It's early Sunday morning. Kariba, my red-brown Rhodesian Ridgeback stirs in her bed. The moment she sees me open my eyes she begins to whine quietly, asking to go outside.
"Do you want to go outside? I ask her.
Immediately she sits up smartly in her bed and wags her tail, her eyes never leaving mine. I throw back the puffy bedcovers and swing my sock-clad feet onto the wooden floor, trying not to creak the old floorboards as I put on my slippers and dressing gown and head towards the kitchen. Tag, the fat Jack Russel joins us. Kariba and Tag politely sit while I unlock the back door. The instant it is open a crack, our two male Ridgebacks barge into the kitchen, pushing and shoving Kariba back inside. I open the door wide and call them all outside so that, in their exuberance, they don't wake Grant. It is quite common for him to receive slobbery kisses from three of our four dogs while he is still trying to sleep. The click-clacking of their toenails on the floor is enough to disturb any pleasant dreams.
The sun has just risen and there is no frost on the bleached lawn. It is cool, but warm enough for me to wander outside, enjoying the dogs' romping in the morning light. I walk into the chicken yard and up the slope, towards the henhouse. On my way I startle our two piglets who are stealing the remains of the grain thrown down for the chickens last night. They run towards me, grunting and squealing, expecting me to give them breakfast, but I see that they still haven't finished their dinner last night. We had mixed it with water instead of the usual whey, as I hadn't made any cheese yesterday. The piglets would rather snout around and root up the grass that I am coaxing to grow in the chicken yard, than eat their leftover dinner.
There is a lot of jostling and clucking coming from the white henhouse as the chickens crowd around the wire gate waiting to be let out for the day. Arrietty and Homily do not budge from their nests as the rest of the flock pour out into the morning. Arrietty, a pretty young hen dotted in shades of white, black and orange, is sitting on six eggs. They should hatch any day now. She warns me with a throaty high pitched warble as I reach my hand under her, but doesn't peck me. There are no signs of cracks on the warm pink-brown eggs, nor do I hear any tiny peeps from beneath her feathers. I leave brown and black speckled Homily alone. The last time I looked she was sitting in the nesting box, all broody with nothing beneath her. A little later on, when I am collecting the morning's eggs, I will check whether she has laid any. If not I will give her all the eggs for the next three days. I was hoping for eggs for breakfast this morning, but yesterday we only found one. There is some chervil growing in a pot on our kitchen windowsill and I have a craving for a cheesy chervil omelette. Oh well, it will have to be muesli instead.
I turn the lever for the chicken's water trough and make my way out the henhouse yard, past the piglets in the large chicken yard, out the gate and into the vegetable tunnel. The piglets look up with brown, sandy snouts and then turn their backs, ignoring me, and continue digging up the grass. There is not much growing in the tunnel besides cabbages. Most of the beds are resting, covered in a dry grass mulch, waiting for the frosty winter to pass. I turn the round red tap next to the spindly leeks at the top of the tunnel and water gushes into the chicken trough. I have closed the chickens into their smaller henhouse yard to encourage the hens to think about laying their eggs in the henhouse. There is enough uneaten grain in there to keep them busy. I stand at the fence that separates the henhouse yard from the veggie tunnel, watching the social interaction between the chickens. The two young charcoal coloured roosters crow again and again and stretch their proud wings. I notice that when I throw some cabbage leaves over the fence, they do not dare join the fray in fear of the old patriarch, Mr Montgomery. Our sole winter chick, a still peeping grey hen-chick scuttles after her little grey mother, Mary Thompson. Old Mrs Montgomery and Peg, with her gammy leg, have faded combs and I am sure that they have stopped laying for good. They leave that job to the young hens. We have fifteen chickens now.
I pull up two baby turnips on my way out the tunnel and once back in the big chicken yard, I call the piglets over. They rush towards me and are each rewarded with a turnip. Back in the henhouse yard, I turn the valve again to shut off the water to the chicken trough that has been overflowing and running down the slope while I was watching the flock. There is a sudden spray of water hitting plastic as the irrigation line along the back of the tunnel fills and sprays up onto the plastic and drips back down on the slow-growing leeks. It has been too long since I made leek pie. By now fat leeks should have been replaced with broad beans in that bed. We were slow in planting them last summer and they did not have a chance to strengthen before the icy weather came.
The disgruntled chickens stand at the gate as I leave them shut in the smaller yard. The piglets, seeing me back in their space, run behind me, nibbling at my furry slippered heels. It is very cute, but a slight anxiety grips me as I walk quickly away from them, and one piglet runs faster, keeping up with my heels. They haven't bitten yet, but I believe that pigs can bite. I distract them by running water into an empty container and slip out the gate and back inside. Kariba follows me in and settles back into her bed, and so do I. Grant is just waking and greets me with a sleepy hello.