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DI SLANEY My Animal Nature: Poetry of Oils and Dirt

We moved to Bilsthorpe in 2005, captivated by the heritage of our 400-year old Listed farmhouse and inspired by the potential of a lifestyle that would be very different to the suburbs and our usual business-dominated routine. Standing in the smallest empty room on the first floor as the removal men ferried boxes around, I remember saying ‘I can write here,’ looking out across the garden and imagining all the people who had lived in the house before us. What I should have said was that I could also write about here – the house, the village, the people, the land and of course, the animals.

Fast-forward five years and following a couple of medical operations, I completed the MA in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University and began to write seriously about things that really interested and intrigued me. In the first instance, this turned out to be chickens. As a reward to myself for finishing the MA, I bought four hens to live in the garden and quickly became fascinated by all aspects of their lifestyle and behaviour. I have always had to ‘know stuff ’ and discovered a wealth of information about poultry – the colour of a chicken’s ears determines the colour of their eggs, the pecking order is a real and terribly violent thing – which provided great creative stimulus for what turned out to be a short sequence of 18 sonnets about the life of a hen, and the life of a writer. Three boxes of sonnet-eggs, in fact.

Egg bound

I keep my breathing normal, but I can tell it’s stuck. No matter how I hunch or push to strain it out, there’s no quick rush to spike the pain, no triumph to expel it this time, not like before. I doubt he’ll see how much it hurts me, crouched and ruffled on the floor. He expects such constant churning out, peak flow without pause. But today I just can’t do it. It might be age that slows my quota, rage that blocks my vent. Or I may need a gentler hand than he can give; if it breaks inside me now, I won’t live.

As my small original group of chickens expanded into a much larger and variegated flock of birds, so too did my yearning to do things properly in this ancient farmhouse setting – to try to restore the land to its original use but without commercial purpose, and without harm to any living creature. In 2011 we had the opportunity to buy back the six-acre field that was originally attached to the farm, adjacent to the property and in a very dilapidated and unloved state. This was the start of an animal sanctuary for livestock – the unwanted, elderly and ‘wonky’ ones, with special needs and disabilities – which eventually gained full charity status as Manor Farm Charitable Trust in 2017, and national media attention in 2019.

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