A month ago I was reporting complacently that peace and calm had returned to Stoke Park after a series of bestial attacks on my chickens and ducklings by foxes and birds of prey. No foxes had come to call since the spring, and seven of the eight Indian runner ducks hatched here in September had survived and grown big enough to deter avian predators. All seemed to be well in this little corner of south Northamptonshire. The hens seemed contented and were laying copiously in gratitude; the ducks were gliding dreamily on the pond. But my complacency was premature, for last weekend turmoil returned.
This had nothing to do with the supposed hurricane; for despite a warning headline in the Sunday Telegraph that St Jude was about ‘to unleash his howling worst’, I awoke on Monday to a pleasant day of unusual stillness, with not even a breath of wind to rustle the leaves on the trees. But in the meantime two chickens had been killed, one of them beheaded, and a third, though still alive and apparently well, stripped of feathers from her back and her tail. These attacks took place in daytime, for I have recently managed to get all my nine chickens into their coops at night by luring them inside with a tasty product called ‘Chicken Pickings’ kindly sent me by its inventor, a reader in Essex, whose name unfortunately escapes me because I have lost his covering letter. But I can confirm that my chickens like his ‘pickings’ very much, and I take this opportunity to thank him for them.
Was a fox to blame for these crimes? Maybe. But the truth is that a fox is not the only possible culprit; for in addition to Polly, my Jack Russell Terrier, I had three visiting dogs in residence at the weekend — a Dalmatian, a Whippet and a West Highland Terrier. It is almost unheard-of for a dog owner to believe anything ill of his pet, and I for one am certainly convinced that Polly would never kill a chicken under normal circumstances. But bring a few dogs together and they sometimes turn into a pack of wild hunters, forgetful of all the training they have received. So it is possible (if unlikely) that this might have happened last weekend. I make no accusation; but the truth is that I hope it was one of the dogs that caused this terror, for this would mean that the remaining seven chickens would probably now be safe. If, on the other hand, foxes are once more on the rampage, and ready to attack chickens even by day, the outlook for them is bleak.
Whether or not it was a dog that did these deeds, it is incontestable that between them the four dogs made a remarkable number of messes in the house over the weekend, as well as tearing up a patch of fitted carpet. I can understand therefore why many people will not have dogs to stay. (Lady Soames, Winston Churchill’s daughter, told me once that she couldn’t even take her dog to stay at Blenheim Palace.) But I think that those who take this hard line often do not realise how attached people can be to their pets and how hard they may find it to be parted from them. A dog mess or two is not too high a price to pay for its owner’s happiness and peace of mind.
This was especially true last weekend, for this gathering of friends and family was for the wonderful, cheering purpose of seeing Barry Humphries at the start of his farewell tour of Britain in Milton Keynes (the ‘gateway to Coventry’, as Dame Edna called it). Humphries is 79, but any fears that he might be slowing up were instantly dispelled. He has never been sharper, quicker or funnier.
It was a pity, I felt, that Sir Les Patterson had retired from the diplomatic service, for his belching, farting vulgarity made its greatest impact when he was still cast as Australia’s cultural attaché at the stuffy old Court of St James. But Dame Edna, to whom the second half of the show is devoted, remains wonderfully timeless and extraordinary, a completely brilliant and original creation. All I can say is, go and see her. This shouldn’t be impossible, for Humphries will be on stage almost continuously from now until 8 March next year, when the tour ends in Manchester. How at his age he can produce the energy required, night after night, for such an exhausting one-man show is something I cannot fathom.