Chicken Run 2 - The Great Escape

Mid-July we took to the hills... the Chiltern Hills, for a house sitting assignment in a small village, dogsitting two rescue dogs and five chickens. Having parked alongside the 'bursting at the seams' vegetable garden, we headed for the door to be confronted by the biggest collection of running shoes I've ever seen away from a sports shoe shop. He was an IT specialist, ex-Army NCO in the Signals Corps, while she was a self-employed event organiser. They both looked glowingly fit, exuded boundless good health and had countless athletics medals hanging off the bottom bannister of the stairs. Clearly, the top brand running shoes were not merely fashion accessories.

Dizzy and Boo were delightful, high energy, oddly named dogs for whom the owners wanted house and dog sitters, not wishing to put the dogs in kennels due to their rescue background. In addition, the back garden had a good sized chicken run and coop, situated immediately below the patio area, hosting five, strutting, self-important chickens. At first glance, the far end of the garden looked like Frinton-on-Sea seafront but the impressive wall to wall collection of multi-shaded, dwarf beach huts turned out to be bee hives and the air at the bottom of the garden looked positively hazy being filled with a multitude of buzzing bees, all busily checking their built-in sat-navs. Being advised 'Don't worry, they don't come near house', followed by 'Mind you, it's best to pop on the beekeeper's suit if you're going down to check on them' was a tad unsettling, until I realised there was no way I was going to fit in his beekeeper's suit. Lynn, on the other hand, fitted the suit perfectly. It looked like we were on for fresh honey after all!

The chickens were to be let out and given free-range of the garden each afternoon but enticed to return each evening by sprinkling some corn on the ground inside the coop, noisily shaking a plastic container of corn, then shutting the door quickly once the last one was in. I should have seen the writing on the wall as the homeowner further advised, 'If any escape, walk around, vigorously shaking a container of corn and shout, 'coop, coop' to bring them back and, 'By the way, the dogs often run off after deer when off-lead but don't worry they do always come back in the end'.

Late afternoon while the chickens were enjoying free run of the garden, we took the dogs to the nearby huge, ex-Rothschild owned, Woodland Trust woods and parkland, where Dizzy and Boo could run to their hearts content. We let them off the lead and, almost immediately, they duly bolted off after a deer, disappearing into the far distance while we called them in vain. We carried on walking in roughly the direction the dogs had taken, meeting numerous other dog owners with children who were also taking advantage of the glorious weather and fabulous walkways. We soon learned to pick our moments carefully when shouting for the dogs, as me booming out 'Boo!' at the top of my voice just as a couple with young children passed, had the unintended effect of causing them to leap in the air as one, Mum to shriek, the little girl to start crying and the whole family to speedily scuttle off with Dad muttering under his breath about 'crazies' in the woods. As confidently predicted, the dogs came back in their own good time, looking inordinately pleased with themselves and this scenario was repeated each time we let them off the lead throughout our stay.

A little hoarse but none the worse for it, we headed home and ventured into the back garden to attempt returning the chickens to the coop. Corn was duly sprinkled and the container furiously shaken, causing the chickens to scurry up the lawn and dart into the run while I held the door wide open, swiftly closing it after the last one was in. Success! However, a quick count showed I was a chicken short. One chicken had definitely not come home to roost! As you may imagine, it is difficult to maintain one's dignity while plodding round the garden shaking a container of corn, loudly and repeatedly shouting 'coop, coop'. In my mind was the thought this bloke is winding me up about this 'coop, coop' thing and has a neighbour teed up to film this for his later amusement. It was undoubtedly cheering up Lynn's day as she'd scooted inside to grab the video camera.

Some time later, it becomes clear my wholehearted, if humiliating, 'coop, coop'ing has had no discernible effect and I surmise the most likely escape route for the absent chicken is under the gate at the bottom of the garden which leads to a field beyond. Urged on by my ever-loyal, cheerleader of a wife, Lynn, using the encouraging words, ' Go on! What are you, man or mouse?' My 'squeaking' gives it away, as I reluctantly creep down the garden towards the gathering storm of bees to crawl under it on my hands and knees. I avoid breathing through the mouth, though am not sure why, as I was no more enarmoured with the prospect of an angry bee lodged up my nose than I was of having one lodged in my throat. I stopped periodically to brush at the chicken sh*t in which I kept kneeling as I crawled and reflected that jeans would have been a better choice than shorts. Finally, I reached the gate seemingly without antagonising the disturbingly large swarm of bees, eased it open and, joy of joys, there on the far side of the field was the escapologist chicken. My dilemma now is, do I risk agitating the bees by vigorously shaking my corn container and engage in another bout of noisily squawking 'coop, coop' to encourage the chicken home? I decide to go for it and sure enough Harriet Houdini the holidaying hen makes her way towards me and eventually hops back in the garden, where I have to retrace my route back under the bees while Harriet hassles me for corn. I hadn't imagined house sitting hens and pet sitting poultry could get so complicated...

Next day, I rise at 5.30am, nice and early before the bees awake and, using logs destined for the log burner, I block up all likely escape routes. We head off that afternoon with the dogs, taking care not to frighten passing families this time when the dogs do their disappearing act, and confidently head home to gather in the flock. Damn me, not only has Harriet disappeared again but this time she has taken an accomplice with her and we are down to four chickens. Apparently, we have somehow ended up housesitting on the set of 'Chicken Run 2 - The Great Escape' or, at the very least, are looking after some chickens who have seen the first film on DVD.

Double-handed this time, we both venture out to the field beyond with corn shakers and duet on the 'coop, coop'ing but to no avail. As we search, the realisation dawns on us that the field at the bottom of the garden is not a field at all but is actually the end of the very large garden of a nearby house and that we have been walking round someone else's garden for the best part of an hour rattling our DIY maracas and bellowing 'coop, coop' at the top of our voices! We beat a hasty and sheepish retreat before the Police arrive, tails tucked firmly between our legs. Night begins to fall. Thankfully, the bees have gone to bed and the gathering gloom finds us perched in the gateway, careful not to trespass, reworking our earlier maracas and 'coop, coop' duet. Lo and behold, Harriet and her fellow escapee emerge from the deepening darkness and saunter, in their own good time, back to the coop. This is a great relief as it is difficult to get a good house sitting and pet sitting reference if you lose forty percent of their poultry in the first two days!

Not wishing to repeat this performance every day, I undertake further fencing and hole-blocking initiatives, and carefully check for a secret Colditz-style tunnel. Finally, in my most severe tone I let it be known that any further transgressions will result in the dogs being sent into the field to round them up, followed by shipping them off to visit the Colonel for a finger lickin' good comeuppance. This does the trick and the rest of the stay is comparatively uneventful and, of course, throughly enjoyable!

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2 Ivatt Court, Hitchin SG4 0ES

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