May 2013


Egg production has suddenly dropped over the last few weeks. Out of our half dozen laying hens we usually collect just under a half a dozen eggs a day. For the last few weeks we have had our source dry up to a mere one or two eggs daily. The lovely Sharon mentioned that she saw a hoodie inside the pen earlier in the week. Not the threatening teenage kind; the corvid kind. The hooded crows are sharp witted and crafty, and I began to blame them for the thieving.

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On Thursday evening I put up thick card over the windows in the hen house in an attempt to deter nervous crows from entering. As I worked I noticed one of the hens was very interested in my activity. She made it her duty to check out the house and the nesting boxes every time I left or came back into the hen house. So, I decided that she deserved a little test. I took one of our precious eggs from the kitchen and put it on the floor of the hen house. Within seconds the curious hen was over and pecking frantically at the egg. I shooed her away before putting the egg right at my feet. A slightly more hesitant hen was soon pecking away trying to feed her egg addiction. I was wrong to have that knee-jerk reaction of blaming the hoodies, the culprit was here all along.

The next morning, without the egg eater, we collected three eggs before midday. This would be great if one of them had not been paper thin and collapsed when I went to lift it. Two of our hens have been with us for years and I suspect they are laying irregular eggs. Sometimes they are thin shelled and sometimes the shell if thick and lumpy. I am sure that stumbling on one of these thin shelled eggs was what got the egg eater hooked on her habit. It is for this reason that we try and refresh our stock a little every year. Tonight I decided to introduce this stock. The job should have taken a fraction of the hour it took in reality.

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The easy bit was to lift the two old hens and put them in a box ready to take up residence in the spare hen-house. Then I had to empty the spare hen house of the four new hens and put them in the main hen-house. Except, they were not in the house but in the run and had no intention of going to bed. I made a bold, and stupid move, I let them out in the garden with the intention of catching them with my fishing chicken net. Usually I find the chickens easy to catch. Usually. I guess its a case of a different breed having different habits and different levels of wit.

The first chicken was easy to catch. The second chicken was faster and slightly more agile. The other two chickens vanished. I knew they would not go far from the coop and there seemed to be nowhere for them to go. A time spent hunting found one in the hedge. I got it out, but it had liked its new trick, and I spent the next ten minutes chasing, finding, then chasing, finding and chasing. The last of the hens was the most hidden and silent. By the time I eventually found her I had learned a trick of my own. I steered her into a hedge-less corner and her and her friends were soon locked away in the main hen house. I imagine there will be fighting tomorrow. Lots of noise and scuffles as they all get to know each other. Maybe they can find some common ground, maybe their shared hatred of the crazy man who runs round the garden with a fishing net.

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it was a hive of activity here today

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It felt ridiculous looking out the window in April and seeing fields covered in winter snow and trees naked and still dormant. The cold weather dragged on and all the life slept on, with dwindling reserves. Even the St Mark’s fly got confused, emerging from the ground by some hidden signal for a brief day or two of hanging about and looking for mates. The flies appeared, on mass, a full two weeks after the expected time; St Mark’s day.

Now that the green has finally poured over the land I can begin again the rhythm of keeping the bees. I don’t see myself as a beekeeper, I simply see the bees as a wonderful part of the life here at the cottage. If I am to tell the truth I should probably have started looking at the bees weeks ago, as swarm season officially started at the beginning of May. I think I took a calculated risk by leaving a full inspection until today. A week ago I opened them up just to take a peek in and see how many frames they covered; much less than this time last year. Today I put the suit on, fired up the smoker, and dived in. I even spoke to them for the first time ever. I have read that it is a very old custom to talk to the bees. In folklore this is taken to the extreme of actually making sure to tell the bees of important family events and news. Talking to the bees is said to calm them. I can see some truth in this if it calms the beekeeper. The bees can smell fear. If there is any nervousness in the keeper’s decorum or movement, the bees respond with their own nervousness and I have found that this can lead to unhappy inspections.

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Today the bees were calm. As I discovered last year, this queen gives rise to a very calm and controlled hive. The inspection was a joy, the bees are rapidly expanding, the queen was spotted and there were no queen cells. There were a couple of play cups, one with an egg in it, but no obvious signs of swarming. With the sweet smell of the smoker’s burning straw in the air, I closed up the hive and just watched them come and go for a while. Then I pottered around the garden for a bit until a cherry blossom tree caught my ear. The whole tree hummed with honeybees. I even spotted a humble bee or two mixing in with the excitement. So, I stood and watched for a while as the thick smell of cherries, even though there were only potential cherries, joined the noise in the air.

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Later I found myself doing a more unconventional beekeeping job. I unpacked the top trays of the deep freeze so that I could haul a bit of a beehive out of the depths of the freezer. I lifted out a ‘super’ to let it defrost in time to put it on the hive in the evening. With the job of placing a super on the hive comes the prospect of the summer, and even the autumn harvest of distilled cherry blossom.

At last.  I ordered it months ago and patiently waited for the publication date (always closer than actually published).  Then a few days ago the heavy tomb that is Kith arrived in our post box.  Jay Griffiths is an amazing writer.  Not light, not fresh.  She is deep and rich like the heavy cheesecake that you just can’t stop eating.  Her latest book is re-engaging me with childhood and all that it means and is.  It is making me rethink and savour, just like her other books did.

“…….Before any sense of myself, before a mirror had meaning, before my skin was a boundary, I remember nature as if it were inside me. Birds sang and I heard it inside. It snowed: I snowed. It rained: I rained. As if in some pre-verbal state, whatever ‘it’ was, I was too. I was warm in May because the sun was: I couldn’t tell the difference. I was all the world and all the world was me, saturated with presence. Grass. Blue. Tree. Water. Wind.

It was a kinship so primary that the senses understood it long before the mind.  Water was the touch of it; I could feel the sky and taste the dampness of leaves in the uninstructed mud the body knows. I had two older brothers, each of us a year apart, and our mother, a gardener, thought that children, like seeds, grew best unobserved in good black earth, so in daffodils we were crazy with yellow and by autumn we were brown and shiny as conkers, but all through the year we were frank and stout with dirt. Our mother dressed us in three little pairs of black tops and three little pairs of black trousers, so no one would ever complain about us being filthy for the very good reason that they would never see it. Every once in a while, six little bits of black clothing went in the laundry and three little bits of grubby childhood went in the bath.

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