Just Another Morning

'One. Two, three …. where's my other Red Breast? Ah, there it is! Why is it not with the others? Is something wrong? No. It seems fine - maybe it had just been to one of the Feed Stations'.

'Now, where are the two pairs of Smew? There's two. Where is the other pair'?
And so it goes on. Every day - morning and evening. I often feel very much like a shepherd counting sheep. There is that constant worry that some may be missing. Sick. Taken by a bird of prey. Or killed by something - three years ago I lost eight to a ferrel cat. Fortunately, the 'lampers' on the adjoining estate dealt with that! Have any just wander away? I have very few worries about foxes - we put in a two metre high fence with three electric strands some four years ago. It stretches all around the grounds. So the birds can wander everywhere - on the lawn; in the flowerbeds - beware, they love Anthusa and Tobacco Plants amongst others. But, the birds can't get out …. see below!! And foxes can't get in … I hope.

It's just getting light. A bit frosty but a good day promises. I walk down the slope towards the lake and the rearing pens and the Feed Store. Up here on Exmoor it is often very windy and that is just what it is like today - a strong, invigorating south westerly. A few really deep breaths makes one feel very good. But as for the wildfowl, the trouble is that the wind blows hard up the slope and so occasionally birds on the top of the slope, even though they are pinioned, can just take off in the wind. Usually they don't go far though yesterday one finished up about 100 meters away in the adjoining field - made a crash landing. The fun part is getting the odd stray like that back!! The worst example was about 2 years ago when a very well pinioned Ruddy Shelduck just simply disappeared. We (that is Dave - sadly he has left - and me) searched everywhere and there was no sign at all.

Two hours later the postman calls round and tells me that he has seen a strange bright orange bird walking down a lane about half a mile to the east of here. Blown away? Impossible! No, an hour later we found him walking down the lane. He was easy to catch; no wind and high Devon banks on either side so he was quickly back and, I swear, he smiled when he saw his partner. Just a small knowing smile! He hasn't tried it again.

On down to the Feed Store and still counting.

I have about 350 wildfowl here - a large lake and about 20 small ponds, all wired in. These are for rearing and for holding birds for sale. Normally, once something is free on the lake they are free for life - I have very few good catching areas. Today however I have to catch a pair of Nene Geese for a lady who is giving them to her father for his birthday. The Nene 'flock' - well all 13 - is free to wander, as they will. They have over three and a half acres of fenced in grounds and they spend most of their time walking (and moaning as Nenes will) round and round the lake BUT where do they always choose to make a mess? On the stone terrace outside the French windows of the lounge. My wife, Gill, does not share my 'hobby' (she calls it an eccentricity …. the nerve!) and so the first job, even before counting and walking down to the Feed Store is to hose down the terrace so that it's clean before she gets up!!

The next job today is to find out what has caused the electrical trip switch to trip. It powers the pump that feeds water to 18 of the small ponds (before sending the water back into the lake). It's a clever system that we put in some three years ago but for some reason, when you least expect it, the trip switch goes and the pump stops. Fortunately it doesn't throw the trip in the house … I'd have Gill cursing too early in the morning! But, I wonder, is it really a good thing? Suppose the trip affects all the breeding lamps in season - I might not know for about eight hours that we'd got a problem. That could easily kill a few young. No, by the time the season starts I must fix an alarm in the house so that I know when/if there is a problem. I had an electrician in a month ago to see why the trip went every now a then. He checked it all. Said there was no problem - 'just one of those things'. Asked for £30 and left. A week later it happened again; and now again today.

Feeding at the moment is a challenge. We have mud everywhere. Another wildfowl keeper told me a few days ago that they couldn't see any grass at the moment. Well, grass is hardly in my vocabulary in this area. It is so muddy that I can't see my boots never mind grass! The difficulty is that this is Devon - level land is a rarity - and natural springs appear everywhere when it rains. I guess that we have at least ten natural springs in a 25 meter stretch where the Feed Stations are set. In summer all is fine - maybe even too dry - but at the moment … just thick, sticky mud! I slid in it two days ago - went sliding, feet first, towards the edge of the lake! Stopped just as my feet went into the water.

I feed nine two-pint jugs of Mixed Corn, nine two-pint jugs of Grower Pellet and three jugs of Seaduck. Armed with the Seaduck I call the birds and walk some 30 metres to a less muddy grassy spot and throw the Seaduck into the water - but not before I give a couple of loud calls. They all come - swimming as fast as they can - to the spot where I stop. This is a good moment to count again and just to appreciate many of the wildfowl that I have. Then to the first Feed Station. Always the first to join me (even if the trough is still fairly full) are two pairs of Chilean Pintails, then six Laysans followed by the five Bahama Pintails (seven years old) and five or six SilkieX Bantams. They are here for sitting on wildfowl eggs in season and for eggs for Gill the rest of the time. We also have eight Welsummers - for the dark brown eggs, but they lay so few!

Then it's to the pens - many are now empty as I have sold most of the birds that I bred last season but in two of the pens are our (I say 'our' because Gill likes them) much prized Crown Cranes. They can't be kept together as the lady (and she really is a 'lady') simply runs away from the male. Hopefully as spring approaches she will think better of it and maybe even succumb to his advances. He likes his Seaduck and everything else on the ground in a bowl. But the lady insists on having her first course (Seaduck) out of my hand. And there's an interesting thing. If she drops a piece and it falls to her left she stops and picks it up (tell me another bird that does that) but if it falls to her right she ignores it. I can only think that her right eye is weak. Have to watch that.

So, the morning feed is nearly over. Feed the hens. Check the Rat poison boxes (around here, this has been a good year - very few rats but I do check the boxes every other day); look for any signs of digging …by anything, anywhere. Walk round the lake - counting of course - go down and check the stream - somehow I got a rabbit in last spring and it digs everywhere. So long as we have only one I don't mind. The Snowdrops are coming through very quickly - and that's an interesting thing. The first year that we put in new plants, they are eaten to pieces but after that they survive and thrive with little or no interference. Odd!

Finally, look at the outer fence to see that nothing is fouling the electric strands and then back to the house. Even at this time of year it takes at least half an hour and in summer well … real work really does suffer - it never ends!

Paul Ellis.