The circle of life

By Martin Kirby

Meet the cute mountain mutts with no names, pickle one and pickle two, whose lives have entwined with ours.
By the time you are reading this they will be answering to Bertie and Betty, Tilly and Ted, Nixon and Khrushchev, Fred and Ginger, Feng and Shui or something of the like, and no doubt running us ragged.
But for now they are finding their little paws, sizing us up and wondering what’s next in a life that began in a cave three months ago.
In 2007 we lost our 14-year-old Norfolk springer Charlie. This spring his sister Megan slipped away in her sleep. They had been born on Maggie’s parents’ Mattishall farm and made us laugh and cry and count of blessings as the best animal companions always can. That just left Biba, now seven years old, who lost her spark and, like us, clearly didn’t know how to cope with the void.
Both our families have always had dogs. It was never a case of what to do, but when.
June 18 was Joe Joe’s ninth birthday. We looked at each other and decided to go in search of a terrier-type who would run like the wind with him, love him, love us, chase vermin, guard the farm and gift Biba a new lease of life. We have always had medium to large hounds, so small would make a change.
But where to look? A rescue dog perhaps, so we rang our friendly vet and she started to put the word about. We found out there were three large dog pounds within 20 miles of us and made an appointment to visit the nearest.
Have you ever been to a dog pound? Strewth. Your heart falls out of your chest. The racket is unbearable, the desperation even more so.
We’d figured that the younger the dog the more chance for us to train it and for Biba to bond. But these were all full-grown animals and mostly on the large size. We were about to guiltily flee when Lynn, one of the English workers there, told us there were two puppies that might fit the bill.
How the hell do you choose? How can you part them?
Someone had followed the mother after she had scavenged food, and she lead them to the pups in a mountain cave. Any of you hard hearted enough not to adopt one or both of them after that?
We are fudge. They are now ours. And they are part of the Mother’s Garden menagerie.

Yesterday I tethered the horses in the shade of the four olive trees that run from the hives to the old caravan, our simple lodging for young farm volunteers that’s been all but devoured by the drooping walnut branches and the teeth of the brambles.
Overgrown is good. Leaf shade means relief as we slide into the season when a block of butter quickly loses a grip of itself and even the darkest swoon.
Around my legs poppies bobbed as bees gummed up with nectar hummed from red to red then on to scabious, hawkbit and hawkweed. They shared the hot air with assorted members of the brown butterfly family – gatekeepers and marbled whites, with the first fritillary white admiral to catch my eye.
Strangely, though, no painted ladies in that moment, save our two pied pony mares.
For weeks countless of the busy painted lady flutterbys have flickered slowly north across Mother’s Garden, labouring to cast their colours from Scolt Head to Holyhead and as far north as Iceland in one of the greatest migrations of them all.
Some, forlorn with tattered wings, are at journeys end, but their broods are rising into the sky, instinctively setting course for France, England and beyond where they will breed again.
Our overgrown, prickly farm is, you see, a staging post for this great brown-orange traveller that can, in exceptional years such as this, fill the air like cherry petals in a breeze.
Here and 800 miles south at journey’s beginning in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, winter and spring rains have fuelled a great burgeoning of lush growth, not least the fat thistles the ladies love and which make weeding a sore point.
I know that tens of thousands of these butterflies have been sighted across East Anglia, but about now the second wave should be with you in even greater numbers. You never know – maybe some of those in your garden spent their month as egg and caterpillar here with us.
I’m thinking of starting a “nature watch at Mother’s Garden” web blog. What do you think? Every time I venture out of the farmhouse there is something to appreciate. For example ...
It is also an exceptional year for some reason for woodchat shrikes, those distinctive chestnut crowned butcher birds, so-named for impaling their prey on thorns. There are, I think, four kinds of woodchat shrikes, but I will never be clever or well-sighted enough to be sure of their differences. If there are any birders out there who can shed any light on the one that flew into the side of the car I would be grateful.
I’m wondering if they could be of the Balearic variety (badius) because we are not so far at all from the holiday islands of Majorca etc, and perhaps their numbers could have something to do with the weather and multitude of insects. Their striking colours and willingness to perch somewhere prominently means we have been able to keep tabs on several of them.
Then there are the mighty ravens, bigger than the buzzards. Two, squawking like ducks with sore throats, have decided they like Mother’s Garden, probably because of the lofty perch of spindly pines looking down on the multitude of creatures feeding on one another, for our overgrown ecological patch is more nature reserve than farm, where the circle of life seems to grow ever wider.
Their arrival coincided with my reading Crow Country by Mark Cocker - put it on your Christmas wish list - that carried me home to the Norfolk Broads with typically erudite and enchanting appreciation of the stark but mesmeric wetland between Norwich, Yarmouth and Lowestoft, and the cascade of corvids (rooks and jackdaws) in the half-light of roosting time.
Perhaps our ravens are feeding on both the carrion of snakes and rodents, because they too seem exceedingly plentiful. Lane traffic is infrequent at best, yet the tarmac has more snake kills than usual, and they are about the farm, for sure.
I fished a rather large and somewhat relieved ladder-back out of our top reservoir near the spring – not by hand, you understand, but with a long cane - having watched it with Joe Joe for some time as it struggled forlornly to climb up the vertical walls.
It let me assist without a struggle, swimming towards the cane when I dipped it into the water, and we were afforded a fantastic view of the creature’s markings before it slowly hauled itself into a nearby hazel bush.
We talked about combating fear of things we do not understand by trying to learn, and it pleases me that Joe Joe is eager and clearly not easily spooked.
When I was eight you wouldn’t have got me within a mile of a beehive, but Joe Joe volunteered to help me take the first honey of the year.
I didn’t pay the hives much attention last year and it showed. Frames were glued together and while we had to spend quite a time with a cloud of bees around us the little man didn’t flinch, even when a bee gut under his tunic and stung him on the back.
We were gifted an occupied hive a few years ago and now have three buzzing with life. It seems our wildflower meadow is to the bees liking, and we have bottled about 20lbs of honey so far. We aim to take a little more in July and then leave them in peace.

Finally, the hat rather says it all doesn’t it? It – I – may not look world class, but rest assured the yellow and green were worn with pride amid 90,000 rather happy Barcelona fans.
I sang On The Ball City, told anyone who would listen which team just pips Barca as the greatest in the world, then sat with Ella and my oldest and dearest pal Mike Hatherly as my adopted city erupted with an end of season mid-week football fireworks and fiesta.
It was one of Ella’s treats to mark her fourteenth birthday, that also included the surprise arrival of Carmella from Seattle, a world traveller who helped us build the horse corral three years ago and who makes the best apple pie, naturally.
Mike, erstwhile of Worstead Primary, Dilham FC and Norwich School, another diehard Canary fan, was completely to blame for how we both looked during our outing to the largest stadium in Europe, ie somewhat tired, unshaven and ancient.
He had rolled up at Mother’s Garden a few days earlier for his 50th birthday celebration – a surprise gathering of family and friends that would have put a smile of Oliver Reed’s face.
While savouring the fizz of excitement over Barca’s haul of trophies, and commenting on how it all passed off without any obvious police presence, we mused on the phenomenal support base the Canaries also enjoy and how resurrection is inevitable, of course. There are countless similarities between the two clubs.
We could be playing at the Camp Nou in the Champions League within four years if all goes to plan.
Mike moved away from Norfolk 30 years ago, but his soccer loyalties have never budged from those teenage centre parting, scarves tied to wrists, windsock trouser days on the litter-strewn Barclay terraces. Quite right. All will be well, if only we stay calm and believe.

LATE NEWS – It looks like it will be Teddie and Tilly.

Martin Kirby’s Norfolk novel Count The Petals Of The Moon Daisy is published by Pegasus (ISBN 9781903490297)


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