Mrs Downs Diary: Old Russian witch ‘Baba Yaga’ in the field


We were delighted to see a covey of wild English partridges yesterday as we drove to check the sheep.

Concerned though that they were in the middle of the lane, scattering at our approach in the Land Rover.

What is their mum doing risking their lives in traffic? Rush hour is usually early morning and evening as our lane is used by a few cars to avoid main roads.

But because the lane is banned to heavy vehicles and used by predominantly agricultural vehicles, during the day and night the lane is rarely busy.

I say wild English partridges because for the past few years John has been rearing partridges bought as chicks off a game farm, releasing them, and hoping they will adopt the farm and its environs and literally “go native”.

In a block of land opposite the main farm buildings we have a small wood, called “Jack’s Plantation.”

Named after an one of our labradors, John planted it with indigenous trees over twenty years ago.

Smack in the middle of this wood is a large release pen. Each year John takes the half grown partridges out to the pen to accustom them to their surroundings. These birds are not for game. John expressly prohibits this on his shoots. They are to help repopulate English partridges into the countryside. A lofty ideal. Totally unlike all of the others John holds.

To guide the young birds through those first few weeks in the big wide word, and before they quit the pen to hopefully join up with other partridges (some of them pairs without chicks who then frequently adopt these young birds), we have a very grumpy, fiercely independent, ferocious old black bantam.

She initially raised a clutch of partridges at home, from a nest of partridge eggs that had been abandoned by their Mum. Sometimes a dog disturbs a nest, a fox may kill the partridge hen, she may have been run over. I do not talk partridge so no one can tell the tale.

This clutch hatched off under the little black bantam and John took the entire family over to the release pen. The partridges eventually flew out. The bantam stayed.

Two years ago we caught her up and brought her home.

She made her way back to her lonely pen within a couple of days.

If you stand in amongst the trees around the release pen you can hear our randy old cockerel notching up another conquest as he does his rounds of the ladies, so she knows where the action is should she wish to cross the field and come home. But she has chosen to live a mainly solitary life.

That is until the partridge chicks arrive.

Then instead of cackling and carrying on alarmingly as she does normally when you go anywhere near the pen, she transmutes into a soft, marshmallowy coo of a bird.

Until then I think of her like the old Russian witch Baba-Yaga out there alone in her hut, but when the chicks arrive, she is their Fairy God Mother. Mrs Downs Diary