I haven’t posted for a while and wanted to catch up with a few updates. It’s a longish post but bare with me…I promise over the next few weeks they will be shorter and very varied. A lot has been going on and I have exciting things happening. But it had to start somewhere…..
In life there are curve balls, catalysts and crisis moments that throw you from one situation to another. My parents lack of sympathy for my dreams of being an artists pushed me into a finance career; lack of financial support for our adopted family drove us to France, a huge upheaval emotionally and career wise that was chosen to enable two teenagers to finish school in London, but we had to say goodbye to our loved City and head for cow country in Creuse.
My mother’s cancer pulled me back to England again in 2018 and mentally I was at my weakest time. We didn’t get on at all and there was a lot of underhand goings on with my ex and undermining of my role as executor. Lies were told on a daily basis and other people’s lives and ill health mocked. My mother had assumed she would live far longer than anyone else, and wasn’t shy of stating this fact to everyone. Given I had left my husband alone in France for almost a year to attend St Barts in London on a daily basis for weeks and weeks at a time amongst other commitments that cancer brings, the whole episode left me feeling exhausted, untrusted in my life choices and honestly confused.
What I had started in France, renovating our barn, learning more about homesteading and self sufficiency and regularly heading out with my camera to capture nature, the characters of the local cows and the many stunning landscapes here, gave way to bouts of severe vertigo and dizzines. I couldn’t drive on any motorway, I couldn’t fly and I begun getting severe migraines, ending up at the local French hospital on numerous occasions.
My mother passed and I was left with a good inheritance but raw and bitter. Neighbours and old family friends were supportive when I returned to tidy up the property sale but admitted my mother was not missed. It was reality like a cold kipper…life is what you make it and being thought of as selfish and unkind was horrifying to me. With the burden now lifted of my mother’s disapproval of everything I did, I made a clear break from England. We invested in a Farmhouse to house our ever growing menagerie of feathered friends, a Cottage in the hills to one day convert to a gite, as we still needed income to stay in France and obtain residency and a Factory. We had ideas of building our businesses and knew we needed premises, plus it was a good, solid investment with the local town, just off the motorway, beginning to develop.
But I somehow couldn’t see what I really wanted to do. I had as good as closed off my tax work and the photography, although enjoyable wasn’t sustainable as a business. I had entered competitions, had a few photos published but competition is fierce and I didn’t want to supplement with say wedding work. So I drifted and put creative Plan A on hold.
My poultry gave me huge pleasure however. I had studied studiously too about pouktry medicine and had treated a few of my birds who had had quite serious issues like prolapses, egg binding, wry neck, injuries and crop problems. My vet had also seen my enthusiasm and happily supplied me with injections, meds and free advice. Our huge new coop would have a mini hospital room and I could then manage any health issues and also have a place to carry out valuable learning from necropsies ( bird autopsies).
My plan B was therefore to master running a poultry homestead, to adopt any unwanted birds and learn as much as I could re bird health and husbandry to contribute regularly to forums. My little goose family of Barley, Bonnie, Bumble had grown to include Cashew and Peacan and after loosing Barley to a predator, luckily Peacan hatched four beautiful huge goose eggs and Sorrel, Clover, Willow and Pip brought the count to eight big, cuddy Tolouse geese.
The Rhode Island gang of chickens I had back in 2017 were slowly passing from ovarian cancer or egg peritonitus…due to many genetic manipulation to get eggs 24/7. It was a hard pill to swallow and every passing upset me badly. It was then I decided to perform necropsies…autopsies, to see what was going on. It was a revalation. Finally I could see exactly the issues going on and imparted a lot if advice to fellow chicken keepers. I changed my chickens diet, I changed the light levels and I also accepted that these poor birds had, without a hysterectomy, as they do in America, no chance of really living beyond 4 years. In France chickens are food, there are no operations to help poultry continue life as a beloved pet!
A local feed store had given me eight chick’s back last summer. They grew and grew, except one. It was smaller, had a tiny comb and pale feathers. Cous nous chickens or naked necks were new to me. I had adopted a large cockerel a year before and he ruled the coop…feisty Mr Chicken was as big as a large watermelon, with a long naked neck and a ginger top knot of feathers on his head like a bad toupee. Then the little gang grew more and all but the tiny one began to crow. My request for girls had turned into boys..I now had seven roosters and the little one was the female afterall. Clara was having a bit of a rough time with seven boys but had paired with Rudi and he was protecting her. There were fights and a debate as to keeping the boys as I hadn’t counted yet on batchelor flocks…but I vowed I would never abandon anyone who came to live with us…forever home or not at all!
Then one day Rudi attacked Clara. I didn’t know till I found Clara hiding in the coop, obviously scared and trying to push herself behind a bale of straw. I picked her up and my hand was covered in blood. A further check and I found the whole side of her body had been ripped open, the skin was totally pulled away from her breast area beneath. Shocked I ran with her to the main coop, washed and sprayed antiseptic and covered her in clean cotton and into a dark crate. My vet was also shocked and gave her injections but couldn’t stitch as there was no way the skin could be reattached. It would simply be down to me to nurse, clean twice a day and hope the skin healed and no infection set in.
It’s now been a year. Clara healed. She wasn’t happy with the long slog of cleaning, applying cream, honey and bandages. She was like a burn victim. She wears a permanent jacket to protect her body which although healed has no skin and luckily she doesn’t mind and the boys who run the coop, Ronnie, Napoleon and Mr Chicken, never bother her.
So my boys are a batchelor flock. In fact there are two as the group split. I have since added a batchelor flock of Aylesbury ducks…Winston, Chester and Oliver, adopted to prevent them from overmating and taken on Louis goose, who was due to be eaten for Christmas, but the owner relented, plus four more young cou-nous females, two runner ducks, Lucy and Lottie and four female Pekins! It’s a mad house in the garden, it’s muddy, it’s noisy, it’s full of hormones, buckets of water, eggs left in silly places, squabbles about food, about who perches where, and yet it’s beautifully full of life, happy souls, safe souls and little friendships being made between chickens, ducks and geese.
So Pipi you ask…what’s Pipi got to do with all this? Guinea Fowl are a crazy, loud, slightly silly bird originating from Africa. Hugely popular in America and fast being kept as pets and brilliant tick controllers…yes ticks, those little nasty blood sucking mites. I took in eight last summer, little Keets as the babies are known and after the compulsory six months confined to their coop, as these silly birds will run off and get lost, they settled into a routine of patrolling the field, startled at every leaf dropping, every gust of wind, every goose honk, or simply from seeing each other!
Then one early morning in late summer, the field was quiet…the normal crazy calls of the guineas were missing. I headed out to investigate and after feeling a nervous knot in my stomach as the guineas were no where to be seen, suddenly saw Pipi hiding in my neighbours field under a hedge there. There were two more guineas nearby…Bovril and Toots…very agitated. I scolded them and managed to get them back to their pen…guineas are easy to herd…but the other five were missing. We headed back to the field and to our horror, piles of feathers were everywhere.
My husband found another pile and another, but no bodies, no blood. By now I was blubbing and really in shock. I hadn’t lost any birds to predators, except Billy bantam who had been killed by a hawk whilst defending his maran girlfriend. She was twice his size but they had a thing about each other. I found only her feathers and adjacent poor Billy, plucked naked over his back and neck as hawks do and he had obviously put up a bit of a fight. But the guineas had been attacked by dogs…the local hunt likely or my neighbours…we never knew. That day we worked like Trojans and fenced the rest of the field and the guineas were locked in at night to stop them wandering at 5am. Toots was sadly killed by our dog Sake a few months later and now dogs are banned from being anywhere near my birds. Pipi and Bovril paired and are the devoted couple. They go to bed early and rise late.
In the aftermath of the dog killings, I felt very guilty, hollow and angry. Friends were understanding and my husband said it was part of country life. I got it but it took time to accept. In the meantime I doodled, drew sketches of Pipi and one day posted one of her in a jumper, onto Facebook. That evening I got over 600 likes and requests for how to buy this little cute guinea character. Was she available on a mug? Were there more like her? I hadn’t really thought about this at all. I stalled for time and said yes there were more. That week I sketched feverishly and bought a sublimation machine, learnt how to sublinate mugs after few days of incomprehensible struggles with ICC Profiles, temperatures and layouts on Photoshop, which I had only just started to look at. Trial by fire….two weeks later I had a set of ten mugs.
Orders came in, I set up my shop, http://www.judicastille.shop and my living room was full of packing materials and boxes. La Poste was excruciatingly expensive causing me one morning to burst into tears after being told that to send four mugs to America would be over €68.00! Luckily upon recommendation, I found Happy Post and four mugs could be sent for €28.00. I decided my fledging business would break even and I would do free carriage. The Pipi mugs were popular. I made friends too…Pipi brought joy, smiles.
I then went a step further and designed a few fabrics. I adore fabrics and anything textile, weaving. It was a dream I hadn’t ever thought would happen. I studied as much as I could about pattern, weave, colour, sizing, pixels and worked up about twenty designs with Pipi and her gang and although whimsical, orders arrived from USA, Australia, Canada, Ireland and England. By now I had completed another set of illustrations, Busy Country Bees and Naughty Goose…based on my rather silly, over-protective Bumble Goose.
So here I am today. Plan B poultry is going strong but Plan A creative has finally arrived. Everytime I see Pipi and Bovril I feel a huge debt to them. It sometimes takes a crisis or an extreme shock to make you change. The birds were always here, but I hadn’t ever thought they would be the inspiration for my future business. My next collection will be runner ducks with Lucy and Lottie supplying endless joy to this project. I am in my happy place.