'Our goat died and my husband mocked my tears'... so why are men so beastly about animals? - January 2011

He wrote this piece from the perplexed ­perspective of someone who simply could not understand the important part that such ­animals can play in family life, thus proving my theory that you can learn to live in the city but you cannot learn to live in the country — you have to be brought up knee-deep in mud and muck to really get it.

Dominic, you see, was raised in deepest, urban Chelsea, whereas I was brought up on a ­farm. I also had a father with an almost ­obsessive ­devotion to animals.

We had a dairy herd and a beef herd. Indeed, my father’s master plan was to breed the first ­naturally polled — or hornless — herd of ­British ­Friesian cows. He had a theory that manually de-horning them reduced their milk yield.
To this end we owned a vast one-and-a-half-ton bull who was born without horns. His name was Rexemplar Zwart Demar Politician.

Why have I remembered this so well across the years? Because my father had stationery printed with a picture of the bull on the ­envelope and the slogan underneath: ‘Semen for sale.’

These ­envelopes caused me huge ­embarrassment when they arrived at the ­Belgian convent where I was at school.

We also had a large and unrestrainable flock of Jacob sheep that perpetually seemed to be ambling around the neighbouring village, ­casually destroying gardens.

We had tumbler pigeons and every imaginable variety of chicken, duck and goose, a pack of dogs — never less than six — and an endless procession of horses and donkeys.

I remember my father disappearing off to the farmers’ market in our van and then returning three days later having exchanged the van for a ride-and-drive pony called Bob, who pulled an ancient hay cart.

For a while, my father decreed all journeys within a five-mile radius should be undertaken on this cart.

Unfortunately, this parameter included the ­railway station. I still remember arriving there with my father to collect some guests and their looks of bewilderment as their smart luggage was thrown into the back of the cart.
These looks turned to horror when they ­realised that they had to go in the back with the ­luggage and sit on the straw bales for the long ride home.

So when Dominic and I and our two children made the move from London to the East ­Sussex countryside 14 years ago, it was natural for me to start looking for animals to join us — to make, as I saw it, our family complete.

I tried explaining to my husband that it would be alien for me to live in a house without a dog — or two, or three or even four.

I told him there was absolutely no point in owning fields without putting animals in them and that, no, I didn’t at all think that a goldfish in a bowl would do — it wouldn’t be quite the same.

I also felt, and continue to feel, that children and animals go together. I just didn’t see the point of moving from ­London to the country in order to have ­free-range ­children if I couldn’t have free-range ­animals to go with them.
Quite apart from the cliche of children ­learning about the cycle of life through being around ­animals, there’s the companionship that comes from owning a dog, the adventures to be had with a pony and the obvious benefits of the eggs that come with chickens.

We started with two Rhodesian Ridgeback dogs we named Bassama and Two Tack.

As they grew, I decided the children needed a smaller dog, so a mongrel called Patter joined them.

We had a guest spaniel from ­London staying for a few months and she was stolen — or ­dognapped. The children missed her so much that it seemed silly not to replace her with a puppy, just in time for Christmas. She, of course, was named Holly.

Then, it was time for the ­chickens. I set off with the children to a nearby farm where, along with the chickens, there were all manner of other ­animals. I can still remember the appalled expression on Dominic’s face when we ­triumphantly returned home and started ­emptying the car.

George the pygymy goat even ate the salt cellar

Ten chickens, two little orphan goats and two lambs came out. Dominic stared in baffled disbelief as I then unloaded all the ­paraphernalia needed to feed them.
The children staggered into the kitchen with the goats and lambs, where I taught them how to make up the bottles of milk, and how to feed the baby animals.

One of those little orphan goats was Muncher, whom we very sadly had to put down last week.

Muncher was with us for 12 years, and in his early life he lived in the kitchen and was bottle-fed daily by the children.

How could Dominic not be moved by the fact of his passing, given what a big part of the family he had become? How could he write: ‘He was just an old goat’? I would like to make it clear that I am not ­sentimental about animals and have little time for people who are, and who give human traits to their pets.
But there is something about being around animals; it is not, as Dominic would maintain, about their mute dependence on us — but rather about their ­steadfastness, their silent presence and their undemanding companionship.
I also had another, truly individual, pygmy goat called George. He ­followed me faithfully and, at every opportunity, would make his way into the kitchen, leap ­hygienically on to the table and eat everything from the tissue box to the salt cellar.

He would bleat whenever he saw me — but saw Dominic to be ­unnecessary male competition for my affections. Whenever George came for a walk with us, he would find every ­opportunity to butt my husband — who still strides out with a walking stick for protection as a legacy of this experience.

One of our dogs is a leonberger called Aslan. He is a vast, comforting presence around the house.

But he is also so much more than that. He is my youngest daughter Domenica’s constant companion and guardian, and the receiver of all of her secrets.

We had him trained to look after her, as she has Down’s syndrome. Aslan is, in every way, like Nana from Peter Pan. He can track her if she gets lost; he used to pass her a flannel in the bath.

The dog trainer was ­absolutely terrifying and I wish now that I had made use of her presence to train Dominic while she was about it —two for the price of one.
One day, Aslan discovered Domenica sitting perilously close to the stream at the bottom of the garden. Had she fallen in, he would have hauled her out of the water, but there was no need, so he just waited with her, patiently guarding her until I found them both.

When I asked Domenica what she was doing she replied: ­‘Looking for Winnie-the-Pooh.’ Of course she was.

Our dog used to pass our daughter a flannel in the bath

Aslan is extremely attached to Domenica. If she cries, he licks the tears from her cheeks.

When Dominic wrote that he did this only ‘because he enjoys the salty taste,’ I was startled at how little he appeared to understand about the dynamics of the ­relationship between humans and animals.

I watch my eldest daughter Savannah curled up in front of the television with her terrier Peugeot lying across her lap. I see her revising with him sleeping on her bed and know that she, like me, could not imagine life in the country without a dog to share it with.

The only time that Dominic became remotely interested in my constantly expanding and ever-changing animal kingdom was when I came home from buying more chickens with two Kune Kune piglets as well.

The children named them Babe and Snorter, and they proceeded to destroy the paddock we put them in.

I found Dominic beginning to spend time with them — just ­hanging over the gate watching them rootle and roll. When I asked him why he was finally showing some interest in the animals, he told me that he found these two pigs intelligent.

‘In what way?’ I said.

‘In the way that if I asked them what time the next train for ­London was, I feel sure that they could give me the answer,’ he replied. He then turned to me and quoted Winston Churchill’s remark that: ‘Dogs look up to man. Cats look down to man. 'Pigs look us straight in the eye and see an equal.’

I left him to it, wondering whether the pigs’ ­grubbing had unearthed magic mushrooms that my husband had picked up and eaten.

We then replaced the pigs with two miniature Shetland ponies, Troy and Shaggy.

When my father, in his late 80s, came to see us and was unable to go outside, we had a parade of animals through the ­dining room for him to see, led by Troy and Shaggy. It was worth the mess to see the enjoyment on his face.


Yesterday, I went to start cleaning out Muncher’s stable, and across the field I could see Shaggy with her latest foal Jupiter.

All of the animals we have had here are a thread that connects me to my own childhood, and ­therefore to memories of the family I came from — they’re a part of who I am.

All I hope is that, in their turn, my children will have memories triggered by the turn of a hoof or a dog’s bark. And I hope that it is a thread that Dominic, too, will be able to pick up on.

But I won’t count my chickens.