Above: As a young boy, Graham would collect eggs from dozens of gamebird nests at an estate near his home and put them under his collection of broody bantams, made up of partridge Wyandotte
Surrey birdman GRAHAM WELLSTEAD looks back to a time in his colourful childhood that was spent surrounded by numerous injured wild animals, rescues, rehomes and pets.
IT WAS the early summer of 1949, I was 11 years old and about to embark on a new and exciting phase of my young life. Our family comprised my parents and my brother, who was younger than me by four years, four months and four days. (Mum was quite specific about the gap, for reasons we never really understood.)
Our livestock was large and varied. Two cocker spaniels, an indeterminate number of rabbits running into three figures, a sizable flock of chickens, some turkeys and one tiny kitten. Added to these, though scarcely family, was my menagerie of injured creatures, the number rising and falling as they were either released or died.
Mum was in Sweden after being taken there by two Swedish ladies (one a member of their royal family) for six or eight weeks of rest and recuperation and a holiday after a long bout of illness. She was away at quite a propitious time. Our cocker spaniel bitch Judy, a pretty little dark red, gun-trained working dog, was pregnant by our rescue dog cocker, Pete. We had no papers for him, but he was clearly from a good line and knew it. A bit of a snob, he was used to travelling by car and we didn’t have one. If when we were walking with him and someone opened a car door, Pete was in like a shot and was the very devil to get out.
On the June 25, Judy produced seven puppies. I watched them being born with bated breath, for dad had told me I could choose one to be “my first dog”. I chose the first born, a bitch: pale golden and clearly healthy. For the whole of their weaning I hardly left them and my own dog (I could barely contain myself with excitement) was on my lap, in my arms, and, as she grew, she followed me everywhere.
Two weeks later the kitten came into our lives. A Russian blue, so small he could not lap, brought to us with two gingers by our friend from the RSPCA. The two gingers were headed for the Convent where my dad worked, but we were asked to take the little blue scrap, which would otherwise be put down because he was not show standard (a white patch on his tummy). Naturally, we took him in and waited for Mum to come home so that she could name him.
My spaniel had a name from the very first day: “Raq”. Older readers will remember “Romany” on the radio in wartime with his blue roan cocker, Raq. Although mine was golden, she just had to be called this, for I had been an avid listener and had asked for one of his books, which I still have, for my science prize at school. Raq is the Romany word for dog.
Mum came home in the July, several pounds heavier and glowing with health. Her first job after being greeted by not two, but four dogs, was to name the kitten “Dusty”. His blue-grey coat gave him a dusty look so that the name was perfect. That tiny kitten lived for 21 years through all sorts of adventures and died in my wife’s arms. He was a great provider of mice and rats to feed my rescued creatures. My kestrel was reared entirely on the mice Dusty caught, as were the stoats and weasels. No such thing then as frozen day-old chickens or a surplus Japanese quail.
Soon all the puppies were sold on, except two: Raq and her sister Shan. Shan was soon to go to my best pal, Michael, who drove his mother mad until she gave in and agreed he could have her. As summer babies, we had time to train the two of them obedience, which was easy. One of the beauties of any breed bred to work as gundogs is their willingness to please you.
Raq’s real training began in the following spring and she soon proved the quality of her nose. Thinking back on it now, what we did was poaching, for she was a natural at finding sitting gamebirds. The area was a mix of common land, running parallel to a great estate, which, although not a shooting estate, was still rich in wild pheasants and partridges. When she found a sitting bird her docked tail was a wagging blur as she held still in front of nest, and she would flush the sitting hen on command. That summer, we gathered up a small number of eggs from more than a dozen nests, mostly pheasants but some partridges. The object was to take them home and put them under a broody hen.
I had a little collection of my own chickens, mostly bantams, including light Sussex and partridge wyandotte, which would go broody at the drop of a hat. These were the right size, because large fowl tend to break small eggs. I gave the pheasant eggs to the former and the partridge to the latter, which seemed appropriate. Hatching was rather hit and miss, because there was no way of knowing when any egg was due and hens would get off two or three days after any hatch. Yet most survived and I now had about 30 chicks, mostly pheasants. I had no idea what I was going to do with them. I did not want to keep them penned, so I let them decide.
The foster mums were given free range within the limits of the garden, but the young poults could fly and they were soon over the fence and into the nearby pine wood. There was little in the way of understorey, except for the laurel hedge that bordered the drive and some large rhododendron clumps, both of which were rich in invertebrates. The young partridges stuck together and moved out like a natural covey, first to the kitchen garden and then off into the common. I presume they duly made their way to the fields on the estate.
The pheasants were quite different. They were much more dependent and came home, with Raq quietly finding and pushing them back to the garden. They too eventually disappeared. We were not troubled with foxes back then, so they would have survived.
A gamekeeper once told me that all pheasants gravitate slowly south-west. If that were true, the Cornish would up to their neck in pheasants.
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