Ducks, Hens and Tree Roosting Bantams


orchard oainted by carolyn white

Orchard painted by Carolyn White

According to an article in The Guardian, the word paradise stems from the ancient Persian parades meaning “orchard” or “enclosure”. This checks out in my well thumbed copy of the Oxford concise dictionary of English Etymology which adds “abode of the blessed” to the definition. Living next to an orchard certainly makes me feel blessed and my father’s comment, on his first visit here, that this was “an earthly paradise” now seems less fanciful, as according to the large scale map of Blakemere in 1886, this whole area was planted with orchards.

Since the early days, as a small holding, various farming enterprises have been tried here, more or less successfully.   I’m told that cattle were once raised here and that one of my predecessors used a large shed for a deep-litter chicken business. There are traces of the brick walls of a pigsty and in the old photographs, there are several more outbuildings.   Few human traces of the farmers and gardeners remain, but one of the flower beds must have been the old rubbish heap, as the ground continues to offer up shards of blue and white china.

ducksOne of my first plans was to introduce handsome Muscovy ducks to the pond, just inside the wood.  This meant providing them with somewhere safe on land, to sleep in at night, out of reach of the fox.  Needless to say, the rather flimsy shelter proved inadequate and they were picked off, one by one, leaving me feeling guilty and angry with myself.  The pond had been dug out and enlarged, by previous owners, with the express purpose of attracting wild duck there, to be shot.  I did not allow guns here, so I contented myself with watching the visiting wild duck raise their young on the pond, delighting especially in the tiny moorhens inside the reeds, with their rows of miniature chicks in tow.  An experiment with glamorous mandarin ducks also ended badly.  They were kept inside a run, but they were not locked up when I was away for a night and that evening the fox treated himself to a rare exotic meal.

Hens were easier to care for and survived to provide me with eggs for several years.  Always seeking the ‘authentic henscountryside experience’, I bought a cockerel to crow at dawn and to give us some chicks.  Nothing worked out as planned; broody hens were laying eggs in all kinds of unreachable corners and the chicks that did hatch were predominately male – giving me gangs of fighting adolescent cockerels to deal with.

A friend in Gloucestershire gave me some bantams, layers of tiny eggs, who will roost in trees – high above the foxes.  In theory, this should have worked well so I moved them into the orchard. Unfortunately, they were not always quick enough to fly up into the fruit trees at dusk and once again the fox won the day.

I learned some hard lessons and have had to put aside some of the more unrealistic, romantic ideas about living in the country and becoming self-sufficient.  Wild animals such as foxes will always win because this is their territory and free range chickens are too much of a temptation.  I tried my hand at keeping sheep, but that can also be sheepheartbreaking – when ewes fail to survive a difficult lambing and otherwise healthy lambs die suddenly, in the fields.  Foot and Mouth disease brought my life as a Shepherdess to an end – not because my little flock was infected, but because I feared another outbreak.

The neighbour farmer brings his sheep here to keep the grass down and now, free from any responsibility for livestock, I plan to replace the old orchard trees, planting up to 9 new apple trees over the winter months of 2017, to recreate the “paradise” I inherited when I moved here in 1993.