Ode to the White Star

Two of the White Stars fresh from the breeder and ready to be introduced to the flock

As all henkeepers know, the number of eggs you can expect from your flock drops at this time of year, correlating with the diminishing daylight. Some birds simply shut up shop – and who can blame them, no doubt reserving energy to help get them through the winter ahead, while others lay less frequently. Yet, there are those hardcore hens who keep calm and carry on through thick and thin. The principal exponent of this approach in our flock is the White Star. This wonderful creature is remarkably slight, with beautifully snowy feathers and an outrageously out-sized comb that flops about atop her tiny head. She’s a flighty breed with little interest in affection – or so we’ve found – but what is indisputable is her prolific laying ability.

One of the White Stars (right) with the Black Rock (left) and Bluebelle (centre)

We’ve three of this hybrid breed in the rabble down the end of the garden and boy do they lay! Out of the offerings we have each day – currently, roughly eight from 15 birds – there are always three perfectly white eggs.

Those white-egg layers really are star performers

Curiously, the only complaint I’d make about these – and it’s extremely ungrateful of me to do so at all, I know – is that the yolks are distinctly yellow rather than the beautiful rich orange that the others are, resulting from greens and corn. I don’t know why they stubbornly remain the standard-issue colour, but criticism is rather churlish of me considering they make up the shortfall in yield from the other hybrids (many of whom are now also probably past laying years being four or five) meaning this morning I have enough to fill the half-dozen box for Chris the Art Editor at Country Living, my most loyal customer, and that this lovely pastime is paying for itself – happy henkeeping indeed.

The hybrids at breakfast time

The ultimate chick lit

During autumn and winter, being at work Monday to Friday and commuting  to the Country Living London office before sunrise and returning when it’s dark I see less of the girls than I’d like. I’m more inclined to do a little reading when I get home, whereas in summer I’d hang out in the run in the light evenings, idly watching the flock peck and scratch about for a while.

A selection of my favourite reads

I’m missing the hens during the week, so to help I’m enjoying Alice Walker’s (author of The Color Purple) gentle memoir The Chicken Chronicles (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99). My colleague Lisa, Country Living’s Features Editor, gave it to me for my birthday and what a delightful gift it is. Among the breeds that she keeps are Ameraucanas, presumably some kind of Araucana cross. She describes the birds, which were lovingly raised from chicks by the small boys next door, hopping into her lap and how one ‘settled into my arms…like she’d always been there, drowsy and quiet, as if she were a cat.’

The gals out and about

A favourite, similarly gentle, read of mine is Francine Raymond’s All My Eggs in One Basket (Kitchen Garden, £18.50), which is a diary celebrating her Buff Orpingtons as well as country living and the joys of each season, with stunning photographs by Sarah Bush. She also includes simple and very tasty recipes for eggs and kitchen garden produce (and runs courses, see kitchen-garden-hens.co.uk).

A shamelessly gratuitous snap of Audrey, the White Araucana

Other books on The Smallholdings shelves include the fascinating and informative Chickopedia by Charlotte Popescu (Cavalier Paperbacks, £7.99), an A-Z of hen- related terms, facts and legends, Celia Lewis’s Illustrated Guide to Chickens (A&C Black, £16.99) and Country Living‘s Henkeeping (Collins & Brown, £6.99) by Jane Eastoe – in association with the National Trust – is a no-nonsense and inspiring read containing virtually all you need to know about the hobby. And the least likely publisher of a poultry guide is Haynes, the car book specialist. Recently, it’s branched out into animals, too, and the illustrated Chicken Manual by Laurence Beeken (Haynes, £19.99) is a great general book that I’ve consulted on hen health several times.

On the topic of wellbeing, I was emailing Sara of Hen Corner on the lack of veterinary support when it comes to chickens. Many don’t seem to know any more about poultry wellbeing than us keepers, the majority having gone into small animal pratice and not livestock. Having said that, my local vet went to great lengths to obtain some medicine for a poorly Rhode Island Red cockerel last year and also waived the consultation fee, so that was very kind. I came across an online hen vet the other day, which may come in handy at some stage:  Chickenvet.co.uk. It has a good informative section on hen wellbeing, though beware of the hotline, which may be worth paying for depending on the state of your chickens, but it’s a pretty pricey 0905 job.

Feathers crossed that there’ll be no need! Happy henkeeping.

Saturday nights at the Smallholdings

Saturday nights at the Smallholdings have been even less glamorous than usual in recent weeks. James and I aren’t really wild party types and would sooner have a few friends round for a bite to eat or simply opening a bottle of red, load up the woodburning stove for a cosy evening surrounded by snoozing animals – the two chocolate Labradors fall asleep on their own two-seater within minutes, Darcy the German Shepherd claims the fireside seat and Beau the Bengal has taken to curling up in a circle on the Lloyd Loom chair. But every weekend for the past couple of months we’ve had to steal ourselves and, once it’s dark and the hybrids have gone to bed, we’ve headed down to the coop to tend to their latest poultry complaint: scaly leg mite. 

The hybrids breakfasting

It’s as unpleasant a condition as it sounds and essentially involves a parasite burrowing under the scales of chicken’s feet and legs, making the poor birds incredibly uncomfortable. It’s one of those ailments that reminds me of some advice I received from Lisa Sykes, Country Living‘s Features Editor when I was first thinking about keeping a few hens: “Whatever you do, don’t even think about starting to read the health sections in chicken books – they’ll completely put you off.” Those were wise words, there is so much you could be scared off by. I like to approach henkeeping in a far more laid back fashion; taking a coffee down at the weekends to watch the girls scratch about and checking them over once in a while to see if there’s anything wrong, but not reading up about diseases and actively looking for them.

The free-ranging flock

So, wearing blue latex gloves and with the floodlight switched on, James and I treat the girls for this nasty complaint. We’ve got the operation down to a slick routine now: James dives into the henhouse to grab one hen at a time. I spray the brilliantly named ‘Just for Scaly Leg’ – a natural concoction designed to exterminate the nasty mites – onto each chicken’s feet an legs and he puts them in the undercover run as we go along. After 15 birds we heave a sigh of relief and, instead of placing each back on their perches, we’ve learned to simply open up the pop hole and put the torch in the henhouse. Being attracted to light, they soon put themselves to bed and it’s all done and dusted till the following weekend. Hopefully their scales will fall off soon taking the evil parasites with them and they’ll grow fresh leg coverings – and we’ll reclaim our cosy evenings. Still, we’ve managed to fit a little damson vodka activity in – and saved the small bottle of the lovely tipple from last year to drink while we make the next batch. 

Pricking sloes so their juice blends with the sugar and vodka
Having weighed the sloes we put them in the Kilner jar

 

Next, we shake the punctured sloes with sugar
Kilner jars containing damson vodka to mature over three or four months

Twin beaks

I feel rather bad that Audrey and Mabel have more than their fair share of attention, while the hardworking hybrids who keep calm and carry on laying all winter don’t command the same kind of adoration. I love and respect the flock, of course – which has its own fair share of characters – but the twin Araucanas have so many lovely habits and attributes that I find I’m increasingly besotted with them.

Mabel (left) and Audrey last Saturday morning

Perhaps sweetest of all is the way they do absolutely everything together. I’ve waxed lyrical about the fact they laid their first eggs – Audrey’s a pastel blue, Mabel’s a pale khaki – on the very same day (negating the need for James and I to fight over who was going to have a poached egg that morning back in February 2010). But they also sleep together in the nesting boxes and both in the same bay during winter – they look like one white and brown pile of feathers, peering at me sheepishly when I open up the pop-hole in the morning. (Not only have they never taken to perching but they actually snuggle in the straw!). Once emerged, they hurry into their outer run to relieve themselves – that’s why there’s  little litter to clear out at the weekends. These girls are so clean.

When they’re ready, they’ll head back into the undercover run for a breakfast of layers’ pellets, eating from either side of the hopper.

Ladies who lunch

Then they’ll do the rounds of the outer run practically wing-in-wing, like characters in a Jane Austen novel taking a turn about the room.

"Join me for a turn about the run, Mabel"

Sometimes, I’ll open the gate and walk in to give them some corn in the afternoons and they’ll be down the other end resembling Machiavellian figures, their cute pom-pom heads in close conversation and amber eyes, just visible, looking at me with deep suspicion. If they’re hatching plans to escape, thankfully these haven’t come to fruition, though that reminds me that I must clip their flight feathers to prevent such an event. I simply couldn’t do without my Audrey and Mabel.