A climbing frame for Phillip the Pheasant

Phillip the Pheasant is developing more and more fiery colour, confirming his sex. I realised we ought to be kitting out his run to resemble a woodland habitat as much as possible – otherwise, his introduction to the outside world once he’s reached the right size, may not go to plan. Pheasants roost in trees to protect themselves from predators and until now Phillip’s been perching low down in his henhouse. So using the chicken wire as a support for the ends, James arranged a number of sticks to mimic the branches of a tree, binding them together with gardening wire. We’ve done something similar in the chicken run – the girls like a climbing frame.

Phillip's new perching place

Phillip’s taken to his new roosting place like a duck to water, so he’ll hopefully adapt nicely when he’s finally released and is at large in the willow beds at the bottom of the garden. I don’t think this will be too much longer – he’s a good size and while we’re glad to have been able to ensure the little fella’s survival, he doesn’t look overly happy in his henhouse and enclosed run. I can’t help feeling we’ve rather meddled with nature. But then how can you not take in a day-old stripey chick?


Phillip in his infancy

Elsewhere on the Smallholdings, we still have a broody Rhode Island Red and the two Araucanas are moulting furiously, resulting in a decided lack of pastel-blue and pale-green tinted eggs. How I miss them – their pretty shades cheered up the kitchen worksurface and brightening every box I sold in the Country Living offices (and the masthead of this blog). It’s been a fortnight or so now – hopefully they’ll be over the moult in a few weeks, when they’ll be looking even more beautiful in their brand-new plumage.

The first blue eggs that Audrey and Mabel ever laid

I think even they are getting fed up with their feather-bare state – last night James couldn’t see them in their run when he returned home in broad daylight at around 6 o’clock. He went in to investigate all their favourite hiding places and still no sign. He opened up the lid of the nesting box and there they were, side by side. They’d taken themselves off to bed a good three hours earlier than normal.

Anyway, the Terrible Twins, the 14 hybrids, three dogs and Beau the Bengal are in James’s more than capable paws for the next few days as I’m off to see my excellent friend and fellow poultry enthusiast, Katherine, in Edinburgh. It’ll be interesting to get an insight into city-style henkeeping and my visit is long overdue – no doubt we’ll spend a good chunk of the weekend nattering away like old mother hens.

An egg-onomic crisis at the Smallholdings

For various reasons this week, the flock’s usually abundant egg yields have plummeted. Mabel and Audrey, the Araucanas (AKA The Terrible Twins) have both gone off lay. You’ve got to admire their solidarity – they do everything together, even laying their very first eggs on the same morning practically holding wings as they laid in the double nesting boxes. So, invitably, when one decides to shut up shop, the other follows. This last week or so, they’ve steadily dropped their egg deliveries to the point where we’ve zero. A little alarmed, I tried to work out why and, when one night went into the run to lock them up for the night, was horrified to see a wild scattering of both white and brown feathers all over the ground. Fearing that some poultry predator had attacked them, I feared the worst as I looked into the nesting boxes where they defiantly sleep, never having taken to perching like other chickens (I blame the parents).

Feathers around the walkway and pophole

There they were, perfectly in tact and happy enough snoozing away, and it suddenly dawned on me that they were showing all the signs of the annual moult when birds shed feathers, look a little out of condition and can, temporarily, stop laying. This is a particular shame as my Country Living colleagues are missing out on the Smallholdings’ USP: Audrey and Mabel’s beautiful pastel-blue eggs. I’ll add some poultry spice to the girls’ pellets to help them through the moulting phase and, hopefully, they’ll resume production.

Mabel, moulting but not laying

Down in the big girls’ run, our Rhode Island Red’s gone broody, which is rather touching having hatched her out and raised her over the past year. When our Speckledies (hybrids) have gone the same motherly way, they’ve pecked furiously at our hands when we’ve lifted them out of the nesting box, but Rhodie, bless her, has very gently let us pick her up, with nothing more than a mumur of protest, and placed her back on the perches with her colleagues. However, in her maternal state, she isn’t laying either so that’s one less egg a day.

Rhodie, who's discovered her maternal instincts

All the same, I managed to scrape enough together for two half-dozen boxes which have been pre-ordered by Chris and Julie in Country Living’s art team, though the designers – who are far and away my best egg customers – might be a little disappointed when they see their boxes, minus Audrey and Mabel’s pale-blue eggs, aren’t as colourful as usual. Come on girls, lay one for Mum.

All creatures great and small

Saw some magnificent birds and beasts at the Tendring Country Show near Manningtree here in Essex last weekend. It was a wonderfully colourful day during which my mother and I watched a host of livestock displays – still a reassuringly traditional affair featuring white coats (and a dashing  bowler hat in the case of the all-important judges). Children as well as smallholders and farmers proudly paraded their animals in the rings. The cattle entrants included the beautiful dark-ginger Red Polls and the majestic English Long Horned. We also met an array of sheep including our favourite deep-fleeced teddy bear-like South Down and the confusingly named Badger Faced breed.

A beautifully bashful lavender cochin

But, of course, what topped it all was the fabulous poultry tent. Chicken fanciers and wildfowl specialists from all over the county had entered their feathered specimens in all manner of classes. From adorable Welsummer bantams to lavender-coloured cochins (above) and turkey cockerels and Indian Runner Ducks, a wide spectrum scratched, crowed and clucked before us (some even lay eggs in front of our very eyes), the occasional cage bearings winning rosette.

I'll take my hat off to anyone who can name this exotic breed. My only guess is the Yokohama...?Again, no label, but is this a Welsummer cockerel?


Again, no label, but is this a Welsummer cockerel?

Despite the alluring birds on display, I managed to resist the urge to buy a clutch of fertile eggs to hatch out chicks: I sensibly decided that our 17-strong flock is enough to keep James, myself and our friends, family and colleagues in omlettes for now (as you can see from the glut we had earlier this week, below).

The egg surplus taking over the Smallholdings' kitchen

A plucky little fella

We thought we were doing the right thing when we put the Buff Orpington cockerel in with the hybrids in the other run at the end of the garden. He seemed delighted with his flock of hens and it gave the two Araucanas he’d been in with before some respite from his mating attempts – sometimes successful, sometimes not, but all the same pretty exhausting for all concerned.

The Buff Orpington cockerel and Audrey when they co-habitated

He’s a magnificent bird with rather extravagant plumage – a joy to see strutting, or rather stumbling, about. So it wasn’t until James picked him up the other day that we realised he’d lost so much weight. Beneath his gingery feathers he was verging on skin and bones. He was also gaping a great deal, opening up his beak and making an alarming rattling sound when he breathed. A quick look in the brilliant Haynes Chicken Manual and the diagnosis was clear: the poor old boy had gapeworm, a hideous condition in which worms fill the throat. The hybrids are generally free of such things having been immunised against all manner of diseases by their commercial breeder, but as our cockerel is home-grown, having been hatched out last year, he’s susceptible to a variety of horrid illnesses.

We picked him up and fearing the worst, popped the three dogs in their outdoor run so he could at least enjoy what we thought would be one of his last days roamly freely in the garden. Sprinkling the herbal remedy Verm-X (which treats and guards birds against internal parasites) in his a dish of corn, James and I both sat down at the garden table to keep an eye on him. He was so thin and weak , we were sure that he wouldn’t survive, even his comb was a pale pink rather than its usual beautiful strawberry colour. After a few hours, we popped him back in with not the hybrids but the two Araucana girls who seemed remarkably glad to see him, especially as there was no chance he’d make any amourous advances in his condition.

Several days later, somewhat miraculously, he seems to be in fine fettle. This morning I let him and his ladies out and he practically bounded out of the pop hole towards the feeder. This is particularly good news as this weekend I’m small-holding the fort while James takes his parents away to Lincolnshire for a few days – and I’m pathetically emotional when it comes to poorly birds. It’ll be just me, Beau the Bengal, Darcy the German Shepherd, Amy and Megan the chocolate Labradors and our 18 chickens. Well, I say that, but I’m actually off to the Tendring Show tomorrow with my mum, so who knows what livestock or fertile eggs we’ll come back with. Better get the incubator out of the loft just in case I get the urge to hatch out some chicks.      

Darcy (left) and Megan, aka Meglet

The case of the crowing hens

No sooner do I think all’s quiet on the poultry front than something breaks the silence. This time it’s not the delightful, if at times rowdy, rabble of hybrids down the end of the garden, nor is it the cockerel who recently shacked up with them, or Phyllis/Phillip the pheasant (who’s flying round her/his run very nicely now by the way) but the adorable – and generally mousey-quiet – Araucana girls.

Audrey, the curently-not-so-ladylike Araucana

The pair live in almost-solitary splendour since I spotted the boy Buff Orpington paying them a little bit too much attention recently. They’ve oodles of space in both their house and run and they don’t seem to miss the old chap, so it’s not that they’re loudly protesting. No, the noise they’ve been making has a far more disturbing quality: these two ladies have started crowing. The moment I spotted them was all rather surreal. I’d taken last Friday as a day off to simply potter at home. I was spending a fair bit of time in the garden and that’s when I noticed Audrey, the white Araucana, behaving most strangely. She started charging around the run at an astonishing speed, but quite erratically. Then I watched in horror as I realised what she was about to do: she stood still, elongated her elegant neck and opened her little beak. An impressive cock-a-doodle-do sounded across the grass. Then a few minutes later Mabel, the brown Araucana, tested her own crowing ability.

This just isn’t right I told myself as I stared in disbelief at my decidedly feminine birds. I dashed to my bookcase but found that none of my henkeeping guides address the topic. However, a quick search on chicken-themed internet forums put my mind at rest. It seems that since the Buff Orpington cockerel left they are stepping into his spurs as it were: proclaiming their territory and jostling in the new pecking order, too. I was a little worried that these two beautiful birds who lay stunning pale-blue eggs were morphing into boys (something I’d always considered a myth until I heard more and more accounts of the phenomenen), but thankfully that looks very unlikely. Hopefully, they’ll settle into more ladylike behaviour before long, or our neighbours will think they’re loud early morning alarm calls are nothing to crow about.

Check out the difference between the pullet egg from a new hybrid hen and the full-size specimens from the older members of the flock