Moving from the city to the country to live the smallholding dream is not always all it’s cracked up to be – especially for the less obsessed partner of the Foodie in the family. Telling it like it is, Good Life Wife gets to know her new neighbours.
Some town mice come with us in the packing boxes when we move to the South West. Literary types, they stow away in the crates of books where they make finely-nibbled nests out of a couple of novels. And after a good nap they set about systematically breaking into all the dry goods. Thin, grey and organised they seem quite a different species from the rounder, browner country cousins who restrict their store room damage to delicately whittling walnuts. Not taking out Foodie’s finest risotto rice collection.
We have to instigate the first great moussacre – tens of successful traps till we have banished the townies. When Foodie is back in London I hear the squeaks of a trapped but not yet dead mouse. I try to think of the ever-resourceful ‘Ma’ from the kids’ current “Little House on the Prairie” chapter book, gingerly pick up the jerking trap and take it outside to finish off the job with a log.
But there will be bigger adversaries. Digging out the dark, smelly sludge of the cellar we find a rat that looks almost mummified within the 1950s newspaper it was wrapped up in before being hurled below over half a century ago. It’s a Pompeii-like capture of one more moment in the long domestic history of human vs vermin.
The farm still has rats. That first summer I come down from putting the kids to bed to find the front door is open onto the yard where I’ve been making sense of a six foot high pile of suppurating building works’ debris that’s sat right in front of the house for months. I have made satisfying piles of good wood, stone and recycling rather than chucking the lot on a skip. I have also disturbed a rat run. In a large pan on the kitchen floor I find a beast skittering round and round in a vain search for an exit. We try to have at it with the spade. Foodie runs in with from the vegetable garden, but it escapes with a glancing blow to be later found dead on the compost heap. Foodie is chuffed to be asked to run ‘Splat the Rat’ at the village country fair and decides that the near impossibility of a direct hit is pretty authentic.
It’s rare to even get a good look at a rat, they normally evaporate with a crack from their greasy whip of a tail as if they know how much they are hated. Though on a summer evening we can watch the softer, slower baby ones playfully nibbling at the chicken food that’s fallen on the shed floor, innocent of their destiny and reputation. It’s annoying when they or the crows steal the eggs but it’s not actively disturbing, unlike our next vermin challenge.
This spring we make the grim early morning discovery of six dead hens. They are lying under their perch like fat, little feathery sacks of abandoned loot. There’s no damage to their bodies but something profoundly unpleasant has been done to their beaks. ‘Psycho killer – Qu’est-ce que c’est?’ Foodie turns animal detective on a hunt for the murderer, still wearing his Saturday chores kit of nothing but dressing gown and wellies. Not best protected for encountering a ferret. Unperturbed he excitedly declares that would explain why there was no damage to the body – ferrets can’t break through the dense feathers so they take what flesh they can access from the bird’s head. I haven’t been so grossed-out since Hannibal Lecter did that slurpy thing as he described dining out on his victim’s liver and Chianti. Groovy Youngest declares he will help Daddy try to block up the wood pile where we think Feral Ferret is getting in, ‘I bet I can find ALL the beaks…’
The next morning there are no more fatalities but the day after that Foodie is gone away to work and I find another three victims. I make the mistake in my crime scene report of detailing to him that the birds were very stiff. He deduces that they must have been killed early evening for rigor mortis to have already set in – will I check the birds at dusk that evening? I do, but too late and my torch shines in on another victim. It’s time to evacuate. With the expert help of a brilliant bird-loving neighbour I get the twelve survivors into cardboard boxes and on to the temporary safety of her chicken house. Our only immediate alternative for their return is to squat them in a conversion of Groovy Youngest’s wendy house in to safe house. Its little windows get crudely covered up with hammered in bits of timber (keep out!) and the birds also have the bonus of taking over the nearby raised vegetable beds.
Now that it’s May I sense some of our unwelcome co-habitants could be moving on. And there are gorgeous new guests too, an elegant House Martin flies round the sitting room giving me the chance to admire its lacquer red head and exotic long tail. The lanes are doing their annual peak of beauty, the Cow Parsley lacier and bouffier each day like a phenomenal platinum blow-dry. Foodie returns by bike from an early evening drink, wobbly from the steep hill at the end, leg-hollowing cider and sheer emotion ‘if it’s any more beautiful out there tomorrow it’ll start hurting’.