I’ve discovered over time that not all the hybrids are hard-working and reliable. The most productiveof our crew is the Bovan’s Goldline which is one type of the basic brown hens available. These creatures are healthy birds with a wonderful work ethic and heaps of character to boot. They lay decent-sized eggs on the whole – and plenty of them. Then there are the more colourful hybrids that have been developed. These include the Heritage Skyline, a pretty bird with tawny-like feathers, a large showy comb and impressive tail feathers.
The camera-shy Heritage Skyline (backgroud, far right)
We picked up two of these birds what must be around four years ago from a breeder just over the border in Suffolk. We’d only wanted a couple more brown hens, but as if often the way when we stock up on chickens, we came away with another two – we couldn’t resist the prospect of the pale blue eggs they were said to lay, imagining them boxed up in among the buff coloured ones. These two birds turned out to be the flightiest, least friendly fowl we’ve ever come across and seemed to regard themselves as distinctly superior to the existing rabble. Needless to say, the pecking order soon put paid to that.
However, the most disappointing thing about these two is the fact that one laid pale-brown eggs and the other’s – a beautiful sky-blue – were distinctly thin on the ground. No doubt we’ve simply been unlucky and other Heritage Skyline birds are better performers, but after just one season, there were no eggs at all from the pair of them. So, essentially over the past three years they’ve been getting bed and board for free, while the others (apart from those in retirement who are welcome to a nice, quiet life after all their hard work) more than earn their keep. That is, until yesterday when James came back from the coop rather puzzled. After shutting the pophole, he opened up the nesting box lid as usual to collect the offerings and there in the third bay was a gigantic, torpedo-shaped pale-blue egg.
How long was that one brewing up? Three whole years and then an enormous offering! I know it’s rather ungrateful of me, but I think that one’s going to be enjoyed by the dogs on their breakfast at the weekend. Its odd shape and peculiar delivery I find somewhat unappetising! The old girl will, however, be rewarded with extra corn at the weekend – after all, it’s quite an achievement following an egg-free 36 months.
It struck me the other day that we’ve some veteran birds in our midst. The oldest member of the flock by a good six months or so – she must be knocking on five years old – is the Black Rock, a fine-looking hen with stunning iridescent plumage that ranges from bright copper to emerald and ebony. Like a stellar older actress, she shows up the young ones’ lack of polish. She is in remarkably good condition – I type that touching henhouse wood- rarely has any ailments, diligently carrying on with her vital work of scratching around and eating, though whether she’s still laying or not, I’m not too sure. This is when a nestcam – though perhaps a little too new world and technological to be true to the ancient art of henkeeping – would be most helpful.
Then there’s Beady who, I’m slightly ashamed to admit, intimidates both James and I with the eye that gave her that name. She’s like an old colonel who doesn’t take any nonsense and gives us a darn good stare whenever we enter the run. See her twin aspects, as it were, below.
I think perhaps she is more akin to Dame Maggie Smith with her intimidating presence – definitely a rival for the role of the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey.
The next generation of poultry starlets which includes the tiny brown hen that never grew up and continues to lay very tasty, albeit bantam-like mini, eggs. But it really is Audrey, named after the 1960s super-chic film star, who steals the limelight.
Housework has, historically, been unequally divided between the sexes – and you need only reach for the latest women’s magazine for findings of recent surveys on the perennial hot topic. And while I can’t claim the Smallholdings is a perfect example of feminist principles in this respect I do, however, believe matters balance out beyond our own home and in those of the hens.
We’ve two coops and runs: the large shed at the end of the garden by the willow beds where a gang of 16 hybrids reside and the smaller converted kennel nearer the house which belongs to just two birds: Mabel and Audrey. It’s generally James’s job to clean out the large flock’s residence and I tend to the pair of Araucanas’. This arrangement came about largely due to practicality. Being a touch taller than me, James found the smaller coop difficult to clean and would end up with backache. In the large hybrid shed there’s enough room to stand up so we took to our allotted houses and tasks happily enough.
While James scrapes up enough chicken manure from the newspaper-strewn floor to fill a bucket each week – we’ve got a magnificent compost heap thanks to it – I am at the top of the garden desperately searching for droppings in amongst the straw of my small coop. This is partly due to the fact that there are only two hens in my coop plus they’re pure-breeds, so eat considerably less than their hybrid colleagues who are bred to consume large quantities and lay throughout the year. But also because Audrey and Mabel have cultivated a rather endearing habit: they’ve obviously taken against littering their own home, so as soon as I’ve opened up the pop-hole, they run down the ladder through the covered run and outside to relieve themselves – as if they were stopping themselves from performing such bodily functions inside.
Who knows where they came up with the idea – perhaps they’ve been receiving some sage advice about house-training from the dogs. Despite their best efforts, however, there’s the usually one or two pieces of litter, but last weekend there was nothing at all. I wanted to come away feeling I’d found at least something to add to the manure pile, so I scrabbled around the coop floor – wearing rubber gloves, I hasten to add – in a desperate bid to recover a dropping. (The levels I stoop to.) Then I came across what seemed to be the most enormous one – which on closer inspection turned out to be a dead mouse (or perhaps a baby rat, but I’m telling myself it’s the former).
I don’t know how it met its end – it may have been the work of Beau the Bengal – or, more likely, Audrey and Mabel had a go at it with their spectacularly long ‘nails’ (it bore some marks that tally with that theory). Perhaps they were concerned it was after their food – or maybe they were just plain disgusted by its low hygiene standards.
The Araucanas have well and truly shut down production – a bit like Parisians who close up their shops/businesses and head to the South if France for the month of August. Except this is a slightly longer vacation. We won’t be collecting any pale blue and khaki eggs from those little hens until February now, when the days begin to lengthen and they think about rustling them up again. It’s the end of their very first laying season – they only began this year, around Valentine’s Day which is in keeping with poultry tradition.
What I’d like to know is why are those extra hours of daylight so vital for egg production? And how have hybrids been developed so that their productivity levels don’t plummet? Thank goodness for our trusty flock of no-nonsense poultry – the White Stars are particularly hardworking, along with the Black Rock, Bovan’s Goldline (among the trusty band of no-frills brown birds), Speckledy, Pied Suffolk and honorary pure-breed Rhodie, our Rhode Island Red who we hatched out alongside the Araucanas last year but seems to be considerably less work-shy.
What did henkeepers used to do for eggs over the winter, before the development of hybrid birds? Do ducks continue to lay? Perhaps they kept a couple to tide them over. What do pure-breed lovers do now, for that matter? It’s positively painful to go to the shops and buy a box – and I find I can’t eat other eggs now I’m hooked on my own flock’s orange-yolked stunners. I accidentally picked up an egg sandwich at an event the other day and it made me feel quite queasy.
I find the balance of fancy fowl, who I think of more as pets who produce eggs in fair weather, with a gang of worker hens, who’ll lay almost every day, the best solution, especially as I’ve a little egg-selling business to keep going, which now covers the costs of the hobby at £1.50 per half-dozen.
With several days of leave remaining this year, I’m taking the opportunity to spend more time at the Smallholdings witg some long weekends, so I had Thursday and Friday off last week and spent some time with the brood at home, enjoying morning coffees in the run, feeding them corn in the afternoons and simply watching them scratch about and have minor squabbles over an insect or piece of lettuce thrown in.
One of the flock’s favourite treats is pasta and the most enjoyable way of delivering this snack is using cold, leftover spaghetti and, taking a strand at a time, dangling it in front of them – watching them peck at it, flying a little off the ground occasionally, provides both them and me with plenty of entertainment. It’s also a chance to take a good look at each bird and make sure they’re in the pink of health. Evidently, I’m not the only one to take so much pleasure in this henkeeper’s perk – it’s widely popular, YouTube is full of such clips posted by enthusiasts.