Monday, 30 September 2013

New Girls

It's very calm in the hen's paddock today. The sort of calm that comes after a lot of palaver, once the kerfuffle has died away.
65 hens have passed through our paddock in the last few weeks, on their way from an existence in a cage to a real, proper, henny sort of life, filled with extravagant luxuries such as sunlight, fresh air and space.
(If you didn't see my last post, you can find out why our field has been Hen Central here)

Wellington, Mistress Bluebell, Goldilocks, Frau Spekl and Mrs Scissorhands aren't sure what is going on

Today the last five went with the In-Charge at lunch-time, en route to their new home in Donegal.
It's been like that for weeks - two here, three there, six somewhere else.Now there are just four left, four who will be staying permanently.

I kept all the rescues separate for awhile, to recover in peace and quiet, and also to check that they weren't obviously sick, but for the last week or so, I've been letting them out each day to mingle with my own little flock.

Watching hens is always interesting. They lead quite busy little lives, given the opportunity. And despite what many people think, they have quite distinct personalities.
I've never had so many hens here before, and over the last few weeks I've felt more than once as I imagine a teacher must feel, watching the new 'babies' coming into the school in September.
Some are brave and bold, some are so shy they hide away all the time. Some come out if you give them something - in this case food and water, others are completely independent and seem oblivious of everyone else. Some would be bullies if you let them, others easily take on the role of victim, and one or two want to be 'teacher's pet' right from the start.

This morning I decided to let them 'choose' who was going to Donegal and who was staying. I thought it would be easier to let the permanent residents out into the field with my hens and keep the girls-in-transit in the pen so I could catch them later on. I'd already planned to keep the Yah Bird (as in 'Yah, Baldy!' although we have never mentioned the Bald part in her hearing, poor thing), but I thought I'd let the others decide for themselves.

Poor little Yah Bird looks more like a turkey than a hen. A very, very, very small turkey that is.

Not surprisingly, Constance Markievictz was first at the door, pecking at the gate to be let out, not interested in the breakfast bowl I was waving. I ushered the Yah Bird out with her, and then waited. Florence hesitated on the threshold, but then took the plunge and Wilhelmina followed a moment later.

Florence and Wilhelmina

Then I closed the gate, but the others - unaware of the fate they had chosen - didn't seem to mind. They circled around eyeing the 'red bowl' which they have come to recognise quite quickly, and dived in as soon as the food was spilled into the lengths of old guttering which serve as feeders.
They didn't know it would be their last meal as our guests before heading off on their own new adventure.

I've been out in the field again this afternoon, just standing, watching them all, Model Dog and SuperModel lying beside me.

SuperModel watching in fascination as one of the Little Ones has a bath

It was calm and quiet and very pleasant as I washed out all the water containers and refilled them, checked for eggs and picked up the empty courgette skins.Split in half, the girls love gobbling up the soft flesh and young seeds of any courgettes that have turned into vast, green aliens in the night watches, but I had nothing to offer them as they rushed over expectantly. Later on I'll check the vegetable garden for any lurking treats.

It's always a good thing to do, stand and watch the flock.
Today I could see that Wellington is still feeling very sorry for himself. He is moulting and has lost most of his beautiful tail feathers. I hope that's all that's wrong. He's a lovely boy, and I'd hate to lose him. But I think poultry often feel a bit low when they change their feathers. Frau Spekl was with him, also looking a bit mis.

Mistress Bluebell, however, wished to Have Words. She stared me in the eye. 'I hope you're not bringing any more of those miserable, flea-bitten hens here!' she said.

'Hens?' crowed Mrs Scissorhands. 'Hens? Hens have feathers and good, red combs! Those flittered fowl are not hens!'
How right she is, but they will be soon.

It was at this point that I noticed Constance Markievicz racing around under the tree like a demented dervish. I wondered whether I'd made a mistake in keeping her, perhaps she has serious issues? Perhaps she's a lunatic hen? I knew she was a hen-with-attitude (that's how she came by her name) - attitude is one thing, issues are different.
But then I saw that she was in fact just chasing flies.
Just being normal.

Esmerelda, my beautiful young Barnavelder

Esmerelda and the Little Ones had no opinion on the new arrivals, as befits the fact that they are fairly new arrivals themselves. I didn't ask Goldilocks because she - her with the green legs - is just plain bad, badness personified, and in any case she is an air-head. Frau Spekl is, like Wellington, rather too taken up with her own moulting-miseries to care just now, but I know the Golden Girls are appalled, just frankly appalled that anyone so dreadfully kitted out as the rescues should presume to be in their paddock

The Golden Girls are just appalled

But they'll soon be beautiful again. 'Or at least presentable', I assured my lovely Brahmas. 'It's not their fault. And you must be kind to them,' I added.

In front of me the Yah Bird marched purposefully up to Model Dog, standing patiently waiting for me. In true hen-fashion, she turned her bare, gizzardy neck and stared at Model Dog with one beady, penetrating eye. Then she marched a little closer and stared again. My lovely, gentle hound seemed unaware of the scrutiny, but a moment later the Yah Bird rushed in, lunged up and pecked my poor girl on the face before running away as fast as her scrawny frame would carry her.
Model Dog shrank back and I burst out laughing.
'I don't think kindness is something they've come across,' I said, rubbing the sore furry face pressed against my knee. 'Not up until now, anyway.'

Something else for my new girls to learn about.
To learn through experience.
Something all the rest of them will learn too, hopefully - all 7000 hens that LittleHill Animal Rescue & Sanctuary saved in this brilliant rescue operation.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

When Will the Caged Bird Sing?

It was the silence that got to me first of all.
Standing there, in the sudden dark of an autumn evening, chilled through from the north westerly gale, I was stopped in my tracks by the silence.

I stood and looked into the back of the horsebox, at the exhausted girl who had voluntarily driven it for 7 hours that day, at the handful of people gathered with me in the cold, dark car park.
I suppose I had expected a healthy amount of noise, once the tailgate was let down.

Katja, Ronya and Fionnghuala - still smiling at 2am after an endless day. Little Oisin had fallen asleep in the car

I hadn't expected towering stacks of cardboard boxes.
I don't know what I had expected, I hadn't really thought that one through, but when I heard the silence and saw the piles, some collapsed at angles that boded nothing but ill, I knew time was of the essence.

I think everyone felt the same, because without a word, we all set-to with grim determination to help unload as fast as possible.
The cartons, as we lifted them down, were hot in my hands. Too hot.
'I didn't know what to do,' Katja said. She was distraught. Exhausted and distraught. It was her second Great Escape run in a week, bless her. 'I wanted to stop half-way to check on them, but I couldn't have re-stacked them on my own - I thought I'd just better get here.'
'You did the right thing,' I said, but the tension in the car park had gone up a notch at the sight of so many faceless boxes, everyone silently wondering what we would find inside.

Involuntarily I thought of those desperate transports that had fled as many Jewish children out of Germany before the last war as possible. It was perhaps an inappropriate analogy - these were not children - but in animal terms, it was a similar situation.
In this case, 7000 one-year-old hens about to be slaughtered for no reason other than their age.

I was in the car park that evening because a friend of mine had posted a picture on the Internet of the birds she had adopted several days earlier. From her I learned that LittleHill Animal Rescue & Sanctuary, hearing of the hens' impending doom, had frantically rallied volunteers and support wherever possible to try and save as many as they could.
3500 had already been homed (my mind boggles at the amount of work that must have been), and now they were doing it all over again in an attempt to snatch the rest from the inevitable. They had been given a few extra days grace.

Even her wing feathers are bare

Everyone pitched in, even Katja's small children who had endured an endless day shut in the car, poor loves.

Inside the boxes, hens were crammed together, sometimes two in a box that I wouldn't have put one hen in for half an hour, let alone a day. Needs must, they say, when the devil drives, and the Sanctuary hadn't packed  the cartons, the farm had.
In the half-collapsed pile we found a sorry mass of feathers at a train-crash angle, and gently, carefully lifted them out one by one. The poor little creature at the bottom was dead. The hen the box had caved onto was dead too, another - unable to move - lay gaping silently. But sad as it was, it was only two fatalities against so many saved.

Everyone was shocked beyond words at the condition the birds were in. Not from their long, unavoidable drive to freedom, but from their brief year spent entirely in caged captivity.
No daylight. No space. No dignity.
I'd fondly thought that caged egg production was now illegal in Ireland. But it seems that's only on paper. It still exists, they've just changed the parameters. It's legal because they are now 'Enriched cages'. Enriched with what, I wonder? Extra birds?
By law, laying hens now have 750 sq cm of space each. EACH - oh joy! All that room to spend their entire lives in. It used to be 550 sq cm each, less than the size of an A4 sheet of paper.
So now it's a page and a half - nearly.
But it's not just Ireland. In much of the world - and large parts of Europe (France, Spain and Poland included) nothing has changed at all.

There was no conversation in the car park after that. It was just: 'There are two in this one,'
'Six in here,'
'I'll move these four.'

The children collected up the sad little eggs that, despite all, had been laid in some of the boxes.
Nature's unstoppable process adding an unavoidable stress to the day. Most birds like to sit quietly and calmly to lay their eggs.

Was she supposed to be an oven-ready chicken, or a laying hen?

I don't know how long it took us to unload all the hens, to distribute them as gently as possible into the various cages and pet carriers that people had brought with them, counting them out between the vehicles - 48 for this van, 25 for another.
'Please take some more,' Katja begged. She sounded close to tears. 
Nearly 300 birds had been brought up in the horsebox that day.
They were the lucky ones. It was only possible to rescue birds if people had offered them them sanctuary amongst their own small flocks, and three and a half thousand had already been homed the previous week.
I took an extra 10, anxious that the temporary pens at home wouldn't be big enough.
'Don't worry,' the In-Charge said gruffly. 'It'll be The Shelbourne after what they're used to.'

Driving home in the cold, windy darkness, rain skirling against the windscreen, we were still silent.
I - a wordsmith by trade - devoid of words to exorcise my horror.
I was grateful beyond expression that the In-Charge - without needing to be asked - had driven me there,  was driving us back, as slowly as possible through the narrow, winding roads while still trying to hurry our pathetic cargo to a safe haven.

My birds don't even look like this when they're moulting

At home, we carried the cages up into the hens' paddock. The tail-end of some far-away tropical storm was lashing gusts of 80kph at us, and the rain was horizontal, but they weren't out in it for long. Carefully we placed each bird into the freshly-strawed pens I had prepared earlier, cuddling them up together in the low stone sheds that have stood, backs braced against the north west wind for nigh on two hundred years.
31 traumatized, many featherless, sad and hopeless little creatures.
I went back an hour or two later, before falling into my own bed, to check that all was well.

They were exactly where I'd placed them, huddled together, heads under their scratchy, frayed, tattered wings. Sleep was doing it's magic, and what they didn't know was that tomorrow would be the start of a whole new life.
A life! Up until now they'd only had an existence.
I went to bed warmed by the knowledge that up and down the country, thousands of hens had been similarly welcomed into homes where they would be treated as hens, not egg-laying machines with a sell-by date.

In the days since then, I've spent a lot of time moving in slow motion.
They are easily alarmed, and aren't used to people, even people scattering food.
They aren't used to food for that matter, unless it is delivered in pellet form, under their noses. They looked at the lettuce I put into their pens as if it might attack them. Green is not a colour they recognise. How sad is that for a hen?
I've taught them how to drink out of water bowls. They have only ever pecked at a drinker to get water, never had the pleasure of dipping their wattles into a full bowl of fresh water, never gone from puddle to puddle in the rain to see which one tasted best. Jil, my lovely wwoofer, and I spent an hour that first morning, gently holding each one and dipping its beak into the bowl to show them how - to try and overcome the inevitable dehydration of the day before.
They have started to scratch about in their pens to see what lies beneath the straw - with claws that are far, far too long because they've never been worn down by normal living.
They've started to realise that there is space to move about in.
And when the rain ever stops, they will discover that there is a whole world beyond their window - a world that contains grass and small beetles, flies to chase, dogs and cats to stare at, sunshine to bask in, dust for delicious baths, morning and night to shape their days, and shelters to rush under when it rains. 

Wondering if the lettuce will attack

In the days that they've been here, I've spent a fair amount of time in tears too.

Some of the hens - none of mine by the luck of the draw - have had to be destroyed because their skeletons were so deformed from living in a cage that they couldn't stand or walk. Some because their rear ends were torn open, possibly by the hens squashed into the cage with them. 
Some because the rescue was just too late.
But the little hen that got squashed on the journey is slowly making a recovery, it seems. She doesn't plan to miss out on her new, gift-wrapped life!
There is hope everywhere.

The emergency refugee tents have a slightly Heath-Robinson appearance

For me, there are few things as upsetting as the eyes of an animal or bird that has no reason to live.  
Those were the eyes that greeted me that first morning as Jil and I set out to help them learn what are, after all, only the basics of survival. But already, just a few days later, their eyes are different - eager, anticipating, anxious sometimes too, but interested - alive.

Life begins at 15 months!

Their new lives will soon envelop them and, being hens, they will probably forget how they spent their first year. With luck they might live to be nine or ten. We don't cull our birds because they no longer produce eggs - I believe in retirement for the animals on this property at least, even if the owners haven't a hope in hell of getting there! We've had hens who'd no longer recognise an egg if it hatched in front of her and danced the hokey-cokey.

But I will not forget. I will find myself constantly wondering how it's possible to call ourselves civilized when we allow our food to be produced in this way. 
Wondering how many more battery hens there are, living their miserable existence, in this country alone? There shouldn't be a need for the LittleHill Sanctuaries, the Bryonys and Katjas of this world to spend their days and nights helping hens escape. They should be at home with their kids.
I never have to buy eggs, but if you do, next time - please question where it came from.
And inform yourself what some of the terminology means. 'Barn Eggs' for example sounds so nice - but is it? Barn eggs means industrial sized sheds in which the birds - not in cages, admittedly - are packed in 9 to the square metre. Space? Daylight? Fresh air? What are those?
Act. Do something. Vote. For God's sake, vote in the way that really counts. With your decisions, with your wallet, with your feet.

What a difference a day makes

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Farewell, Seamus Heaney

Portrait of Seamus Heaney by Peter Edwards c 1987

I was fortunate enough to hear Seamus Heaney reading his poetry some years ago.
Many, many poets should be prevented at all costs from reading their own work.
Perhaps it is a fear of being overcome by emotion that makes so many writers assume a toneless, deadpan voice when reading, or perhaps they take their work too seriously, but whatever the reason, the results can be dire.

It was not like that with Seamus Heaney.
He sat easily on a stool and talked about growing up in Northern Ireland.
I was just one of an audience, but it felt as if there was no one else in the room, as if his words were in response to some question I had asked.
The images of his home, of relatives and neighbours, of life in Derry during the 40s and 50s, were painted swiftly and vividly and economically, but they were real and three-dimensional and made me feel as if I had known them, or at the very least, visited them for myself.  And he spoke poignantly of his father, and of rural traditions in his local area, and of the Troubles.

Perhaps in consequence of that, his poems, when he read them, seemed to speak of things I was familiar with. They sprang off the page and took life and form in my mind's eye, and even all these years later I remember clearly the pictures conjured by his soft understatement, the emotions that his words never actually stated.

This is one of the poems he read that day:

Mid-Term Break 
I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o'clock our neighbours drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying--
He had always taken funerals in his stride--
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were "sorry for my trouble,"
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o'clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four foot box, a foot for every year.

And here is another:

Bespoke for weeks, he turned up some morning
Unexpectedly, his bicycle slung
With a light ladder and a bag of knives.
He eyed the old rigging, poked at the eaves,

Opened and handled sheaves of lashed wheat-straw.
Next, the bundled rods: hazel and willow
Were flicked for weight, twisted in case they'd snap.
It seemed he spent the morning warming up:

Then fixed the ladder, laid out well honed blades
And snipped at straw and sharpened ends of rods
That, bent in two, made a white-pronged staple
For pinning down his world, handful by handful.

Couchant for days on sods above the rafters,
He shaved and flushed the butts, stitched all together
Into a sloped honeycomb, a stubble patch,
And left them gaping at his Midas touch.

I met him later, at a garden party.
He was affable and friendly, easy to talk to. I remember thinking What do you say to someone who has at his fingertips the words that are only on the tip of your tongue?
I remember him looking at me as if waiting for a question he thought I was about to ask
Meaningful words eluded my fingertips and my tongue.

But we had a pleasant conversation and aside from our chitchat, I did ask him something.
'Of your own books, which is your favourite?'
He looked surprised and after a few moments, he said: 'I suppose I'd have to say Death of a Naturalist.'
I don't know if that was his favourite, but I can understand any writer having an umbilical link to their first book, their first-born.

I have read many of his books since then, and long ago also bought The Rattle Bag which Heaney edited alongside Ted Hughes. I had to buy it, for the simple reason that I was once lucky enough to meet Ted Hughes too.

If a poem is an image, written on the heart with words, then Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes were both truly poets.

It is a sad day when the Earth loses one of her poets, and if a poem is an image, written on the heart with words, then Seamus Heaney - and Ted Hughes - were truly poets. And how badly the Earth needs poets,  someone who speaks for her and of her without guile or sleight of wit, someone who sees beyond what others see, and who, in touching on her truths, adds something, rather than depleting, constantly depleting.

Dermot Blackburn's portrait of Seamus Heaney, 2010

Poems: Mid-Term Break and Thatcher by Seamus Heaney

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

En FĂȘte - 120 Glorious Years!

A brilliant present

The In-Charge and my friend DodoWoman, (Lord Dodo's Chief Archivist and Dodoodler) have, almost simultaneously, reached a Momentous Birthday.
Occasions such as this are mercifully rare deserve to be duly noted, so of course I instantly consulted with Lord Dodo himself, in the hope of securing the infamous peer's marvellous residence for the festivities.
Alas, it was not to be. Dodo Towers had already been reserved by a troupe of Transylvanian transvestites and his Lordship felt bound to honour the booking, so I gamely volunteered to hold the celebration here instead.

We can't, of course, compete with Dodo Towers in terms of either space or grandeur, but we did our best.
With the help of my Wwoofers Jil and Marco, the preparations began. For days we spat and we polished, we pruned and planted, we unearthed and unpacked; we washed and dried; we begged and borrowed, we sorted and swept, until finally things started to take shape.

We planted - or, in some cases, just polished our toe nails

In truly indodispensable fashion, Lord Dodo himself helped dodecide the menu and dodelegated his chef to produce various dodelicious dishes for the event. Lots of lovely guests also offered to bring edible gifts to the feast, which was wonderful, so after a relatively unstressful blitz in the kitchen, we were able to devote time to far more important things like putting up marquees, making cupcakes and bunting and blowing up balloons.
(Some of us merely spent the extra time looking out our party frocks collars.)

A quick nap before the party begins

But at last everything was ready.

Lord Dodo's chef and assistants

Contrary to all our expectations, the north west coast of Ireland has not recently basked under constantly blue skies. Our earlier good fortune this summer has left us full of optimism, but this isn't Nice, after all.
I had given up hope of actual sunshine. My nightly request, on prayer-flattened knees, had been that it just wouldn't rain.
Sunday dawned, as a friend of mine would say, 'middlin' blowy', ie with winds gusting up to 45km. But it wasn't wet, and there is nothing like a breeze to make the balloons dance, the bunting sing - and the marquee take off and pirouette out to sea.
Happily the In-Charge had weighted the marquee down with old window-sash leads, and DodoWoman had sent out a Meteorological Dress Code Warning the night before, so everyone arrived with their summer best suitably over-wrapped in snuggily jackets and body-warmers.
And after a few glasses of Pimms in the garden, some wonderful fritters and a good natter with an old chum or two, who cares about the weather?

The party takes off - but mercifully the gazebo doesn't

Later the party moved into the marquees in the courtyard.

I want the courtyard to look like this every day

It had taken a good bit of head-scratching and pencil-sucking to work out how 65 or 70 people could all sit down together now that we weren't, after all, dining at Dodo Towers; but then my American friend told me that the best hostess she knows in New York always says: 'Put the tables close together, and pack 'em in tight.'
So we did.
From 18 months to 95 years old, they all squashed in and it was fab.

Overflow tables, and even wheelchair access!

The morning after

Lots of people said lots of nice things, and DodoWoman and the In-Charge were given cards, gifts, flowers and good wishes by kind people. I was even given flowers myself by a charming old gentleman.
Someone said it was a perfect way to end the season, another that it was the party of the summer, but I think the most memorable comment came from one of our youngest guests.
Ten-year old Ezekiel looked around critically before uttering his verdict.

'Great venue', he said, nodding sagely.

It may not be Dodo Towers, but what a compliment.

The Teen Queen checking that there definitely aren't any more sausages left over