Welney Wishes

News from Plover Cottage 

On this page you will find articles I have previously written for the 'Welney News'. These articles chart the changing seasons at Plover Cottage and the way that nature shapes the way we live. 





Hens at Plover Cottage

What you need,’ said my husband, ‘is a cockerel.  That will keep the hens in order.’

          Oh right, I thought, how sexist can that be.  As if women need a man about to keep everything peaceful.  The next day saw us visit our favourite chicken breeder, Tony, looking for another Marans hen.  Going round the corner to his pens we saw the most fabulous cockerel.

          ‘That’s the Lace Winged Wyandotte I told you about,’ I said to my husband.

          ‘No it ain’t,’ said Tony. ‘That’s a Marans, that is.’  He was beautiful and I said so. ‘You can have ‘im if you like,’ replied Tony.  So we did.

          Napoleon, as we called him, loved his hens.  He would cluck to them when I sprinkled hen treat in the run and would share the grains with them, waiting while they took their pick and at night he would escort any late hens to bed.  He was a beautiful bird.  With his plumage growing sleek and silky his tail grew full and arched in layered curves.  The grey down around the back of his legs grew soft and fluffy.  His neck feathers lay glossy and fluid over his shoulders.  As can happen with Marans he did suffer a little from scaly leg mite, so we kept on top of this, regularly picking him up for treatment.  At the same time I would stroke the back of his head, admiring his shiny feathers. 

          After we’d had Napoleon for a few months I met a self-sufficiency group at Pymore show.  We discussed raising chicks.  I hadn’t thought about it before, but it all seemed so easy.  It was too late that year to raise a brood but I started to plan for the following season. 

          Early the next Spring I picked up a magazine and discovered that if I was going to raise any birds I should be incubating right then, with a view to hatchings in April.  I collected some eggs and ordered an incubator for immediate dispatch. 

          Supported by a handbook and the incubator manual we successfully hatched out our first brood of chicks.   Pleased with our success we raised a second clutch.  All this time the beautiful Napoleon continued to sunbathe with his wives, to share his dust bath and chicken treats.  I didn’t like to tell him that his crowing was causing a neighbour to complain.  

I told a friend that I needed to find a new home for Napoleon. ‘Oh, I’ll have him,’ he said.

He came round later with a cat box, I caught Napoleon, who rested comfortably in my arms expecting a cuddle, and then I put him through the small door of the box.  With no trouble, no fuss, he went in and turned to make himself more comfortable in the straw.  I could see his sleek feathers, his lovely barred plumage and then he was gone. 

Later that day I visited the hen run, now quiet and feeling empty.  The girls seemed to be having difficulty working out what to do on their own.  There were small scuffles as they established a new order.  There was a vacuum where Napoleon had once been, and I felt it too. 


After only a few weeks the cockerel was back, my friend’s hens were complaining.  They were pampered ladies and they ran from Napoleon.  When his attentions proved too much for them, they went off lay, so my friend put Napoleon in a pen on his own while we built a new run.  As soon as it was ready Napoleon returned.

                   We’d moved some young cockerels into the run before Napoleon arrived.  From the spring hatchings I now had about fifteen cockerels and twelve hens.  I hadn’t expected such a large number of cockerels, but here I was with fifteen, all primed to start crowing within a few weeks.  More trouble.

          As soon as Napoleon moved in with the youngsters he made it clear that he intended to be boss and chased them around the pen for a while, before taking a break to crow a little and eat more food.  He soon took to sunbathing with the young birds and, although he would chase them around the pen, he never showed any real aggression. 

          When I was letting the cockerels out one morning a strange sound came from inside the poultry house.  It was an unusual cry, as if a cough had formed into a call.  The birds emerging through the pop-hole scattered in alarm.  Then one of the young birds came to the hatch, opened its mouth, and the same sound rang out.  The bird himself looked surprised.  When he repeated the sound he looked pleased.  It wasn’t a good sound as far as I was concerned; it was bad enough with one cockerel crowing. Time was nearly up for these youngsters.

I knew someone who could carry out the culling for me.  A former shooting man who had always lived in the country, my friend had been able to kill poultry from a young age.  I rang his wife and asked if he would be likely to do this for me. 

‘Well,’ she said, ‘I think he’s gone a bit soft with age, he doesn’t like doing it now.’ 

‘I know,’ I replied, ‘would you ask him if he’ll do it for me?’ 

He rang back and replied that he would. 

          My friend arrived the following Sunday.  It was mid-September and the birds were now about nineteen weeks old.  He joked when he arrived saying he’d wondered if he should bring a cape and scythe, I also laughed but more nervously.  I’d woken that morning listening to the cockerels crowing.  There were a few different calls now.  I always knew Napoleon, his call was a kind of cock- a-squawk, it had never been melodious.  Some others were a bit more tuneful, they had been improving with practice.  Then amongst them I heard a new call, a fluting cry, with pitch perfect notes.  I imagined the young bird in his house wondering at the special sound he had made.  He’d managed a beautiful, balanced call, and now, because of that, this day was going to be his last. 

           ‘Right, get me one of those birds then,’ said my Grim Reaper friend. ‘And don’t let any of them others know what’s going on or they’ll go crazy and we won’t get anything done.’

          I walked into the pen with my husband and watched him select a cockerel.  He carried it away to the side of the house, I heard a flutter of wings, then nothing.  Husband came back and I selected another bird for him.  Each bird was carried away and I would hear a flutter of wings, then nothing, and my husband would return for another bird.  The cockerels in the pen were at the feeder undisturbed by anything that was going on.  I picked up one of the cockerels to hand to my husband but he picked another bird and told me to just hang on to the one I had until he got back.  I held the cockerel in the crook of my arm while we waited, and stroked the back of his neck.  He turned his head to look at me.  He knew me but I didn’t know which cockerel this was.  He was one I would have hatched and put under the heat lamp to dry out, in the brooder he would have made his first attempts to eat chick crumb, later he would have nestled up to the other chicks.  Unlike male birds culled at day old he’d had a summer living in a pen on the lawn and there he pecked at grass and perched in the sun with his companions.  More recently he’d been part of the flock living happily in this pen, spending his days in the company of birds he’d known from the very start.   I put him down not knowing if my husband would pick him up next, whether he would be in this culling, or if he would make it through to another day.  The feeling of the soft feathers on the back of his neck, and the way he relaxed while I held him in my arms, stayed with me for the rest of the day.

          ‘That’s about it then,’ said my husband after a couple more cockerels had gone. ‘We’ll leave those others.  They can stay until Christmas.’  I went round to look at the now dead cockerels.  There they were, hanging, heads down, eyes closed. 

          ‘It looks a neat job,’ I congratulated my Grim Reaper friend.  He was pleased at my comment.  ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘they all went well, just a quick click, killed straight away.’

          Next morning Napoleon’s call woke me at six.  As usual I didn’t hear him call any earlier, just when it was time for me to get up.  Then there was another call and my heart sank, still more noise nuisance to worry about.  This crow rang out, a tuneful, fluting call.  It was the cockerel from the day before, with his gift to this world, a perfect musical cry of ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’.

©Lisa Woods 2014

History at Plover Cottage

We enjoy learning about the history of Plover Cottage.  Someone told us that the cottage is at least 200 years old and it’s easy to believe.  I think it might be older.  Snuggled into the side of Bedford Bank it could have been built at the time of the early drainage of the Fens back in the 1600’s.  Ernie James, who lived here for over fifty years, spoke about the cottage in the book ‘Memoirs of a Fen Tiger.’  Ernie also appeared on television in the ‘70’s, these recordings are still available on the DVD ‘A man between three rivers’.  The interviews were televised on a series called ‘Bygones’; even at the time Ernie’s way of life was disappearing. 

            The DVD brought back memories as it was recorded at the same time as I was growing up in a Fenland village no more than ten miles from Welney and there were many similarities between the two locations.  In one clip of old Welney Ernie is standing outside the Lamb and Flag while a single vehicle travels past, there is no other transport.  No heavy lorries and no speeding cars.  The village I was in had little traffic but visit it today and, even though it now has a by-pass, the traffic is constant and noisy.  The DVD also shows the poor state of the housing stock.  We wouldn’t have thought so at the time but it wasn’t that long after the Second World War and despite the ‘Never had it so good Fifties’ and ‘Swinging Sixties’ there really wasn’t much money around to invest in homes.  The village I knew had small cottages that were only improved as people started to move in from more affluent areas.  The housing in Welney is much improved since the time of the ‘Bygones’ recordings, most of it due, I imagine, to incomers from London and the Home Counties.

            I was a lucky girl as a teenager, living in our little Fenland village.  I had a pony and knew a freedom that few would today.  At fifteen I could ride my pony out into the open fields.  There’d be no one else in miles, no mobile phones.  I can remember jumping off my pony and just lying on the grass under a wide blue sky.  While my pony grazed next to me I lay on the ground listening to his munching and the breeze in the corn.  On gymkhana days we’d start out early and hack to the local town.  I knew the shortcuts but even so while other pampered ponies arrived in trailers and boxes my poor pony already had five miles of dust on his hooves by the time he arrived.  But even with their head start he was always the star of the show, and the rosettes his at the end of the day. 

            A lot of villagers cycled then, to work and to the shop in the village.  An old boy on his bike was a regular sight.  If not on a bike the old fellas would most likely be walking their dogs.  Apart from a wealthy lady who had a Pekingese the only dogs I saw were Labradors, mostly black.  There weren’t the exotic breeds then, just Labradors, walking at the heel of their owners who would be dressed in black overcoats tied up with orange string.  If a lead was needed for the dog a matching piece of twine would be found in a pocket to use until the dog could be let off again. 

Not that Ernie would have worn an old black overcoat.  I’ve been told, by Ken Butcher, that he wore only the best of quality country clothes.  It is said that Ernie never had a proper job, just wildfowling and fishing, but his was a lucrative business.  In his memoirs Ernie looked back at his time of netting plovers.  ‘Sometimes, before the war, I was able to earn a hundred pounds a week from plover-catching, and that was a lot of money in those days, ’ he recollected.  Ernie would pack about a hundred and twenty birds into a sack and cycle to Littleport station with the sack over his handlebars.  London customers in smart restaurants considered the birds a great delicacy.  I believe that’s why, when Ernie bought this cottage in 1947, he named it ‘Plover Cottage’. 

A colleague of mine, London based, who I’d told about my cottage and its history referred to Ernie as ‘a bit of a rascal’.  I didn’t understand why and then realised that he was confusing wildfowler with poacher.  Poacher, Ernie was not.  Before the Fens were drained the people who lived here had wildfowling, fishing and summer grazing to sustain them.  It was a good life and people lived well.  It wasn’t for the resident’s sake that the fens were drained, it was to make profits for the Adventurer’s, the city men.  People in Welney still held on to their wildfowling and fishing rights.  Those who ended up in the drained areas perhaps did have to resort to poaching, especially after enclosures at the time of the Industrial Revolution. 

Ernie’s work fell into four areas, mole-catching, wildfowling, plover netting and eel catching.  We have photos of him making eel hives in the shed that used to be at the end of our garden.  The willow for the traps came from willow farmed here in Welney.  As well as traps Ernie would use a gleve, which was a spear-like instrument with four or five fangs fixed to a long pole.  He would stab this into the bed of the river in the hope of spearing a nest of eels.  On a good day he could catch about a stone of eels in an hour.  He would then take these around the village to sell.  I don’t know if there are still eels in the Old Bedford or Delph Rivers. 

In the book Ernie has this to say about eels. ‘When I think about them I realise what wonderful creatures eels are.  Born in the Sargasso Sea, millions of them start the long journey to these rivers yet only a small proportion actually arrive here. When they first come here they are tiny and known as elvers, and stay here for several years, growing to about five or six pounds.  When they are fully mature they change colour from yellow to silver and make their way back to the Sargasso Sea where they spawn and die.’ 

Many years ago someone held an eel up for me to look at.  Far from seeing a slimy, unattractive creature what I saw was an animal whose skin glistened.  The eel looked at me with brown, soulful eyes, not fish eyes.  It was an animal that had travelled a long way to be here but now wanted to be away, to return home.   There is no way on Earth I could ever eat one. 

We have met members of Ernie’s family.  They have been into the house and we have shown them where alterations have been made and where the rooms are still the same as when their family lived here.  His grand-daughter, Sarah, had often stayed here and it pleased her to see the cottage where she had been as a child.  She reminisced that the cottage had always been warm, that there was music and laughter.  I hope this continues to be the case in Plover Cottage for many years to come.

© Lisa Woods January 2014


Wildlife at Plover Cottage

The previous owners of the cottage had asked us to keep feeding the birds, which we were more than happy to do.  Early visitors in the year that cause great excitement are the long-tailed tits.  These are drawn to the garden by the fat balls we put out. (No nets please, the thin green plastic is dreadful for breaking the legs of small birds.)  I love their almost pink plumage and the dark tails, I think they are the prettiest of birds.  Another bird to visit us for fat balls was a woodpecker, who came all last summer.  He/she was visiting to collect food for their nest, so we were happy to provide food throughout the season.  Other visitors last year included a family of starlings that took up residence in a hole in our apple tree.  I believe the tree is over a hundred years old, so it provides many opportunities for wildlife habitat. 

                This year the starlings were beaten to their accommodation by a family of great tits.  The starlings did come along to check out their old home but the great tits had already moved in.  We have to cover the trunk of the tree with wire mesh as we also keep cats at the cottage.  The mesh keeps the cats out but lets the birds in.  We believe the bird families managed to fledge despite the presence of the cats.  Unfortunately a family of blackbirds had a disaster this year as our cats had been allowed their first outings into the garden just as the baby blackbirds fledged.  The three little bodies buried by our pear trees weigh heavy on my mind.  With hindsight I can see that the blackbird parents didn’t have time to prepare their offspring for the risk of the cats and their babies were easy prey.  Knowing that the parents would have witnessed the murder of the fledglings makes me even sadder. 

                Our hawthorn hedge is full of sparrows, we call it the tenements.  Any one walking past will know they are there as they chirp and call all day.  Sparrows will only travel a few feet from their roost to look for food, so again a wildlife garden and bird food for them is important.  Unwittingly I provided a tasty breakfast for a sparrow one morning this summer.  The night before I had heard wings fluttering in our conservatory, but as it does not have lights I was unable to find the insect that was trapped.  In the morning, one of those July mornings where time went dripping slow and the heat had not fallen all night, I found a beautiful moth trapped in the room.  I removed some cobweb that had snared it, took it to the door of the conservatory, opened my hands and let the moth escape.  But moths don’t like daylight, the natural protection of the night had gone, and the moth flew straight ahead directly into the flight of a sparrow that, hawk-like, took the moth to the ground before killing it and carrying it away for food.  Nature; red in tooth and claw.

                Other visitors to our garden include a colony of honey bees that moved into the apple tree, to a hole lower than the one inhabited by the great tits.  I was very pleased with this and had plans for buying a beehive for next year.  An apiarist friend told me that the bees would probably swarm into the apple tree next spring and from there I’d be able to collect them and form a colony for the hive.  Sadly the bees appear to have been defeated by the hot summer weather, and no longer live in the tree.  My garden is full of plants that will support bees; foxgloves, sweet peas, buddleia, as well as the roses and lilies I love in all shades of pink.

                So, that’s the birds and the bees, and now I’m going to tell you about the bats.  I didn’t know they were in our garden until one evening I was trying to encourage our little girl cat to come in at the end of the day.  She crouched on the lawn, looking up into the sky, ready to pounce on the bats she could see racing above her.  They move so quickly it is hard to see them but once your eyes can see them they are amazing!  I love to stand by the pergola (schoolgirl fears of bats in my hair die hard) and I wait for the bats to arrive.  Just one will flit past, then the rest can be seen.  In a swoop they are here then gone.  Sometimes I think there is just one in the garden then I realise there must be four.  They are so quick it’s hard to track them as they fly above the lawn and into the apple tree.  Where do they live? I wondered if they might be in the ancient apple tree.  Then I heard that bats in the houses at Chestnut Avenue had prevented the refurbishment there.  I don’t think my bats live that far away though.  They can’t be in our cottage, the bedroom ceilings go up into the eaves so I don’t believe there is room for them there.  Though if they did live here, they would be welcome.

                I could go on; telling you about the butterflies, the sparrow hawk that flies through our hedge, the sound of the swans flying over in the winter, but some of this you will know already.  You are Welney residents, you must understand what a wealth of incredible and invaluable wildlife there is here!  October 2013





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