0

OF SLUGS AND SNAILS AND PUPPY DOGS’ TAILS …

digging‘You have to throw them at least 70 feet, you know.’

Adam was doing an excellent impersonation of a country hick, leaning on the fence with a piece of grass in his mouth,watching me as I picked the slugs and snails from around my newly planted hollyhocks and hurled them viciously into Maggie’s field. He’d been hedging since late morning, but had finished for the day and was loitering in the hopes of a cup of tea.

‘What?’ I straightened up and eased the crick in my back.

‘Yes.’ He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. ‘They have a homing instinct. Throw them any less than that, and they just come back. Throw them further, and they get lost. I’m surprised you don’t know that … typing the Prof’s book for him and all.’

‘We haven’t got  onto the homing instincts of slugs yet. He’s still lingering over their really bizarre sex lives. What do YOU do about slugs and snails?’

‘Grow marigolds, encourage frogs and toads, bribe the village kids to collect them … but mostly go out with a torch on a wet night and scoop the little beggars up, then despatch them to Happy Valley.’

‘Happy Valley? Is that a euphemism for ending their miserable, misbegotten lives?’

‘Of course not. I live in peace with nature.’ He made himself more comfortable on the fence. ‘Happy Valley is the bottom end of my place, past Wittenshaw Beeches. Slug heaven.’

‘You retire your slugs to Slug Heaven?’ I lobbed another one into the field. ‘How sweet. I came out the other night with the dogs, in the rain, and the patio was awash with slugs and snails. I stopped counting when I got to 50. They’ve destroyed my cape gooseberries, made hash of my acanthus, and felled a five-foot high sunflower.’

‘Ah now. Sunflowers they love.’ He looked around curiously, as a thought struck him. ‘Speaking of your dogs – where are they? They’re unnaturally quiet.’

It was a good point. Normally, the sound of Adam’s – or indeed anyone’s – voice in the front garden would have brought them hurtling from the house, shrieking the odds and throwing themselves at the intruder with psychotic intent. But they were quiet. They were suspiciously quiet. I looked at Adam. He looked at me. We both looked around the garden, listening. Nothing.

Then, a horrid thought occurred to me. ‘My spring bulbs. I bet those depraved little sociopaths are digging up my bulbs again ….’

Clambering to my feet, I waddled stiffly around the side of the house (my knees aren’t  as biddable as they once were) and heard the ‘clink’ of the gate as Adam followed. Sure enough, the Boy Dog and the Old Girl were around the back, quietly laying waste to my newly-planted bulbs. All you could actually see of them was two enthusiastically waggling  bottoms as they scrabbled at the freshly dug bed, showering soil and crocuses all over the patio.

‘Nooooooo! BAD DOGS! WHO DID IT?! WHO DID IT?! BAAAD DOGS!’

The Boy Dog immediately shot off into the shrubbery, ears down, tail down and belly dragging on the ground. The Old Girl however just stood there looking at me dispassionately over her shoulder for a moment before carrying on where she’d left off. Adam snorted but wisely kept his mouth shut.

BLOODY DOGS!!!!.’ Stomping bad-temperedly across the patio, I grabbed the Old Girl around her barrel chest and hauled her from the hole, whereupon she immediately started galloping wildly in mid-air as if she’d decided belatedly to make a run for it, but hadn’t noticed that her feet were no longer on the ground. Boy Dog meanwhile  watched the pantomime from the safety of the azalea but wasn’t, I noticed, bothering to look remotely guilty any more – just very, very interested.

Retreating to the utility, I dumped the Old Girl unceremoniously in her bed and came out to find Adam collecting up all the crocus bulbs. ‘Got a broom?’ He asked. ‘If you sweep the soil back into the bed, I’ll replant these for you.’

‘You’re a cherub, Adam. Thank you.’ I fetched the yard broom and started sweeping. ‘But how do I stop them? This is the second time it’s been dug up’. I thought about that statement for a moment. ‘Actually, it’s the third time … but the first time, it was a cat.’

‘Barbed wire entanglements.’

‘Eh?’

‘Or possibly bean netting. Do you have any? If not, I’ve got some.’

I had some. I even knew where it was, I fetched it, and flourished it triumphantly like a magician producing a rabbit from a hat … and what Adam did with it was so simple I kicked myself for not thinking of it. Instead of stretching it out as I expected, he scrunched it up and then pegged it down firmly enough to keep it in place but loosely enough to keep it mobile and tangly.

‘Oh now, that’s clever.’

‘Thank you.’ He got to his feet and brushed the dirt and dust from his baggy cords. ‘That should confuse them.’

Boy Dog chose that moment to emerge, very cautiously, from the shrubbery and sniff the netting. We watched him. He sniffed, he peered and then he reached out a paw to touch – only to retract it again in confuddlement. The look he turned on me said, more clearly than any words, ‘How COULD you?’

I paid Adam for his help in tea and rock cakes and returned to the serious task of hurtling slugs into Maggie’s field, secure in the knowledge that my spring bulbs were now safe from the predations of Jack Russells.

The next morning, I wandered out into the garden clutching a mug of tea and a slice of hot buttered toast to admire our handiwork … and the toast turned to ashes in my mouth. Ashes, I tell you.

The netting was still in place, only now it was neatly protecting four very large molehills.

0

As I was saying …

A little later than promised (or, indeed, intended), the Adverse Camber Diaries will be returning to a computer/tablet/whatever screen near you next week .

Promise.

With bells on.

0

NORMAL SERVICE WILL BE RESUMED …

gone fishingDue to an impending domestic upheaval, there will be no new editions of  ‘Adverse Camber’ for the next few weeks. With a bit of luck and a following wind, normal service will be resumed in the late spring or early summer.

Feel free to take a look around, make yourself a cuppa and admire the view from the conservatory. Oh, and don’t nick any of the ornaments …

~~~o~~~

0

THE BREAKDOWN MAN COMETH

hammer-chisel-9966906_FotoSketcherIt’s been absolutely throwing it down all week. Stair rods. Cats and dogs. Piddling down – not to put too fine a point on it. The dainty little narcissi, which came up far too early (I did tell them – but would they listen?) are now standing forlornly in puddles of water. The garden birds send little tsunamis rippliing across the grass as they hop around in search of soggy seed and the crocuses have all fallen over in a sodden mess. Mind you – having said that, I think they had help. I found the Old Girl dog standing in the middle of them the other day. I remonstrated with her and explained, patiently, that I would much prefer it if she DIDN’T walk through my crocus patch. However, as none of the words coming out of my mouth were either  ‘cheese’, ‘chicken’ or ‘walkies’, she simply lowered her podgy bottom onto the poor flowers and sat there looking at me.

All of which is a bit of a digression, to make the point that it’s been raining very wet rain.

It isn’t very far down to the village shop, but in something close to a monsoon, a traveller on foot will end up drenched before they’ve gone ten yards, so when the ironmongers rang to say that the replacement hammer drill I’d ordered had arrived, I decided to get the car out to go and collect it.

Now there’s absolutely NOTHING the dogs like better than driving around in the car barking at nothing. If you offer them the choice between ‘chicken’ and ‘car riding’ they will unfailing turn their backs on the fridge to queue at the garage door. So, even though I was only going to be gone for about fifteen minutes at most, I thought I’d make their little doggie day for them by taking them with me.

I went through to the garage, shooed the dogs into the car and then opened the double doors onto the driveway. I got in and started the car. It started first time. I engaged reverse, got the bite, released the handbrake and  …. the car wouldn’t move. The dogs barked delightedly.

I tried again. All that happened was that the offside rear of the car sort of rose up everso slightly into the air, like a cat stretching gently, then fell back when I took my foot off the accelerator. The dogs bounced up and down dementedly and snapped at each other, as if going nowhere at all in a car was the most exciting thing EVER.

Even with my limited mechanical know-how, I recognized the problem as a seized brake, probably caused by the flood water I’d been through a couple of days earlier – and I smugly told myself that I knew EXACTLY what to do about a seized brake, because I am a capable, modern woman and I know such things.

I rocked the car. The dogs yapped hysterically. I bounced it. The dogs went berserk. I revved it in first gear. I revved it in reverse gear. The dogs thought it was the most fun they’d ever had – well, at least since they discovered the joy of shredding a pillow. They were all but bouncing off the windows. I pleaded with the car. I sobbed pathetically, hammering on the bonnet in impotent rage. Nada. it remained resolutely immobile.

Defeated, I got the dogs out of the back of the car. They were deliriously happy even though we hadn’t left the garage.

Back in the cottage, I searched the internet for ‘Seized brakes’ and found many videos of Blokes with Wrenches speaking of removing wheels and hitting things really, really hard with mallets – at which point I said to myself, ‘I pay my breakdown service vast amounts of money every year – so I think THEY can come and hit things really, really hard with a mallet’.

It took them 55 minutes to arrive – which is the price you pay for lovely scenery and a neighborhood buzzard – but the Breakdown Bloke was lovely. He got in the car, started it, tried to move it and failed. He bounced it, rocked it, revved it and eventually decided that was required was the strategic deployment of violence. He got out a lump hammer and a cold chisel. My eyes popped.

‘Watch carefully,’ he said, ‘So you know how to do this if it happens again.’

He explained how you could tell which brake was seized by which part of the car reared up when you tried to move it …. then  went down on his knees, removed the hubcap from the offending wheel and with no ceremony whatsoever, placed the chisel near the rim and gave it a good sharp whack with the lump hammer. There was an unmistakable CLUNK as the brake came unstuck.

‘Sorted,’ he said with a grin. ‘I’ll just do the paperwork and leave you in peace.’

The next day, over lunch, I relate all of this to the Professor down at Bramblings,

‘I pay the breakdown people £100 a year for their services, and they come along and hit my car with a lump hammer …’

He looked at me over his half moon glasses for a moment, before saying quietly, ‘To our professional charges for hitting your car with a lump hammer: £10. To our professional charges for knowing WHERE to hit your car with a lump hammer: £90.’

Good point.

0

VICTIM

socketTaking advantage of a lull in the lunatic weather we’ve been having recently, the hounds and I were out in the garden, wading through ankle-deep-but-unmowable grass, retrieving the wheelie bin from the pond and general taking note of the ravages of winter, while being shouted at by the resident robin, demanding to be fed.

I’d almost completed a circumnavigation of the cottage when something caught my eye on the gravel by the oil tank. It was a shiny something which, on closer inspection, turned out to be a chrome hexagonal socket from a socket wrench set, just like the one I had in the shed. This struck me as slightly odd as the set belonged to my late father and I’d never had occasion to use it … but I decided that it must have been a stray that had fallen out of a rubbish bag I was taking to the dustbin, and just carried on.

Then I spotted another shiny something on the path at the corner of the house right beside the downpipe from the guttering … and yes, it was ANOTHER chrome hex socket.

Now, one hex socket is odd, but two is downright suspicious, especially when you have no memory of handling, let alone throwing out, a socket set – and that’s when I realized that I was standing on the direct route between the garden shed and the front gate: the unlocked garden shed, the key to which had not been handed over when I bought the cottage.

Surely not?

I’d be the first to admit that I don’t keep the garden shed in what you might call apple pie order even under normal circumstances, so I leave it to your imagination what it looked like when, prior to the arrival of the first of the winter gales, I’d hurriedly chucked into it all the loose pots, tools, tubs and buckets that were scattered around the garden.Even at its best, after I’d cleared a path to the peanuts, it looked as if someone had been in and comprehensively trashed it – so no one except Yours Truly could possibly have told if it had been interfered with. (In fact, that should read ‘no one, not EVEN Yours Truly’.) I opened the door and surveyed the wilderness of bird food tubs, ancient garden tools and miscellaneous gardening gloves, kneeler pads and plant pots. Then I looked at the two chrome objects in my hand and tried to find the socket set.

It wasn’t there.

I sucked my teeth and did a mental stocktake.

Long-handled loppers: check.

Two pairs of hedging shears: check.

Long-handled grass shears: check.

Ash-handled hoe: check

Three bow saws: check.

Assorted bands saws, wood saws and hacksaws: check.

Power cable: check.

Machete: check. (Phew.)

Strimmer: check.

Cordless drill-driver: in the house charging.

Electric hammer drill: ……………

Ah.

Just to be sure, I was forced into sorting the shed out. I dragged everything out, with the dogs swirling and snuffling excitedly around me (where there’s bird food, there are rodents ….) and then put it back tidily.

Hammer drill was there none.

The sequence of events then became clear. Local villains cruising the area on the off chance of finding an unlocked door duly find one. In the midst of the embarrassing chaos that is my garden shed, they spot a glimmer of felonious light: a hammer drill and a grey plastic case containing a socket set. They grab them. The catch on the socket set gives way (because it always does) spewing the contents over the pathway. They swear. They scoop up all the bits they can find in the dark and flee, triumphant … until they find out exactly what they’d got.

Their magnificent haul amounted to a secondhand, bottom-of the-range hammer drill which cost a whole £29 brand new six years ago (and which I was about to replace with a better model anyway) plus a dirt cheap, and quite possibly given-away-free-with-something, socket set, now minus at least two pieces (a third or fourth piece may have vanished down the drain). I estimate the total value at about a fiver if they were really lucky, and assuming that they even had the nerve to try and flog them – because I’m telling you that that hammer drill wouldn’t do a THING for anybody’s street cred.

I almost didn’t bother to report it to the Police, but then thought I should probably do my civic duty and all that, just in case the criminal masterminds were still in the area. Accordingly, I filled in and sent off an ‘Online Non-Emergency Crime Report Form’ and thought no more of it.

Remembering that I was now, unexpectedly, the proud owner of a magnificently tidy shed, I went out to admire it, taking with me a plastic bag full of miscellaneous keys I’d found in the garage after I’d moved in, on the off chance that one of them fitted the door. Fishing out a few likely-looking candidates, the second one I tried went in and turned in the lock.  If I ever acquired anything valuable I could lock it in. How very unexpected.

Half an hour later, my ‘phone rang. It was Alastair, the ‘Contact Management and Resolution Officer’ at the County Constabularly HQ, calling to acknowledge the report and to take a few more details: When did I think the burglary took place? (Last night or the night before.) What sort of door was it, and was it locked? (Wood and glass and (blush) No.) What was the value of the property taken? (Absolutely minimal, and quite possibly nil.)

‘Nil?’

I explained about the dirt-cheap, incomplete, socket set in the case with the dodgy catch and low-end-of-the-market drill.

He sniggered. I’m sure that isn’t in the  ‘How to’ manual for Contact Management and Resolution Officers.

‘Technically,’ he said, in the tone of one who knows he’s talking nonsense, but has to ask so he can tick his box, ‘you’re a victim of crime and as such entitled to a visit from victim support.’

I sniggered. He sniggered. We sniggered together.

‘I don’t think so, thank you. I’m not remotely worried. The house is quite secure and besides, I have two very opinionated and gobby dogs.’

‘Good … But have you locked the shed door now?’

‘After the horse has bolted? I most certainly have. The grass rake is perfectly safe.’

He promised to send me an Incident Report Number and we parted on immensely chummy terms.

That night, as I was heading upstairs to bed (having, naturally, double-checked to make sure that all lockable doors were, indeed, locked), I paused on the half-landing to gaze around the downstairs living area at my motley collection of possessions. I couldn’t help feeling that anyone who went to the effort of breaking in would be deeply disappointed by a 15″ portable television and an elderly laptop that’s so cantankerous you have to hit in just the right place to persuade it to start.

Not that the disappointment would last long of course: they’d be too busy throwing themselves out of the nearest window as two berserking Jack Russells came hurtling down the stairs.

0

SERIOUSLY, THOUGH …

samanthaPersonally, I hate people who say ‘I told you so’, but sometimes it’s irresistible.

I was up in the little office at the farm, sobbing quietly over the assorted envelope backs, milk record cards and wrappers from jumbo economy size tins of cat food that Maggie used for keeping track of her finances, when the woman herself arrived bearing a mug of tea and a massive Jersey slice which had plainly been purchased with real money from a real baker.

I eyed it suspiciously.

‘What’s the occasion?’

‘Occasion? What do you mean?’ She tried to look innocent, but Maggie has one of those big, round open faces that can hide nothing. She wanted a favour and it couldn’t have been more obvious if she’d had a sign around her neck written in inch high letters.

‘Unless Alec has become uncharacteristically open-handed and arrived bearing baked goods for no good reason, you want something.’ I snatched it from her before she could withdraw it in a fit of pique. ‘Tell Auntie.’

‘We-e-e-l-l.’ She wrinkled her nose slightly – a sure sign she was out of her comfort zone. ‘I’ve done something a bit foolish, on an impulse.’

I took the pastry slice apart and, carefully distributing the cream evenly over both parts, bit into the bottom layer. ‘What’s that then?’

British Farming ‘phoned me up the other day and asked if I’d be interested in writing a thousand words on women in farming for their ‘Real Life Farmers’ section.’

I nearly choked on my flaky pastry. ‘WHAT?’

‘It’s a great honour to be asked. Every month they feature two farmers in different parts of the country talking about the same subject.’ She paused. ‘They offered money.’

‘But you can’t put two coherent sentences together …. Oh.’ Understanding dawned. ‘I get it.’

‘It’s MUCH more your line than mine. I thought that if I told you what I wanted to say, all you’d have to do is – you know …’

‘Write it.’

‘Would you?’

‘Of course.’ I tried very hard not to sigh audibly. ‘When’s the deadline?’

‘Tomorrow.’

‘TOMORROW?! Maggie, how long have you been sitting on this?’

‘Not long.’ She bridled defensively.’Only a fortnight or so.’

‘Or so …’

‘I’ve been busy doing other things. They want a photo, too.’ She pulled a camera from her pocket. ‘Alec tried to take one, but he’s only good at taking pictures of tractors. He made me look half-witted.’

With an effort, I swallowed the obvious retort and picked up a notepad. ‘You’d better sit down and talk to me, hadn’t you? And then we’ll go outside and take a photo.’

An hour later, I had taken several pages of shorthand notes of Maggie’s perfectly sensible and interesting thoughts on Women in Farming and a photograph of her sitting on the stone steps outside the office looking reasonably intelligent and becomingly windswept.

‘Right,’ I checked my watch. ‘I’ll take this home and work on it. I can probably get it done by end of play today, then we can look at it together and do any tweaking before we send it off to them tomorrow morning.’

She beamed. ‘That’s brilliant. I’ll split the fee with you.’

‘Deal.’

I was back three hours later with 987 words of deathless prose and we sat down with Alec at the kitchen table to read it over together.

I’d inserted a few small jokes … just light-hearted asides to lift the piece slightly … and I was pleased to see the usually slightly dour Alec smiling as he read it. Maggie, on the other hand, was developing little furrows above the bridge of her nose. Eventually, she lowered the printed pages and sat staring at them for a moment in silence. Then she shifted uncomfortably in her seat, cleared her throat and said, ‘It’s very good …’

‘But?’

‘I like it …’

‘But?’

‘I think they’re looking for something more … you know … serious. I like the little jokes but I’m really not sure it’s the right tone for the magazine.’

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Alec raising an eyebrow, but he held his silence.

I took a deep breath, then nodded. ‘That’s not a problem Maggie. I understand what you’re saying, and I can easily take them out and just make it a perfectly factual piece.’

‘You don’t mind, do you?’

‘Of course not. It’s your piece and you have to be comfortable with it. I’ll just rejig it slightly, and we can send it this evening so it’s with them first thing tomorrow morning.’

So that’s what I did. I took out all the tongue-in-cheek bits, turned it into an exemplary piece of farm journalism, gave it back to Maggie for approval and sent it off together with the photo.

Two weeks later, publication day dawned and after breakfast I duly wandered down to the Post Office to buy a copy of British Farming magazine in order to admire my handiwork.

On the way back up the hill to the cottage, I thumbed through the glossy pages looking for Maggie’s piece and eventually found it towards the back, after an article on dairy cattle nutrition and before a ‘Best Buys in Slurry Tankers’ feature. The photograph I’d taken had come out very well, and the article looked thoroughly professional and business like just as Maggie had hoped.

All of that, however, was noted and discarded in a matter of moments. What riveted my attention was the companion piece on the opposite page. It was by a young female hill farmer in Wales. She was pictured in a lush green field, down on one knee and holding a microphone to a border collie’s nose.

And she was interviewing her sheepdog.

~~~o~~~

(Picture credit: based on a photograph by Trevis Rothwell and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.)

0

LBJs AND LITTLE HITLERS

BenHave you ever tried counting LBJs?

Do you even know what an LBJ is?

No? Well, let me enlighten you. LBJ stands for Little Brown Job, which is shorthand for all of those small brown birds which look like sparrows but aren’t, necessarily, although they could be. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the females of some quite colourful and/or distinctive sparrow-sized birds like chaffinches and reed buntings are ALSO Little Brown Jobs, the better to be camouflaged upon the nest.

None of which is a huge problem to the majority of  people for most of the time, but when you’re trying to count the little buggers and they (a) don’t have the courtesy to stay still and (b) all look like each other in the first place, especially through a grubby window, it’s a total pain.

Those of you who haven’t already wandered off to do something more interesting, like stare at a dripping tap, may be wondering why anyone would be counting LBJs in the first place. Well, it’s simple. Every winter, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds organizes the Big Garden Birdwatch, asking willing souls like me to sit down and stare out of a window for an hour to count and list all of the birds they see. It’s a sort of avian stock-take which provides an annual snapshot of the UK bird population. It’s also a rare opportunity to sit down and do nothing very much for an hour with a clear conscience (that bloody Protestant Work Ethic is SUCH a downer, man).

Inevitably, of course, some of the participants can’t help approaching it like a competitive sport, vying with each other on social media to snag the most exotic species. While most of us content ourselves with putting out fat-filled coconuts, sunflower seeds and industrial quantities of bird seed, you just know that someone, somewhere in the Highlands, has staked out a deer carcass …

So my Big Garden Birdwatch day arrived, and there was a Force 5 gale howling across the garden. Nothing daunted, I battled my way outside with two wildly excited Jack Russells swirling around me and hung up my fat blocks (two of), half coconuts (four of), niger seed feeders (one of), peanut feeders (two of) and seed feeders (three of), then scattered seed and suet pellets on the bird table, ground feeder tray, patio and garden table. Before I’d even got back inside the house, the fowl of the air were descending en masse behind me; the LBJs were twittering excitedly in the cotinus bush by the bird table, the collared doves were congregating in the fruit trees and the starlings were lining the edge of the roof, ready to drop like vertical take-off jets as soon as I’d shooed the dogs inside.

Anticipating a bumper crop of ticked boxes, I made a cup of coffee, grabbed a bar of chocolate, a notebook and a pair of binoculars, and settled in an armchair in front of the patio windows, which provide a grandstand view of virtually the whole of the back garden.

It was absolute bedlam out there: starlings were squabbling over the ground feeders, LBJs were scuttling around under the bird table and collared doves and wood pigeons were squabbling over the seed on the patio. I decided to concentrate on the LBJs to begin with, as there were so many of them bickering over the food falling from the table.

The trick with counting small, milling flocks is to look at them with your naked eye for a moment, zero in with the bins, do a swift head count in a slow sweep and then assume that the ones you count twice are probably cancelled out by the ones you didn’t count at all. I counted 14 tree sparrows – which are LBJs with chestnut brown heads and therefore relatively easy to identify.

I went to write it down … which is when I realized that I didn’t have a pen.

Normally, I have pen and pencils all over the place – in pockets, shoved down the spines of notebooks, on the tea trolley, on the coffee table, in pots, boxes and vases on every shelf and in every nook and cranny of the cottage – but could I find one anywhere immediately to hand? What do YOU think? In the end, I had to go and snag the one hanging on a string by the calendar in the kitchen … but by the time I got back to the armchair, every single bird had vanished. I mean ALL of them. The garden had gone from Piccadilly in the rush hour to the Russian Steppes in the off season, in the space of two minutes.

I printed “Tree sparrows: 14” in my notebook … and then waited.

I scanned the hedges, undergrowth and bushes with the binoculars in search of life.

I waited.

And I waited.

I did another sweep with the bins, and finally spotted something behind the cotinus bush: a sleek, blue-grey something exactly the same colour as the neighbour’s cat.

‘CAT!’ I screamed, shooting to my feet and causing the Boy Dog to hurtle off the sofa so fast that he crashed into the Old Girl, who was staggering out of her basket as rapidly as her creaky old legs would carry her. I was on the point of Deploying the Hounds of Hell to see off the invader when the blue-grey something emerged from behind the bush with a flagger of wings a sad little bundle of feathers in its talons. Not a cat, then.

With a sigh, I scribbled, “Sparrowhawk: 1” in my notebook.

After a moment’s thought, I then wrote, “Tree sparrows: 14  13“.

I waited again. Then I waited some more, and was on the point of giving it up as a bad job when a male chaffinch – the dumb blond of the bird world – landed on the nearest peanut feeder. For a few more minutes, nothing else happened, and you just knew that all the other birds were sitting in their hiding places  watching and waiting to see if he survived longer than five minutes …

Finally, as he continued to stuff his face unmolested, they all started to trickle back and, about fifteen minutes after the little fatality, the garden was once more full of birds.

I recorded my ever-present robins, blackbirds, collared doves and wood pigeons,plus a lone dunnock and the resident wren, then turned my attention back to the LBJs under the bird table again – at the precise moment that the low winter sun made a brief appearance, hitting the patio doors at an oblique angle and reminding me that I’d forgotten to clean the glass.

Gamely, I peered into the murk, sorting out the tree sparrows from the house sparrows and the female chaffinches and was eventually rewarded with a reed bunting. Then I spotted something lurking fuzzily behind it in the shadows. With an excitement that will only be understood by other bird watchers, I twiddled feverishly with the central knob-thingy on the bins and – just as I brought what I think was a twite into sharp focus – a great dark mass loomed up before me, nearly giving me a coronary.

The Boy Dog, with one paw on each of my knees, had climbed onto the tuffet in front of my chair and was staring straight down the business end of the binoculars at me.

I looked at him. He looked at me – and his look plainly said, ‘Enough already.’

‘But … Twite.’ (And yes, I often have one-sided conversations with my dogs.)

He didn’t move. The Old Lady Dog – his faithful wing (wo)man – moved into position behind him.

A shower of starlings hurtled from the roof outside.

‘Starlings,’ I whimpered pathetically.

Neither of them budged. I put the binoculars down and closed the notebook. The clock on the wall confirmed that it was, indeed, an hour since I’d begun the birdwatch.

I knew then that I was beaten.

I often tell people that although Jack Russells aren’t suitable pets for anyone who doesn’t think dogs should have opinions of their own, it’s only when they start developing language skills that you need to worry. The thing is, that day may not be very far away.