The tortoises are alive! (And sitting on the duck’s eggs)
No sooner had I written last week’s column about the sad disappearance of the two tortoises in my care than they suddenly showed up. The sun had shone for two days, and that was enough to bring them out from underground. I had become convinced that I would never see them again.
They had vanished from sight nearly five months earlier, and the expert websites that I consulted not only said this was longer than tortoises normally hibernate but also made clear that I had been an utterly irresponsible tortoise-keeper. They should have been starved before hibernating, they should have been measured, weighed and minutely inspected, and then they should have been placed in a ‘vivarium’ with a glass front through which they could be regularly examined throughout the winter. I did none of these things, but left them to their own devices. The Tortoise Trust website grudgingly admitted that hibernation underground ‘can work’, but probably not in dense, clay soil like mine. The tortoises would also be vulnerable to attack by rodents and, if the soil was wet (as mine often was), they could die.
Well, so much for the experts. The tortoises didn’t die. They emerged in fine fettle after a pretty vile winter, nosing curiously around the garden in Northamptonshire, needing nothing more than a bath to get the mud off their shells. During their absence, a wild duck had foolishly chosen their enclosure as the place in which to lay a large number of eggs. Alice, a very large and ancient tortoise, was fascinated to find them there, hidden in some shrubbery. She seems even to have decided to try to hatch them, for she plonked herself down upon them and keeps returning to the nest, however often she is moved. This is odd, because tortoises don’t sit on their own eggs; they just cover them with earth and leave them alone to hatch out of their own accord. So I don’t know what Alice thinks she is up to. It’s amazing that the duck eggs haven’t broken under her weight; but there is little hope of them hatching out now, for the mother duck, finding a tortoise sitting on her eggs, has understandably abandoned them.
But apart from the sad fate of the duck eggs, this is all a great relief. It shows that the tortoises can look after themselves, as they had successfully done for many years in London, and that the experts are scaremongers and fusspots. There seems to be a conspiracy to make the keeping of any kind of pet or domestic animal as forbidding as possible. I have to admit, however, that keeping chickens has not been a doddle, not that lack of expertise has anything to do with it. There are only two options here: one is to keep them shut in all the time, and the other is to let them roam the garden. The first is unacceptable to me, but the second means that at some point a fox is almost bound to kill them. I know, because foxes have killed almost all my chickens during the past couple of years, doing so fearlessly in broad daylight during the cubbing season.
I currently have four chickens, only one of which is a survivor from an earlier flock, and one guinea fowl, the lone survivor of a pair that I bought some weeks ago because of the guinea fowl’s fame for cackling noisily when there is danger afoot. This has not worked out very well. It cackles a lot, but usually aggressively at me; and for the rest of the time, it chases the chickens around, scaring the living daylights out of them. Maybe it’s because of this reign of terror that one of the two Sussex hens has neurotically taken to pecking away at the other, leaving a featherless sore on its back, revolting to behold.
Nevertheless, I let these birds wander about freely out of doors, even though the cubbing season has begun, and the farmer has rung to warn me that, while he has just shot one pregnant vixen, there are still lots of foxes about. It is just too depressing to keep them shut up in their coop. I have done so for periods, but it always makes me completely lose interest in them and not even bother to remember their names.