Monsters in the Deep

This morning I got down on site early as today was the day for cleaning out the chickens. It’s a long job, usually taking a couple of hours. However, today it took all day. Part of it was my fault for getting distracted with other jobs partway through. Having to go home to sell a bike to someone only to have them tell me they weren’t coming an hour later didn’t leave me in good temper. But anyway, back to the start of the day…

Within a few minutes of opening up the shed, collecting the bucket, anti-mite fluid, dustpan and brush ready to start, Chris yelled that he had found a hedgehog in one of the rat traps. It’s a fairly common occurrence but we haven’t caught many hedgehogs this year. Chris and Tracy worked together to get it out. I don’t know how it got in based on how difficult it was to get out! I just managed to catch a glimpse of a small brown nose in the midst of the spines before Tracy placed it at the edge of the boundary hedge. We waited for several minutes, hoping we would see it walk off but it remained stubbornly in a ball.

I managed to have enough time to fill the bucket with water and anti-mite fluid before Tracy called me over. She had a hessian sack full of comfrey leaves in a water butt. This is an excellent and easy way to make your own natural fertiliser. Upon opening up the water butt to refill the bag with new comfrey, she found some very strange things. Resembling a weird sort of gooey caterpillar with a long thin tail. Neither of us could work out what it was. There were lots of them too. They moved like caterpillars, looked see through like maggots and had a long trailing tail. Carefully choosing the key words, we Googled them. It turns out they are Rat-tailed maggots which turn into hover flies or drone flies! I’m always amazed at how much life there is on the allotment, especially in small nooks which are so often overlooked.

Excitement of discovering Rat-tailed maggots aside, it was time to have a catch up with the guys. The Plod has been having laptop issues which Andy has fixed and I spent several minutes listening to Andy giving Dave a crash course in basic computer skills. Geoff and Mick the Greek appeared and we had a chat in the sunshine. Eventually, I decided I really must start on cleaning the coop. But first, to feed the girls and get Pop outside.

Pop wasn’t looking quite as bright so I put her carefully in a corner with food and water. Unfortunately, I had to repeatedly chase Tommy away from her. I opened up the nest box to air it whilst I threw out the treats for the girls. There is always a series of feathery inspectors checking on my work throughout a cleaning but it’s impossible to do anything at all if you haven’t fed them. All of them get into you way and shout at you relentlessly until you cave. I have learnt it’s easier to feed them first to have half a chance of being left alone to clean! I removed the old bedding from the two nest boxes, throwing the old bedding into one of the compost bins.

As I stretched out after clearing the old bedding, I spotted some familiar faces at the back of the site. I went across to say hello to Sarah and Liz, surprised that they were down today. Both of them were on holiday and had decided to come down for a few hours to do a few jobs. It is always an essential part of allotment life that jobs take twice as long as they should because you stop to chat to people. Leaving them to get on, I went back to the coop. I had removed all the boards in the centre and swept out all the old bedding and detritus. Taking a break, I popped to the corner shop for a drink and sat on the veranda under the sail for a few minutes. As I sat there, I remembered I had intended on sorting out the willow arch. Despite my best efforts with weaving and training it, it has got rather out of hand. I trotted off to see if I could borrow some secateurs from Tracy. She kindly let me borrow hers.

I made a tentative start. I didn’t want to take too much off. Another difficulty was the wasps that seemed obsessed with the willow. After ten minutes of careful snipping I stepped back to see the improvement. I could hardly see any difference. The second attempt to tame the willow was much more severe and got results. The middle of the arch seems to need some reinforcements to keep it in the right shape. Pleased with the front, I made a start on the back of the willow. The pile of cuttings grew and grew. Once the sides were cut back, I had the difficult task of trimming the top. Trying to get the top of the willow level whilst being unable to reach the top unless on top toes and at full stretch should be included in the next Olympics as a new sport. The job was finally done and aside for a few pieces needing tying into place, I was rather pleased with the result.

Realising I had got completely distracted from cleaning the coop, I headed down to the coop again. Using a spray bottle, I began to spray the inside of the nest box with anti-mite fluid. This always takes ages to dry. As I was working, I spotted Pop struggling to fend off Tommy. She was clearly struggling to move so I picked her up and placed her in the small nest box with her food and water to give her a break. Rey came into the central area of the nest box and began to shout at me loudly. I took this as “I need to lay an egg and you have ruined the nest boxes Human! Fix it quick!”.

Leaving the nest box to dry, I turned my attention to scrubbing the boards. I hit a snag. No scrubber. I have no idea where I put it last time and I couldn’t find anything suitable. Rolling my eyes in exasperation, I walked home to get one. I left Pop in the nest box and Rey yelling at me (her language far too colourful to be written here!). As I got home, my husband offered to drive across with the bale of shavings and plant pots for the patio. Never refusing a good offer, fifteen minutes later, we drove across to the allotment.

My husband nobly lugged all the bits to the veranda and down to the coop before heading off to pick up food for dinner. We had decided to have dinner on site as it has been years since we did this. I went back to the coop, armed with a scrubbing brush and cleaned the boards. As I was finishing scrubbing, I had a message from a lady who wanted to buy my bike asking to come to view it early. I dropped everything and ran home.

An hour later, she cancelled. Fuming, I went back to the allotment to finish off the coop cleaning. When I got back into the coop, I looked for Pop in the nest box. She wasn’t there. How could she not be there?! Pop is barely able to shuffle forwards, how on earth had she moved out of the box on her own? A few moments of frantic searching and I found her in the corner of the central part of the nest box. Heaving a sigh of relief, I replaced the now dry boards in the centre and added a thick bed of fresh shavings into the nest boxes. As I was finishing up, I heard a huge amount of clicking and squeals from Pop. Rey was sitting on top of her, attacking her. Poor Pop. It really wasn’t her day today. I grabbed Rey and lobbed her out of the nest box. I picked Pop up and held her for a bit to calm her down. Immediately as my back was turned, Rey was inside the nest box and clucking loudly.

With Pop being increasingly bullied, I removed her and put her into the greenhouse to give her a proper break. Her legs weren’t as strong as they were a few days ago which worried me. She was quite thirsty and had a good drink but didn’t want any food. I left her to have some peace and quiet.

Now the nest box was fully clean, I washed out the water bowl and refilled it. My husband reappeared and went to check on Leia and her chicks as he hadn’t seen them for a week. He then cleaned and started up the burner. As dinner was being cooked, I took Tracy’s secateurs to the willow screen behind the pond. It was a much quicker and easier task than the archway. Last year I didn’t have to trim the willow as it was still establishing itself. Most of this year, I have been focusing on weaving it into shape but willow needs to be kept in check as it has a tendency to grow massive. Frequent pruning is vital to keep it in shape and stop it overtaking everything. I was particularly pleased with the shape of the screen after the pruning.

As the sun began to be covered with clouds, we sat down to dinner on the veranda. After a day of hard work, it was lovely to sit and look at the allotment, enjoying the sounds of the birds and good company. Food somehow tastes much better when eaten outside. After dinner, we went for a stroll around the site and I showed my husband Steve and Phil’s new chicks. As we went across to see the white leghorns, the new cockerel was showing off his rather squeaky crow. He was clearly very proud of it, although we both agreed he needed more practise. We also went to see how our little white leghorn pullet had settled in with the other chicks. She is still smaller than the others but is mixing well. The Swedish Flower Hen is also growing well and is stunning as ever.

Before we left, my husband shut up the shed and got everything together as I went into the greenhouse to put Pop into the nest box. As I approached her, she pushed herself up and stood on the back of her legs. I thought she was going to stand up properly but a second or two later, there was a squelching noise and a bad smell. Her poo was very liquid and I hoped this wasn’t a sign that she is struggling to pass a broken egg. I covered up the poo with several handfuls of sawdust to kill off the smell. I immediately moved her out of the way so she didn’t end up sitting in it. She wasn’t happy about being picked up again but she did seem to like the new nest box. I set up her mini food and water bowl within beak range. She wasn’t particularly interested in the water but much to my surprise, attacked the food bowl with enthusiasm. I was astonished that she ate as much as she did. It made me wonder whether her lack of eating was down to the others not letting her get at it. Tomorrow, I will set up a temporary coop on the patio as I can’t keep her in the greenhouse during the day as she will overheat. If she is on her own then she will hopefully be able to eat and drink and recover quicker with less stress.

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