sized delicacies had been snipped and piled in expectant heaps. Empty plates lay ready for each pupil along with several bowls of water. Might a ritual cleansing be required before we began? We would soon find out.

I should also mention that Pat’s career included working as a cookery teacher at one of the UK’s premier private schools. Her reputation as a highly-skilled cook and child nurturer are the stuff of legend.

We were directed to the terrace dining table, and our class began. Instructions were issued, and a short demonstration was given, which solved the bowls of water mystery. All we had to do was soak a rice paper disc for a short time, remove and then fill it with a mixture chosen from Pat’s pre-prepared goodies. Fold in the edges to make a parcel et Voilà! Simple.

We were off.

It quickly became apparent that while Pat is a stellar chef, her pupils had much to learn in the art of building a Vietnamese wrap. There’s definitely a knack to it. 

Have you ever worked with rice paper? It’s pesky stuff. Looking like an oversized contact lens, it is slippery and a tad slimy when wet. It’s also prone to splitting so must be handled with care.

My first mistake was quantity control. Agonising over choice, I stuffed loads in. Wrestling to get my clammy package closed, I quickly pinned the edges together and squished it, folds down, on my plate in the hope that it might glue together. It didn’t. I stared miserably as my podgy mass gradually unravelled, ending up in an amorphous splurge of assorted morsels.

“No, Beth, I’m afraid that won’t do,” observed Pat, “good try though. Have another go with fewer bits,” she added encouragingly.

Di, my sister, who had been chortling on the side-lines at my pathetic attempts, had the opposite problem. Sensibly economic, she had used just three julienne-cut carrot matchsticks plus a sliver of cucumber. That didn’t work either. It looked like a wacky-baccy cigarette which wasn’t worth the smoke.  

Meanwhile, another trainee was developing consistency problems. Something he’d done in the bowl was causing the rice paper rounds to lose their elasticity. Try as he might, and full marks, he was totally focused, the end results looked like flaccid opaque slugs.

Happily for Pat, in sharp contrast to us flounderers, one of the class quickly caught on. Fiendishly competitive, Jane transformed into a human production line, producing endless examples of what a Vietnamese wrap really should look like.

Mind you, nobody likes a teacher’s pet. As the rest of us blundered on with variously exploding, skinny or lax offerings, our labours were periodically punctuated with chirpy commentary.

“What do you think of this one, Pat? I think it’s my best yet.”

“Very good, Jane. Yes, that’s another excellent one.”

Had it burst? Was it too skinny? No, nope, it was a perfectly wrapped little parcel full of nicely-selected gubbins. Suppressing a tut, and making a mental note to ask Jane if she enjoyed wrapping Christmas presents, I returned to my greyish blob.

Defeat is not on the menu of our consummate chef. True to her teaching instincts, Pat refused to end our masterclass until we had all made at least one presentable canapé. Since most of us were best described as low-achievers, this took a while.

“Stop fishing around in the bowl, Pierre, it’s rice paper, not a goldfish. It’s gone soggy now, just take it out carefully. Never mind, I’m sure you’ll crack it before we run out of supplies.”

“Ah, now that’s a much better effort, Chloé, although you might want to re-think your choice of mixing wasabi with mint leaves. Aside from that, you’ve done a lovely job.”

As we beavered away, David, who was observing, recognised the signs of culinary strain. He came to our rescue with wine, surreptitiously filling glasses throughout the session. It did a champion job in keeping our spirits high, transforming frustrated groans into shrieks of laughter as we giggled at one anothers’ efforts.

By the time we’d finished, every trainee had specimens that passed muster. I was still struggling with my tendency to produce fat torpedoes and Di, spindles, but they were deemed acceptable. Jane, however, could have fed an army with her mountain of culinary beauties and accepted the constant teasing with good grace.

“Well done, everyone,” exclaimed Pat, “and now we’re going to enjoy the results.”

With uncanny timing, Jack turned up as Pat reappeared with platters laden with our best efforts. As we sat enjoying our al fresco tapas, I reflected on how priceless evenings like this were. And what is the secret to making a top Vietnamese wrap? Well, you’ll have to ask Pat, our cordon bleu chef, but here is the method along with some of our mixings, and they were seriously yummy!

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Message in a Bottle?

Have you ever been so excited about something you can barely sleep? I have, and this is why.

We were at the Natural History Museum in London. For animal and plant lovers, it’s a building bulging with grippingly interesting exhibits from around the world. Thousands of treasures can be enjoyed by the public here, but for special reasons, many others lie in state behind closed doors. It’s a magical place for someone like me.

As a new member of the Museum, I had booked myself and my animal-loving pal, Lisa, on a behind the scenes tour. And we were keen as mustard.

Breathlessly, we waited by a significant piece of coral in Hintze Hall, the cathedral-like gateway to the Museum. At the appointed hour, Jim (whose name I have changed out of courtesy), appeared, complete with clipboard and badge. You know you’re in for a treat when the chap in charge is as eager as you, and he’s seen the sights a hundred times.

(Dezeen image taken from Google.)

His introductions were brief, no time for in-depth explanations about the magnificent collection of polyps to our left. Jim was dying to get on with the show. We were about to do something special, he beamed. Very, very special. I love people like Jim.

Dodging hordes of school children, Jim led us along a passage, pointing at interesting things along the way. Pillars with remarkable carvings here, insect exhibits there and don’t forget the dinosaur display in the hall on the left.

“Dinosaurs?” I enthused, already hopelessly inspired.

“Not now!” groaned Lisa. She knows about my undying love for fossils and bones.

Down into the Darwin Centre we went, barely able to keep up with our loping guide. Through a secret door and into a lift which whipped us away from the public eye. This was when our group of six began to feel ever so special.

Jim paused halfway down a stinky corridor lined with closed doors.

“Can you smell that?” he asked.

Since it was the kind of smell that could sizzle a tonsil, it was hard to ignore. We nodded with squished-up noses. One game lady, whose eyes had begun to water profusely, suggested a particular type of chemical before retiring behind her hankie. Jim nodded. She was on the right track.

Jim opened a door into one of the rooms. It revealed a study-like setting and dissecting table. In places like this, he said, scientists came from all over the world to examine samples. New learning is acquired, discoveries are made, some which become world-famous. My mind boggled at the thought of the thrilling finds scrutinised here.

Back in the corridor, he pointed to a darkened room, one with several small bugs wandering around the inner sill.

“And what do you think these might be?” he asked.

As keeper of maggots in our fridge, I had half an idea. I should explain... Maggots are a great source of protein for the pheasant chicks we’re currently rearing. They get a daily portion. Are they yucky? Oh yes, but they have to be stored in pots somewhere cold to stop them wriggling out and going on a march. Thanks to our local supplier, I knew how they were harvested. I made a suggestion.

“Are they a type of flesh-eating bug?”

It was a bingo! moment. Nodding enthusiastically, Jim explained that body parts were brought here and left to a battalion of special flesh-eating beetles. It was nature’s way of getting down to the bare bones as t’were, and they did a grand job. We were lucky to see them. Apparently. A new and exciting piece of animal had obviously been brought in and the critters were hard at work.

Gripped by the possibility of having passed a half-gnawed zoological scientific breakthrough, we continued. Through heavy security doors, in another lift, and we had reached the purpose of our tour. We stored our bags but were allowed to keep phones for photos. Jim, looking radiantly expectant, gestured around a corner.

“Welcome to the Spirit Collection,” he smiled.

And there it was. Jars and jars of preservative containing extremely dead creatures. As the name suggests, it’s pretty much alcohol, but you wouldn’t take a sip. Reason one, it’s about 70% ethanol, the current occupants of each container being the second.

We goggled at the shelves stacked with glass jars. There were endless rows of them, it was almost impossible to take in. Jim smiled at our wonder, encouraging us to take photos. We did.

But we were only scratching the surface. We peered, awestruck, at tiny wormy things, then bigger, weirder ones. Snakes, ooh lots of snakes.

Jim explained that each category has a floor. A floor? The Darwin Centre is a great big place. Try wrapping your brains around that one.

Every jar was labelled, some with exquisite copperplate handwriting, others typed. Each dated. Shoulder to shoulder they stood, some ages old, others bottled only the other day. I was enthralled.

Jim gently shunted us on. We followed, gabbling about exhibits as we went. And just as I felt I was getting on top of the enormity of what we were seeing, he stunned us with another fact.

“There’s a lot more to see you know. We have over 21 million animal specimens stored in alcohol in the Museum’s Spirit Collection, but unfortunately, we only have time to see a few.”

You could have knocked my socks off.

En route to another level, we passed a hospital theatre-type room with chains and winches. Apparently a different type of examination room, it was where a female grey seal, found dead on the beach in Kent last year, was dissected. I recalled the story from the news at the time. It had become famous as the key purpose was for scientists to search for plastics. I looked around this stark, functional space feeling somehow honoured to be in a place where so much zoological research went on.

“And now, for my favourite room. This one has a real wow-factor,” said Jim.

By now I was just about wowed out. Could anything beat what we’d just seen?

We were led into the Tank Room, which was huge. Here big, extra unusual and bizarre things were kept: fish, non-fish and even furry animals – which were a bit weird.

Jim told us this room had been the setting for a famous movie. Unfortunately, I hadn’t heard of it, but it did remind me of a kitchen scene in the film Jurassic Park. And at that stage of the proceedings, quite frankly, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if a Velociraptor had sprung out from behind one of those whopping great tanks.

Show-stopping critters occupied this area. One side contained ocean dwellers with huge bass in jars my height, tuna, peculiar eels, creepy angler fish and oodles more. As we scanned the room, Jim pointed out a coelacanth, the most famous living fossil.

“Thank goodness for that,” muttered Lisa, “this one might be dead, but at least you’ve seen a fossil today.”

I was thrilled.

We turned to look at a selection of much smaller, exquisite-looking deep-sea fish. Pretty deadly they were, each utterly remarkable.

“And here’s my personal favourite, she’s called Archie,” smiled Jim as he pointed to the centre of the room.

Looking head-on, at first it was difficult to work out what Archie was. Then it clicked. It was a ginormous squid in a purpose-made oblong tank. The creature had been accidentally caught by a trawler off the coast of the Falkland Islands at a depth of 220 metres. It was donated, eventually transported to the Museum, and identified as Architeuthis dux, a giant squid. And, oh my, was she a whopper! 8.62 metres, that’s 28 and a bit, feet, long.

We gawped at this monster with dinner plate eyes and mean-looking tentacles. Once those suckers had latched on, I suspect there would be little chance of escape. We clicked away, taking photo after photo of this remarkable animal.

It wasn’t until we'd reached Archie's toes that we realised she wasn’t alone. There were the remains of half a baby Colossal squid, a creature even rarer than Archie. What an incredible treat this was.

At the end of the tank room, we were directed to a glass case. It housed several samples accumulated by Charles Darwin during his voyage on the Beagle to the Cape Verde Islands between 1831-1836.

For me, viewing original discoveries is mesmerising, and this was no different. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for Darwin during his travels. Hard-going, dangerous, exhilarating? All of those, I expect.

As we absorbed their zoological importance, Jim explained why the Darwin jars have yellow lids. These are termed type specimens and are those specimens on which the descriptions and name of a new species are based. It’s hard to say which I was most impressed by, they were all extraordinary.

Reluctantly we dragged ourselves away to be faced by furred animals. But in jars? They seemed too surreal to be real. But they were. Bats, rats, porcupines, monkeys, and many more. Some were a bit eeewww, others looked hot out of a Dracula movie, but each was amazing in its own way.

And then there were the tanks.

It turns out that some animals are just too big to squash in a jar. These are the ones stored in the methylated spirits tanks. Sadly, we were unable to view them, but the contents include a bluefin tuna, shark, monkfish and a mountain gorilla. No wonder they had winch equipment.

Our tour was nearly over. It had seemed like seconds, but it was closer to an hour. We left the Tank Room, passing a shark jaw with rows and rows of teeth intact. Now, here was an animal who never suffered dental issues. We passed a magnificent Komodo dragon, other sharks heads and reptiles with exotic markings. There was far too much to take in, but we had enjoyed a brilliant glimpse of a completely different world.

As we returned to our start point, someone asked why more of the Spirit Collection wasn’t on public display. The answer was simple. They needed to be kept in a specially controlled environment where their preservatives could be properly maintained.

As he wound up our tour, Jim said there were over 80 million specimens in the Museum and the Spirit Collection was essentially a library for scientific researchers to further their learning about how life has evolved, identify new species and use the information for further scientific study. No wonder he loved conducting his tours.

“And do you have any idea how many shelves there are in the collection?” I asked, still trying to absorb it all.

“We have 27 kilometres of them here,” he replied, “all loaded with specimens, each telling its own story.”

A message in a bottle? Absolutely. What a fantastic preview we’d had of another world, and I have no doubt it was further enriched by Jim's uplifting guidance. We'll definitely take the tour again one day and hope Jim will be there to inspire us.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Homegrown French Champ

“Would you like to see my bull?” said the man, drawing up alongside me in his truck. I was dog walking on a deserted country lane. Under normal circumstances, I might have felt distinctly uncomfortable about such an offer, but this was different. This was Patrick Sazy, a breeder of prize-winning Blonde d’Aquitaine cattle and all-round lovely chap.

The whole family specialise in the beef business, and have the entire process covered, although Patrick doesn’t like to speak much about the end result. With animal welfare at the forefront of his mind, his passion is for rearing and nurturing spectacular live animals.

“Ooh yes please, Patrick,” I enthused.

“You’re welcome. Follow me. I have a bovine specialist coming later. He is pre-selecting for the national livestock show in Paris. I have my best bull and cow to be judged.”

I had wanted to visit his stud farm for ages. This was an opportunity too good to miss. The dogs and I ambled into his yard just as a large trailer pulled in. With fur oozing out of the vents on both sides, and tyres depressed by the strain of their cargo, I guessed what might be inside. The whole vehicle was swaying gently.

Out of the cab sprang a very pretty girl followed by two men. They pulled down the trailer ramp which revealed the most prominent backside I had ever seen.

“This is my colleague’s bull from Gers,” said Patrick, “it will be judged too.”

This was exciting. I couldn’t wait to see the other end of it. A couple of eager whines suggested that Aby and Max, our Australian Shepherd dogs, were thinking the same thing. Concerned they might start developing latent herding skills, I decided to tie them up before they made a nuisance of themselves. Patrick found me two lengths of bind-a-twine. I tethered them to a tractor in a grandstand position and watched while the newcomer was unloaded.

The monster, still inside, started quivering and pounding the trailer floor. Aby and Max stared, looking absolutely horrified. Checking them, so they didn’t break into a hysterical chorus of barks, I enthusiastically snapped away with my camera.

Madame, this is not his best feature,” said a grinning stockman, “you might be better to wait until he comes out.”

“Ahem, yes. Yes, of course,” I peeped, embarrassed at being caught taking photos of such an immense derrière.

Chains rattled inside the trailer as tackle was released. The vehicle’s sides rocked as Monsieur le bull decided it was time to go. Gates either side of the steep ramp were put in place and out he came, one bellowing pace at a time.

I stared goggle-eyed at the emerging mountain of flesh, wondering whether the little man hanging onto the halter rope was in fact as small as he looked. But no, as I quickly realised, he was above average height. It was his animal which was vast.

Once out, the bull, who actually seemed a placid enough chap, was tied up as his handler prepared him for the judging. This wasn’t quite as technical as one might think since it involved a scrubbing brush, and a hose, and a buffer-upper for finishing touches.

As the gent got stuck in, the lady, who turned out to be his wife, joined me. Admiring her pride and joy, she told me about their five-year-old home-grown boy and the breed standard. It was fascinating.

The ideal conformation for the Blonde d’Aquitaine breed is complicated, she said. Features such as dappling on the back forming rosette shapes, the curvature of horns, the rump and musculature were all significant, as were the chest depth and set of the eyes. It seemed that they had bred a fine specimen, one they had high hopes for in the show ring. There was one key issue, though. And I’m afraid it’s difficult to express it any other way.

This was a very mucky bull.

Every time poor monsieur cleaned up the rear end, there would be a swish of the tail and another outpouring. But this wasn’t an innocent dribble. Oh no, it came out like a power washer. On jet setting. One lot was deftly splattered all over Patrick’s car windscreen, which caused a good old belly laugh about the future need for industrial strength windscreen washers. Then the bull altered his ejections to squirt mode and caught the roving stockman square on the side of his face as he walked past. Nobody seemed to mind, though, this seemed to be normal.

Happily, monsieur taureau eventually ran out of fuel, which enabled the final bidet session to be completed and buffing-up to commence. He was gleaming by the time they’d finished. Meanwhile, Patrick had been preparing his own beasts in the shed. This building was one of several, all of which contained fabulous looking cattle. And they were as interested as we were in what was going on.

The Gers bull was untied and led to his place in the stable. More people arrived for the judging. As each car drew up, out came crates of beer, Pernod and breadsticks. Judging bulls must require a great deal of sustenance, I decided. I followed them in, agog at seeing Patrick’s beast for the first time.

And there he was.

A moment of maths, here. Patrick was standing on top of a sweet-smelling deep bed of fresh straw. His taureau was knee deep in it. Patrick is well over six feet tall. On the same level, I calculated that this animal must surely tower over him. More substantial than the interloper from Gers, this animal was beyond magnificent. Beside him stood the beautiful, creamy-coloured cow. Calm, and entirely unperturbed by the appearance of the new bull, she watched as he was gently slotted alongside. I swear that girl looked smug.

The air was thick with testosterone as we began the long wait for the judge to arrive. I took a short video during this period which I have posted on my Facebook profile. It quickly became clear was that Patrick’s bull evidently didn’t like the idea of this pretender, who might threaten his position as head of the heard. He got a bit grumpy and started a slow-motion thrashing, transforming the straw into confetti with each stamp. Patrick, sensibly hanging onto its nose ring, lovingly chided his charge.
The cow, sandwiched between the mounts of masculinity, still wasn’t taking a bit of notice of either beau. She calmly chewed her cud, while the newcomer took an unhealthy interest in her backside. Actually, it wasn’t hers I was worried about. If he’d let rip again, we’d all have been covered.

Then something new happened.

Patrick’s bull, now thoroughly fed up, started making strange noises. Have you ever heard a bull roar? In a stable? If not, I can tell you it’s a remarkable, bone-rattlingly booming kind of a sound. As this animal began to vocalise, its enormous, muscular body contorted with the effort. Out came this extraordinarily powerful sound. This was truly a fabulous animal, ferocious, yet utterly majestic.

Fortunately, Patrick was used to the protective antics of his boy and kept him under close control with the aid of stern words and the occasional slap with a stick on his shines. It must have felt like a feather tickle. Meanwhile, the beautiful cow continued to look on benignly, batted her extra-long lashes as she munched.

Disappointingly, the judge was delayed, and I reluctantly had to go before the pre-selection took place. I unhitched the dogs, who had been quiet as lambs throughout the whole process, wished everyone bon chance, and we returned home. It wasn’t until some weeks later that I learned the result. I bumped into Patrick’s sister-in-law and asked her what had happened.

“Come with me,” she smiled, ushering me into her office, the beating heart of their cattle business. Walls were lined with rosettes, photographs of winning beasts with family members beaming alongside. Trophies were on filing cabinets, shelves, anywhere. Everywhere.

The upshot was that both Patrick’s animals had been passed for the national show in Paris, and there was more. His fine bull had been placed overall third in show, but his gorgeous cow had been crowned bovine female show champion. They were both Champions of France. This wonderful family had done it again. Thrilled for them, I complimented her on their success.

“It is our passion,” she said bashfully. “We are nutritionists. We work with vets to breed our animals correctly and give them different special foods for their four growth phases. All completely natural. Only the best. We love our animals and want only to produce the best standard beasts with good character.”

I don’t know what happened to the bull from the Gers, but so long as he had been able to keep a lid on things I felt sure he would have been in with a great chance too.

My dog walk that day may have started out with a quaint offer, but it developed into an experience I shall never forget. I suspect the dogs won’t either. It had been a perfect treat and another unexpected adventure to mark our lives here in France among these kindest people. Life doesn’t get much better than this!