When on returning home from work one day, I find a chicken on the front path waiting to greet me, I realise something is amiss.
It is well into Spring, and our newly-acquired fowls are not meant to be free-ranging. The seedlings in our vegetable patch are coming along nicely, but they’re not yet sufficiently established to withstand the beak power of six chickens and two bantams. Consequently, the hens should still be safely in their run and the bantams in their ark.
Puzzled, I follow the clearly distressed chicken down the path at the side of house, expecting her to lead me back to the henhouse. Instead, she decides to jump up onto next door’s wall and scrabble under their fence, leaving me to investigate the mystery alone.
Turning the corner by the herb garden, I discover the gate from the chicken run is open and the lower bolts have been forced. Curiously, it looks as if they’ve been forced from the inside. The chickens are conspicuous by their absence.
Walking a little faster as the adrenalin kicks in, I head for the henhouse door, hoping that for some reason to find the chickens all basking within, as if they’ve taken refuge indoors, although it’s still mid-afternoon. My eyes accustomed to the bright sunshine outside, I squint into the inner sanctum and make out dark, motionless shapes. As my eyes adjust to the restricted light, I turn cold. I can now make out what looks like a heap of black feather boas in the corner. Nestled comfortably on top of the pile is something with two beady eyes at the front of its head (which means it’s clearly not a chicken). It is looking squarely back at me.
With a squeal, I run from the house, thinking: it’s happened at last – a fox has got in! I panic, trembling, not daring to re-enter. It’s not that I’m afraid of foxes, I just simply do not know how to handle one. If an animal’s furry but doesn’t purr, I’m at a loss. Nor do I want to see more clearly what I now realise is a pile of dead chickens.
I hurry back to the front of my house, as if the chicken that had been there to welcome me might offer me a rational explanation. But it won’t, not least because it’s now busy beyond the fence eating next door’s cabbage seedlings.
Shaking, I try to decide what to do next. My answer: to hit the sherry bottle. Barely able to fit the key in the lock of the front door, I’m still shaking so much, I force my way into the house, dash to the larder, and quickly fill and down a large glass of Harvey’s Bristol Cream.
What does the independent woman of the nineties do next? She phones her husband.
“Something terrible’s happened! You’ve got to come home!” I stammer, putting the fear of God into him by not setting this message into any context.
“It’s the chickens,” I add as an after-thought. “I think there’s a fox among the chickens.”
Despite the bolstering effect of the sherry, I’m having a hard time holding back the sobs.
Action Man’s response is quick and sensible.
“Go over the road and get John,” he advises. “He’s a good old country boy. He’ll know what to do.”
But he sets off for home, just in case.
Trying to stifle my tears and my trembling, I run up John and Annie’s path and knock on the door. The more considerate part of me wonders whether it is fair to inflict my crisis on a lady who has recently had heart surgery, but I’m in such a state of blind panic that my sense of proportion has vanished.
John and Annie’s calm reaction immediately brings me a little closer to my senses. John smiles indulgently at my foolishness and saunters back down the path to have a look, while Annie administers a large, very sweet cup of tea. I’m still trembling.
A few moments later, John returns, grinning broadly at this townie’s inability to distinguish one creature from another.
“What you’ve got there isn’t a fox!” he laughs. “It’s a tame ferret!”
He says this as if it’s good news. I gaze back at him uncertainly.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t touch ferrets,” says John. “Not since one of my uncle’s little buggers bit me on the nose and wouldn’t let go. I be scared stiff of ferrets.”
He settles back down in his chair and I sip my medicinal tea in silence until my husband arrives. He, I remember, kept ferrets when he was a boy, and has hankered for a few of his own ever since.
“It’s a beautiful little thing!” he croons when he emerges from the hen-house. “Can I keep it?”
All I know is that it has killed two of our hens, eaten part of them, and is currently snoozing on their remains till his appetite returns. That is not my idea of beauty.
The other four of the hens are still missing, goodness knows where.
It takes a great deal of persuasion before my husband is convinced that a pet ferret is not compatible with our four cats, four (only four – sob!) chickens and two bantams. While I quake at a safe distance, he catches the ferret, puts it in our spare, movable hen run and places large stones on its roof to stop the creature escaping through the hinged top. He then potters off to the kitchen, muttering something about finding it a good square meal.
Meanwhile I hover nervously in the garden, not quite daring to let the ferret out of my sight, but neither wanting to be near it. While my husband’s mixing it up a protein shake of eggs and milk, the ferret begins to make a bid for freedom by tunnelling. My constructive approach is to shriek.
Having finally reached a compromise whereby the ferret may camp in our firmly locked shed till the morning, lapping up beaten eggs, we begin the search for the missing four chickens. By this time, it’s starting to get dark. It’s no joke looking for black chickens after nightfall.
Clearly they are not in our garden, and so we try next door. There we spend half an hour failing to catch the two that are lurking in their cabbage patch.
We decide to leave them to their fate, much to the next door neighbours’ frustration, who are counting their cabbage seedlings as they disappear, and return home dejectedly. Here we find the other two hens trying to barge their way into the henhouse through the door they’re shouldered open from the other side earlier (if chickens have shoulders). The other two appear nonchalantly behind us, presumably full of cabbage. In chicken’s world, bedtime is bedtime, and home they will go.
Soon, all four are safely locked up, the remains of their sisters having been consigned to the wheelie bin.
We fail to find a home for the ferret, which, on closer inspection, appears to have been living rough. It has a few ticks. Despite my husband’s please that fate is telling us we should keep it, we eventually find, via our woodman, a man further down the lane who keeps ferrets and is glad to welcome our intruder into his fold.
Physically and emotionally drained, we seek something or someone to blame for the incident. It seems grossly unfair when we have gone to such lengths to make hen-house fox-proof. We’d sunk chicken-wire fences into a foot of concrete. Bolts and bars and glass have sealed gaps to keep them out. In the morning, we investigate the structure to see where it has been penetrated. Between the dry-stone wall and the wooden frame of the run, we discover a narrow gap just large enough to admit, not a fox, but a hungry ferret – and too narrow to let out a fat one full of chicken.
Mourning our loss, and anticipating no eggs for weeks while the survivors recover from their trauma, we apologise to the innocent fox upon whom we had at first rushed to heap the blame.
Then, as the first step on the path to recovery, we determine not to be caught out again. Fox-proofing is clearly not enough. We will make the place ferret-proof as well. Oh yes, and the elephant gun is on order.