On the road to self-sufficiency we have acquired a few animals, each species being entertaining in different ways and each bringing a different dimension to our life in a rural mountain retreat. I’ve learned so much this year, starting with my bee colony which, though not seeming interactive at first, play their part in pollinating my fruit and vegetables and watching them has been very interesting as they arrive back with brightly coloured pantaloons! The nectar they gather is carried on their back legs and depending on the flower, it can be white, cream, orange or red. They are so laden down and tired from carrying their booty they often crash land so I’ve extended their landing board to give them a bigger runway.
Since getting our first cockerel in April there have been some wonderful moments. I’d always called a coward a ‘chicken’ but not realised how gutless chickens actually are. He is more scared of me than the females and is the first to run fastest in the opposite direction but he is supposed to be protecting them! Though he makes up for it as when they are out foraging he is a true gentleman and will search out delicacies like locusts and give them to his harem. And when 13 babies arrived in May he took on the role of dad and did the same for them, placing food in front of the hungry little chicks.
But he does get a few things wrong – like he’ll suddenly get the urge and rush at a female, have his wicked way and ‘cockadoodel’ his triumph while the hen indignantly shakes her feathers as if saying ‘how rude’. He’ll then start the courtship display but it doesn’t last long and is almost like his afterthought, ‘Sorry, I forgot the foreplay’. Sometimes he gets it right and dances around his chosen hen, holding himself high and looking quite dashing. He’ll make a couple of attempts but she’ll evade him and carry on pecking around until she sidles up close and makes a cooing noise. He looks surprised but doesn’t waste the opportunity and crows even louder to let everyone else know he’s scored.
Having free-range hens in a 1 acre garden has its ups and downs. 19 chickens were very destructive and dug up my daffodil bulbs, exposed tree roots, scratched away external plaster at the base the house wall and ate a lot of grapes that hung down low. A lot of my time has been spent covering up weak points with heavy stone and circling all the fruit trees with it. But watching a hen try to catch a butterfly is hilarious. Darting about the garden with only thoughts of the prey and I haven’t seen one caught yet. Surprisingly, as chickens are very fast, amazingly dextrous and very hard to catch!
Sadly 8 of the chicks turned out to be males and they had a wonderful life until my eldest black hen was being gang raped so they had to go. The quickest and most humane method was chosen and we delivered 5 to very grateful neighbours. The meat was too tough for us but the dog and cat loved it! So now we have a happy family of one cock and 5 hens and they’re the best behaved animals as their house is big and equipped with plenty of food and water so they happily stay inside until we’re up, always go home to lay their eggs in the house so I’m not hunting around the garden, and all voluntarily go to bed well before dusk so it’s no problem to shut their door against marauding foxes.
The rabbits, on the other hand, always want to be out and when it’s time for bed they enjoy playing chase around their pens. When they first arrived in July it was so hot the female had one ear drooping and they spent all day stretched out on the cool concrete edging their run. Our dog didn’t notice them until the evening arrived and they came to life, dashing around their pens and almost back flip jumping! He was very intrigued and when they came up to the fence he couldn’t resist his animal instinct to bite and nipped at them. He’d never seen them before as the ground is too stony up in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains for rabbit burrows. There are hares here which live above ground but he’s never seen one for long enough to study at such close proximity! He was glued to the fence and would sit staring at their hutch doors long after I’d shut them away. Thankfully, after 3 months and being well fed by humans, the rabbits have lost their appeal.
They’re now big and beautiful soft furred black rabbits who take advantage of the various tunnels and shelves I’ve environmentally enriched their enclosures with. My bumper harvest of organic cucumbers, tomatoes and water melons mean there’s usually something to entice them in with but they do like me to vary their diets. It’s great for our lifestyle that they eat garden weeds and the unwanted parts of my vegetables and their animal instinct is evident by which ones they select. I knew potato and tomato leaves were toxic but not bindweed (morning glory). Luckily they ate around these and everything else I’ve since found out about. Neighbours had tried to help by giving them leaves from fruit trees in my garden but the rabbits should only have the bark and leaves of many seeded fruit, eg apples and pears, not when the fruit has just one seed, eg cherries and plums. The rabbits knew and left them.
The cooler weather means both the female’s ears are erect and are like radars, constantly turning towards every sound. They’re still too young to breed yet so remain separated but kiss through the joining fence. Mating season is from February to October so we might have bunnies in March. More animal husbandry to experience and I’ve got the winter to do my research.
The latest animal to complete our menagerie for this year is a gorgeous black kitten. She won Lee’s heart when he saw a stray cat and kittens at a local restaurant late in September and brought her home with him. She’s in training for being our resident mouser and is practicing her hunting animal instinct on the chickens. Even the big cockerel gets pounced on! Our dog is not at all interested but she still hisses at him. He’s an old man now and knows cats have sharp teeth and claws and are far more trouble than they’re worth.
Whether or not she earns her keep she’s very lucky as she’s the only animal that gets to live inside our house. She follows me everywhere and is constantly searching out my lap so the one thing that is finally making me sit still for longer than 5 minutes! A purfect addition to our Mountain Retreat and just in time for the long cold winter.