The Cottage Smallholder

stumbling self sufficiency in a small space


Britains duck pondI was lucky to work in the house of a local retired racehorse trainer before he died. This tall man was charming and companionable. He had ridden the winner of the Grand National at seventeen and trained many great racehorses.

Now in his seventies, his nurturing passion was his birds. He had a parrot in his conservatory, a large community of semi wild bantams and a pair of ducks.
“I bred them myself,” he confided with a shy pride when he saw me dawdling beside the run.

The ducks shared the run with the bantams. The latter were very busy people – the run was their town centre and they spent most of the day following the sun outside the confines of the run. I’d find small groups – a cockerel and a coterie of hens basking on the warm gravel drive or scratching up insects on the sunny side of the hedge.

The ducks, on the other hand, didn’t do much. Each morning Mr H would top up their puddle with a bucket of fresh water and they would drink a little and lounge beside it like superior resort tourists that have rented a private pool and are determined to enjoy the pleasure.

One day I arrived to start a new job and spotted that there was only the crested drake sitting in his place beside the pond.
“What happened to his wife?”
“No need to worry. She is sitting on eggs in the hen house. She might be elderly but we are hoping for ducklings. She’s been in there for ages.”

The next morning I opened the gate and quickly spotted that a large wooden ramp had been set against the open hen house door. Three tiny ducklings appeared from the darkness and gingerly climbed down the ramp with uncertain, shaky legs.

Watching the first steps of any living creature always makes my heart turn over.

I rushed to find Mr H.
“Yes, just the three out of sixteen eggs. She is and old duck so we are pleased. We stood together, beside the window and watched two ducklings circle the pond like motorised rubber ducks in a hand basin.

It was hard to pull myself away from the window to paint that day. One duckling, with a tiny crest the size of a sixpence stayed beside his parents. The other two had such fun together, playing further and further away from the adults.

Ignored by their parents they swam and chased each other, played hide and seek and explored the large run. They were a joy to watch. For the first time in my decorating life, I was delighted to be painting Georgian windows. These are fiddly and time consuming but as I was looking out, they were the perfect job.

The next morning I couldn’t wait to get to work. I opened the gate and surveyed the run. There was the puddle and the duck and drake and the quiet duckling with the sixpenny crest. The adventurous ducklings had vanished.

Mr H turned his head away when he saw me open the front door. He lunged into the kitchen. I asked what had happened.

“I went out last night at nine. The yellow one was stuck in the mud. Dead. In the morning the other had vanished.”
He switched on the kettle and swept the crumbs noisily from the breadboard. There was a catch to his voice, “The mother didn’t care for them at all.”
He fumbled with the bolt on the back door. As he opened it wide, he called back over his shoulder.
“She’s a bitch.”

A few months later I retuned to start another project at the house. The crested duckling was now fully grown. But the size of the crest had remained the same and was more of a hair clip than a hat. He was in the same place, sitting quietly beside his parents.

For a long moment I hated him.

  Leave a reply


  1. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Sara

    Although this happened a few years ago, it still makes me sad when I think of what happened.

  2. farmingfriends

    What a sad end for the ducklings. Nature can be so cruel as everyone has said. it is always interesting to watch animals and birds interact with each other.
    Sara from farmingfriends

  3. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Kate

    That experience sounds tough. Brilliant that it worked out in the end for you. I reckon that you were right to intervene. Sometimes one has to.

    Hi Louisa

    I love watching ducklings too. So full of life and energy.

    When I think of those dead ducklings I still feel upset and it was at least 4 years ago.

    Hi Magic Cochin

    It wasn’t the survival of the fittest it was the survival of the dullest duckling. No wonder you never find ducks in advertising or running for parliament!

    Yes, the little pond is part of my collection. I have lead ducklings too!

    Hi James

    Ducks are cool.

    Some friends have Indian running ducks and I think that you’d love this breed.

    I reckon that it’s not a good idea to clip a duck’s wings. You never know when a cat/dog/fox will attack them. They need to be given a fighting chance in the escape stakes.

    Your wild ducks will grow to love you if you give them the right environment, tasty snacks and some time.

    Hi Sally

    I wish that you’d shared your stories.

    My work is pretty uninspiring. I’m the ‘bloke’ that turns up in the rackety car, wearing a boiler suit, and fixes and paints your house. Sometimes I advise on colours and I can do paint effects etc.

    I specialise in doing up houses up to sell. That is fun and very satisfying. I don’t have a website apart from this one. The interesting part of my work is the people that I meet. If I won the lottery, I’d still work a few days a month. When you work in someone’s house you live with them (temporarily) and get to know them. Even if they don™t chat to me,  I quickly become a fly on the wall. It’s a wonderful way of learning new skills and ideas. Generally, like a hairdresser, people confide in me. I thought I knew all about ˜people™ before I started decorating.

    Working in a small community, There are just two rules. Never gossip and always respond to nasty comments about another client with the phrase
    “But they always say such good things about you.”

    A lot of my clients are older people with a wealth of experience and tips. I’m working in clover.


  4. I was tempted to share a couple of duckling stories here as I spent some of my youth in a house which backed onto a small river. However, I’m so very interested in your work. Would it be possible to have a post on it? Or, do you have a site we can visit?

  5. Ducks are really cool, i love just sitting by the edge of the pond and just watching them, i started of about a month ago with an aylesbury and a mallard type thing and then about three weeks ago we h ad new arrivals, a magpie drake and a silver appleyard female, the “wild ducks” still fly off when you get too close but are getting tamer. I hope to catch them one night and clip thier wings so they cannot flee anymore, but is it legal to catch and keep wild ducks?
    Anyways, there cute.


  6. magic cochin

    Oh – nature can be cruel 🙁 the survival of the fittest and all that!

    What a sweet little lead duck pond! Is it part of your collection?


  7. Louisa

    Oh that was lovely Fiona, but so sad at the end. I love watching little ducklings they’re such courageous little fellows.

  8. Nature is a cruel and heartless mother, I love ducks and like you the first moments of young life make my heart flip (except rats), sorry but rats and I just don’t get on).
    But when I saw one of my ewes reject it’s lamb and butt it against the wall, at that exact moment I really did hate her. Fortunately after much holding the ewe for the lamb to feed she did finally accept her lamb and is now a very good mother. But I am sure if we had not intervened that lamb would be dead.

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