A couple of years ago now, we went through a torrid time in what is now called “The Year of 52 ducklings”. It was all my fault.
As a city slicker, moving to the countryside of northern France has been a bit of a learning curve to put it mildly. And when it comes to keeping animals, I was a total and utter novice. I think I had a goldfish when I was about 3 years old. That was it.
When I left my job in a bank in the City of London, my colleagues gave me an envelope with a picture of a chicken on. They said, “you can’t open it until you get there and you’re ready to live the good life”.
The Good Life was a TV series about a couple who wanted to give up city life to become self-sufficient (known as The Good Neighbours in the USA). My friends said “Ah that’s you! The Good Life France!”
It took a while but there came a day when I felt ready to open the envelope and inside was enough money to buy a dozen fully grown chickens. I named them all much to the horror of my neighbour and mentor Jean-Claude. “You will find it hard to eat them if you name them” he counselled. He was right, we never ate them, they became much loved pets.
Well chickens led to ducks. We started with just three girls. They are lovely friendly chatty creatures. We got a few more. One was a boy.
Oh the joy when tiny fluffy ducklings arrived. They were so cute. We loved our new feathery family members. Some of the ducklings were boys and some were girls.
Some months later more ducklings. This time the mum abandoned them, we bought them up in the house, we were enamoured of our new babies. One poor little soul had weak legs and was pushed out of the group, he lived with us in the house for weeks, we called him Rocky as he was such a little fighter (here he is on Instagram).
At the end of the year we had 21 ducks. I worried they didn’t have enough room in the pen. I let them out in the garden.
“Non, non, non” said Jean-Claude “ they will run havoc, you will be sorry”.
“It will be fine” I said, looking at the lovely ducks frolicking in the garden.
Well they frolicked alright. Instead of being able to collect eggs from a pen, they hid their eggs under hedges and bushes so I couldn’t find them. By the end of the year 52 ducklings were born.
We were overrun with ducks. Every time I went out the garden I had a long line of them following me, jumping up into the food buckets, hanging by their beaks from my sleeves. The garden and everything in it was covered in duck poo. We knew we had to do something, next year there might a hundred, maybe more ducklings.
I asked everyone I knew, do you want ducks or know anyone who wants ducks – but not for eating, these are pets. Everyone wanted girls. Only one boy found a home. He went with three girls to live in a chateau where they had many types of ducks. A week later the new duck mum phoned “Could you take him back please, he’s insatiable, he won’t leave any of our ducks alone”.
In the end we had 9 boys left and two girls, Belle, and daughter Bella. We separated boys from girls. The girls were very happy on their own. The boys watched them through the fence, eyes glinting.
Sadly, the next year Belle died. Bella was heart-broken. She laid an egg and sat on it. She was convinced it would hatch. She wouldn’t eat. She wouldn’t come to see me when I came to the pen. The egg didn’t hatch. She lost weight, her feathers started falling out. I knew we had to do something to save her.
I asked my friend Annette if she would take Bella in to live with her ducks. “Of course” she said, “bring her over, we’ll see how they get on”. I was sure it would be ok because Annette had already taken 18 of my overflow ducks but you never quite know how an established group will react to a newbie.
We took Bella in the car to Annette’s house. I carried her round to the garden and placed her on the floor. She just stood stock still as if in shock. I hated to lose her but keeping her would definitely lead to her demise. Then her head moved to stare at something. Another duck was walking along followed by a string of ducklings. One little tiny duckling was at the back and struggling to keep up, it was smaller than the rest. Bella stared, she was transfixed.
Then she slowly and gently waddled over and joined the back of the queue. The little duckling turned to look, the rest carried on. The little duckling stared into Bella’s eyes, not moving. I could swear Bella had a smile on her beak. They stayed like that for a while. The original mum didn’t seem to mind, she didn’t look back at all. Bella slowly and carefully walked over to a food bowl, the duckling followed her. They both ate and then wandered off together round the pen before Bella settled under a bush, the duckling safely tucked up beneath her.
That’s not the happy ending though.
Annette called me to say that Bella has just hatched two babies of her own, she’s a proud and very caring mum and she’s very happy…
Janine Marsh is the author of My Good Life in France: In Pursuit of the Rural Dream and My Four Seasons in France: A Year of the Good Life