Matthew Parris

Being on the radio was a welcome relief from duck husbandry

Being on the radio was a welcome relief from duck husbandry

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Let me tell you the story of the Docklands Eight, otherwise known as the Docklands ducklings. They came into my life briefly and by chance, ushered in by Kim.

Kim helps me keep my London flat, by the Thames in Limehouse, clean and tidy. A great animal-lover, she comes in on Monday mornings bringing new stories of the family of ducks which has been hatching on the stones in a shallow section of canal near where we live. Last year there was a disaster when a water-disinfecting operative eliminated a whole generation of ducklings in a single morning, so this year Kim has been watching over the brood and feeding them with bread. A couple of weeks ago, most of the family were grown up enough to fly, waddle or sail away. A couple, however, stayed behind in the canal. Kim was preparing to drop her guard for the rest of the season.

Then eight more ducklings, new-hatched, arrived, and were seen bobbing about in some confusion. They and their mother had been evacuees from somebody's veranda, but on arrival in the canal the two young ducks already resident put the mother to flight. The brood tried to attach itself to the young ducks but they kept attacking them. Kim arrived at my flat in some distress. Two of the eight ducklings had already been pecked to death....

And now there were six.

I am no great bird-lover, but I felt for Kim. 'I'll catch the ducklings and take them to Derbyshire this weekend. They can live on my pond,' I said, forgetting that on Friday I was to join the panel of Jonathan Dimbleby's Any Questions? programme on BBC Radio Four, in West Wales.

Kim and I and two friends set forth for the canal and waded in. Though smaller than tennis balls, the ducklings were surprisingly hard to catch, but by dint of throwing a blanket over them we finally captured all six. Home we came triumphant, with the brood in a cardboard box. But how to foster them? Kim said that ducklings like oats, so beside an old woollen jersey in their box I placed a saucer of oats and breadcrumbs. There was also space for a baking tray filled with water as their mini-pond. The baking tray was tactless, but the ducklings didn't seem to mind, and I put their box out on the veranda in the fresh air.

They did not prosper. The brood kept huddling together, and their feathers became waterlogged and woebegone. One duckling died on Tuesday....

And then there were five. On Wednesday I rang the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – or rather I rang Directory Enquiries but, while waiting for my call to be answered, moved on in my mind. The BT operator's surprise was palpable when, without waiting to be asked whose number I sought, I said (urgently), 'I've just rescued some ducklings from a canal where the other ducks were pecking them – can you advise me what to feed them?'

'I think you want the RSPB,' said the operator, and gave me the number.

The woman at the RSPB was not at all dismissive, though they must get hundreds of such calls. 'Take away their bathing bowl,' she said. 'Ducklings get the oil which keeps their feathers dry from their mother and, having no mother, will become waterlogged.' A little water to drink was what they needed, plus some finely chopped hard-boiled egg and grass clippings. 'Take them out of the fresh air and keep them very warm,' she added.

The hard-boiled egg sounded cannibalistic, but I did as I was told, and surprised a few London strollers who encountered me on a nearby patch of grass on all fours with a pair of scissors. 'It's for my ducklings,' I explained. But when I came home, another had died....

And then there were four. On Thursday they seemed to rally, enjoying their boiled egg, but one was noticeably thinner than the others, and they kept pecking at their own plumage. On Friday morning the weakest duckling died....

And then there were three. And I must join Jonathan Dimbleby in Pembrokeshire. I started my Times column for Saturday, and at noon summoned a minicab for Paddington. The driver let me bring the smelly duckling box inside the car. Carrying the box in a huge Moss Bros paper carrier-bag left over from when I went to Windsor Castle for a banquet in honour of Thabo Mbeki, I made the train to Swansea with minutes to spare. My ducklings and I chose the Quiet Coach (the sign forbade mobile phones, not ducks). I replenished their water bowl and finished the Times column just as we drew cheeping into Swansea.

We shared the BBC car to Pembrokeshire with Bob Marshall-Andrews (the devil-may-care Labour MP for Medway who lives in a subterranean Teletubby house on the Pembrokeshire coast) and Nikki Page, the nice but determined former model and political think-tanker whom Tory Central Office stupidly eliminated from running for the London mayoralty. Both loved my ducklings, Mr Marshall-Andrews showing the brood a tenderness absent from his treatment of the Prime Minister in the Any Questions? which followed.

Doubting the ducklings would care for politics, I left them at the enchanting Stone Hall, a little jewel of a country-house hotel and restaurant near Wolf's Castle where we had dinner. I should have wished to recommend this place to Spectator readers even if the proprietress, Mme Martin Watson, had not, in her totally unfazed French way, warmed my ducklings in her boiler-room – as if it were the most natural thing in the world for guests to request – while the Dimbleby party went off for our broadcast. Jonathan turned out to be president of the RSPB, so I was able to tell him how well his society fields duck inquiries. Being on the radio was a welcome three-quarter-hour relief from the stress of duck husbandry.

The car journey onward to Derbyshire later that night took five hours, with one stop to feed and water my cheeping brood. On arrival at 2 a.m. on Saturday, all three seemed to be bearing up. In the Matlock pet shop, Heads and Tails, I bought chick-crumbs. But that night another died....

And then there were two. This morning (Sunday) Liz and Richard, who live down the road, came for them. Liz has raised ducklings before, and is friends with the vet, Simone, in Elton. If anyone can save them, they can. My mother says to think positively.

And tomorrow I return to London, with my sad kilo of unused chick-crumbs. It's been a rough old week for the Prime Minister, but for me the emotional rollercoaster has been just as giddy. I hope my two ducklings are still in business when you read this. I'd give them about the same chance as Mr Blair.

Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.