The only surviving child of poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, FRIEDA HUGHES, 62, has long sought solace in pets. She explains how looking after her motley menagerie has helped her cope with a tumultuous childhood, divorce and bereavement
- Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’s daughter opens up about fondness for animals
- READ MORE: BEL MOONEY reviews A Magpie Memoir
The magpie, George, was a troublemaker. He brought happy chaos to my life when I adopted him as a barely feathered chick, thrown from a broken nest following a storm in 2007. I hand-reared George, feeding him several times a day, keeping him warm, watching over him, while all the time he was working his way into my affections.
Which meant that when he left home five months later in October 2007, I felt the shock of loss in a way I hadn’t expected; it was like a bereavement.
Even as a very small child, I felt more comfortable among animals and birds than I did people. It began with the family cat when I was perhaps four years old. Tabby was given to us by the writer Doris Lessing who had a cottage on Dartmoor. When Tabby died, I accepted a ginger kitten from a friend who was the daughter of a farmer whose cat had produced too many kittens for them to keep. When no one was looking, I hid him in my bedroom but was found out when he climbed through my bedroom window. He was rehomed before I’d even chosen a name for him.
A puppy called Peter was then given to me and my little brother, Nicholas, by my aunt, when I was about six; but Nick tormented Peter. He pulled his tail mercilessly until Peter bit Nick’s lip and was rehoused to the sound of my breaking heart and my father’s protestations that he was, in any case, going to be too big a dog as he had huge paws.
Around nine years old I discovered guinea pigs – and that they bred. This was incredibly exciting, because now I had my own little family of squeaking joy, and they were portable. The warmth of their little bodies, snuffling noses, their attachment to me and my attachment to them made them feel like kindred.
Frieda with Eddie the eagle owl. She has twelve other owls. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’s daughter opens up about fondness for animals
Then my father took us away for a couple of weeks, instructing his own father how to feed all 15 of them (this included two new litters). I came home to five; grandad had forgotten about them and in desperation they’d eaten their babies.
I realised that keeping animals meant that I had to be stationary, not shifting and travelling. So, when I moved to mid-Wales in 2004 at the age of 44 with my then husband and a small white Maltese cross called Mouse, I was ready to adopt.
Not long after we moved in, Mouse took to sleeping in her bed by the Rayburn range all day, uninterested in playing any longer. I was puzzled because she was only seven years old. I did not want her to die and leave me dogless, but when I came home with two Maltese puppies, Snickers and Widget, she woke up with a renewed zest for life and lived for several more years.
Thankfully, George the magpie’s arrival was easily accommodated by my doggy trio, who adopted him as I did, until he left home, never needing to occupy the gigantic aviary I’d built for him.
The aviary cried out for occupants. First, there was Arthur, a Bengal eagle-owl with a broken wing that no one wanted. Someone contacted my local pet shop looking for a likely new owner, and they thought of me.
Then there was a wild orphan duckling called Demelza, referred to me by the local vet. The duckling required other ducklings for company, so I bought two Indian runners, Samson and Delilah, and then one day the wild duck Demelza flew off. There have since been other wild birds too – notably a young crow in 2017, who occupied my shoulder for two weeks until he discovered how to fly.
I also acquired a couple of chinchillas – all my life I’d wanted chinchillas: fluffy, bouncy, squidgy, they can live up to 18 years, unlike a rat or a hamster with a two-year life span.
In January 2009, my marriage staggered to an end. As primary breadwinner I was able to stay in the house in Wales, where I felt I had put down roots.
Then, three months later, my brother killed himself. [A professor of ocean sciences in Alaska, Nicholas had long struggled with depression. His suicide came 46 years after his mother’s.] The ground felt as though it had been ripped from beneath my feet, and I had to untangle everything that my brother had left behind. It took a year, and the kindness of neighbours who cared for my family of animals in my short but necessary and desperate absences.
I found that focusing on the needs of creatures was a good way to dislodge my thoughts from my own misery. And burying my face in fluff or feathers, feeling the gentle warmth of an owl or a dog, was infinitely comforting.
Eventually, I rehomed my Indian runners with a friend who had a dozen of them and a big lake. Ducks aren’t very good as family members, being somewhat stupid.
After that, Arthur the owl attracted more owls ‒ birds that other people, for one reason or another, could no longer keep.
Frieda pictured as a child – with her brother Nicholas, and their father Ted Hughes, who was a famous poet
There was an ageing female Bengal eagle-owl, five barn owls (one with crippled feet), three massive Eurasian eagle-owls (one missing a middle toe), a snowy owl (with a damaged wing so he can’t fly), two white-faced scops owls, two burrowing owls and a tiny Tengmalm’s owl lacking bones in his feet so he stands like a puzzled child, toes turned inwards. I built a second aviary and acquired cages for the indoor owls.
When the first pair of Eurasians arrived with two eggs in 2015, I bought an incubator and hatched Max and Charlie. The love I felt for these two baby birds as they grew was powerful; they developed before my eyes, and all too soon they were no longer fabulously fluffed bundles of bone and claw, but sleekly feathered powerful fliers. Two years later, another egg hatched Eddie.
These three enormous owls now come into the utility room every night for a couple of hours, as their aviary is attached to the house. I fling open the doors and Eddie is immediately on the doorstep, striding in, followed by his older brothers who are calmer, less pushy and less strident. They let me feed them, then flap upwards to roost on top of the wall units, their five and six-foot wingspans negotiating the ceiling and any obstacles on the way.
This is their home, and they know it. Amazingly, despite sometimes exploring the kitchen, they have never broken anything.
Some of the older owls have since died; I am down to 13, and my three little white dogs are now buried in the garden. But bereavement is the price I pay for all those years of joy.
Currently, I have five chinchillas, two rescue huskies, a royal python called Shirley, and Socks, the last of 12 ferrets. And there is always space for an orphan crow or magpie…
George: A Magpie Memoir by Frieda Hughes is published by Profile Books, £16.99*
*TO ORDER A COPY FOR £15.29 UNTIL 28 MAY GO TO MAILSHOP.CO.UK/BOOKS OR CALL 020 3176 2937. FREE UK DELIVERY ON ORDERS OVER £25
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