Up at sunrise and tucked up by sunset: chickens aren’t stupid

Hens definitely have the right idea. As soon as light levels lower, they down tools (or simply stop scratching around) and strut off to their cosy coop for a long night’s rest till it brightens again in the morning. Before I get carried away, I must remind myself that this is not so much a sensible lifestyle choice but is simply due to the birds’ inability to see in the dark, but I can’t help respecting the flock’s harmonious relationship with nature’s rhythms all the same.

Up with the light and in with the dark, the no-nonsense approach to our changing seasons

I imagine offices in all four corners of Britain – especially Scotland where it’s twilight a good deal earlier than down south – are feeling the effects of shorter days and longer nights the way Country Living HQ is. Our Soho premises are like a scene from Shaun of the Dead, Simon Pegg’s comic film about zombies. We could all do with an extra hour or two snoozing in the mornings and us commuters are facing the fact that we’re also now getting home in the dark and will be till spring 2012. Yikes.

This also has further implications for those henkeepers among us – we simply don’t see feather or beak of our chickens during the week. When I opened up the pophole this morning, there was no sign of Audrey and Mabel. They weren’t ready to get up – it was 6am and inky-black outside. They looked at me, their tiny eyes shining out from feathery pom-pom heads, as if I was mad. Then at night they’re already snug in their nesting boxes (as non- perchers, they sleep in the straw-lined boxes) and I only glimpse them when I lift the lid to collect those all-important eggs. Naturally, the supply is dwindling as the hens only lay in the light, but I scraped together half-a-dozen for my Country Living colleagues.

Today's gathering of eggs

So you only see your flock at weekends if you’re a country-dweller-city-worker type. Everyone’s been battling with an overwhelming sense of fatique and the urge to hibernate – or simply mimic the no-nonsense poultry approach to autumn. Given that it’s dark by 7.30pm lately and light only by around 6.30am, if we took our lead from our flocks, we’d be benefiting from a whopping 11 hours of sleep. I’m seriously considering giving it a go at the weekend.

Something – or someone – has ruffled Audrey’s feathers

I’ve had few poultry-related panics in the past such as the time that I thought the Araucanas had been attacked because the undercover run was strewn with their feathers. It turned out, after an evening consulting my various chicken books, that they had simply started the moult and were shedding old plumage to grow new.

However, that was back in July and, as hens go through this process only once a year, I can only conclude that when I discovered white feathers scattered all around the outer run last night that Audrey must have been attacked yesterday. I promtly checked her over and thankfully there doesn’t seem to be any marks on her – she’s just looking a little less thickly covered than usual in places.

The Araucanas at 6am this morning (Audrey, left, Mabel, barely visible right)

There were even feathers beyond the chicken run and on the grass. I can be fairly confident it’s not a fox. There were no signs of excavation (and the chickenwire is dug deep down anyway) and the presence and scent of three dogs seems to keep them at bay. As i’ve heard others say, I’ve seen more foxes in London than in the country. 

Perhaps it’s the new cat, Tuxy, who’s recently been taken in next door, but I’m afraid to say I think it’s more likely to be our very own Bengal, Beau. I don’t like to point the finger – or feather – without firm evidence but our mischievous cat has been smoking around the chicken run a little too often lately. His favourite trick is to jump into the nesting box when I have the lid open while cleaning out the coop, just to give me a fright. He also enjoys jumping into the run from the hurdles that surround it on one side, then meowing loudly until you open the gate to let him out (even though it’s clear he knows how to extricate himself).

Beau the Bengal out and about

I’ve always assumed he showed an interest in the hens to show off and attract attention from us and our German Shepherd Darcy with whom he has a very odd and complex love- hate-taunt relationship. Beau the Bengal generally craves limelight, he’s ‘theatrical’ as James once so accurately put it. But perhaps it’s not all done for show – maybe he’s genuinely after Audrey like a predator and its prey. But why now after almost 18 months of living in relative harmony? Very odd. I left the Smallholdings this morning feeling a little uneasy. I’m going to have keep an eye on that furry face.



Night-time in the nesting boxes

I’ve been a little ‘mañana, mañana’ about writing my blog over the past few days – I put it down to being in Spain Sunday to Wednesday last week (look out for my piece about the Spanish cookery course I went on in the February 2012 issues of Country Living Magazine!).

Now the evenings are distinctly darker – it’s dark by 8pm at the Smallholdings lately – I can’t help reaching for the matches and logs to rustle up a comforting fire in the woodburning stove or fill a hot water bottle for that matter. And I’ve realised the hens share a similar desire for cosiness. Last night I discovered not only the usual naughty brown hen in the nesting boxes but two other hybrids either side opting for the warmth of straw rather than relying on the feathery company of their neighbours on the perches.

The old White Star trying her luck

Each one of the nesting boxes was occupied and I had to remove each warm and docile offender one by one and pop her back in the main coop where she belongs. I have to steal myself to do this as they seem so content, but if I left in the egg-laying area all night their droppings (they produce most overnight) will soil the next day’s eggs – and the less time cleaning and buffing eggshells the better, I say.  

The two Araucanas, Mabel (left) and Audrey (right), hanging out in the nesting boxes

The hybrids aren’t the only nestbox-loving chickens, though. The two Araucanas (AKA Terrible Twins) never had the instinct to perch and despite James and my best efforts – which included putting them to bed every night – they never learned to do so either. Still, at least they eventually learned to go back into the house at night – at the ripe old age of six months. Until then, we found them in a feathery heap in their run after dark. I blame the parents.

Q) What do you get when you cross a hen with a cement mixer?

A) A brick layer 

That gem comes courtesy of one of my best customers, Chris in Country Living’s art department. And sets the tone for this week’s goings-on at the Smallholdings.

Among the clutch of simple but hugely enjoyable little jobs that henkeeping entails, is collecting those all-important eggs. There’s the subtle differences in shell colour and texture – from the pale porcelain and chalk-like finish of the Black Rock to the mahogany and shiny creation – the layer of which still remains a mystery. (Unless you catch – and alarm – the birds in the act, it can be hard to match egg and maker.) Then there’s the surprising difference in size and never has this stopped me in my tracks until this week. I reached into the nesting box as usual on Tuesday evening and got way more than I’d bargained for. After removing the naughty old brown hen who’s taken to sleeping in the straw I put the eggs, one by one, into the basket as usual. But I had to pause for a moment before  picking up this comedy whopper. I couldn’t believe that something so huge could have been laid by one of my little hens.

The said whopper with little Mabel’s egg for the purpose of comparison

How does that work? It must be exhausting not only to make it but to deliver it, too. And it’s just as well I already had enough eggs for my Country Living colleagues this morning as there was no way I could possibly transport this giant in even an extra-large egg box, the lid simply wouldn’t close. It has to be a double-yolker (which will produce a great, deep-orange omelette), so I look forward to investigating over the weekend.

The egg box simply wouldn’t shut with its giant contents

For anyone who read last week’s blog and wondering if the oyster shell I was intending to give the white Araucana Audrey to help her lay proper eggs worked – yes, it did. On Monday evening, I gathered her beautiful pale blue egg alongside the black Araucana Mabel’s gorgeous khaki one. Curiously, though, Audrey’s has taken on the bobbly bits on the shell that Mabel’s had, while hers have become perfectly smooth. 

Bobbly bits on Audrey’s (left) eggs, while Mabel’s are blemish-free

Rather odd, but I can’t spend too much time pondering on the finish of my eggs’ shells. Must crack on.