It goes without saying that, like everyone else, I’m looking forward to eating, drinking and making merry over the festive break – not to mention the special episode of Downton Abbey on the big day itself – but one of the things I’m most looking forward to is the chance to spend time at the Smallholdings not madly rushing around as we tend to at the weekends, but simply taking it all in – having half an hour or so to idly watch the hens go about their daily business of raking over the ground for corn and insects.
I don’t think the relaxing effect of this pastime can be overrated – you soon find yourself entirely absorbed in their enviably simple world. It’s also a chance to see them properly in full daylight and to re-bond – I find during the winter months when, being a full-time commuter, I barely catch a glimpse of them during the week that I feel I lose a connection with them. So over the next ten days or so, I’ll be having the odd cup of tea in their company and reaquainting myself with all their lovely idiosyncrasies.
I’ve a bit of a soft spot for our tiny brown hen (who lays tiny brown eggs) at the moment. We call her ‘the hen that will never grow up’. Despite being the same age as the other ‘point of lays’ we bought-in during the summer, she’s only reached two thirds of their size for some reason, but is remarkably friendly – as if we hatched her out and raised her as a chick. If we’ve some dry weather I may take a leaf out of my most recent poultry read, Alice Walker’s book The Chicken Chronicles (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99), and sit on a sack on the ground (wearing my glasses to protect myself from any curious beaks). She explains that being at chicken level makes you less of a threat and she often finds her birds take to settling in her lap. This must be lovely and, of course, it makes complete sense now I’ve read about it – imagine how giant we henkeepers must be as we loom over them. I’ll report the results of my experiment in the new year.
I’m rather ashamed to admit it, but this morning at 6am, as I hesitated at the back door before running through heavy rain, a biting wind and the darkness to let the Araucanas out (James takes care of the hybrids), I couldn’t help looking forward to sunny spring mornings. To be fair – not to say, rational – it rains at that time so infrequently that it’s rarely an obstacle to henkeeping duties and this November and December have been incredibly mild, but it’s the lack of light that bothers me most.
Once I’ve opened up the door to the run and hooked back to the one for pop-hole, I always shine the torch in the direction of the nesting boxes where non-perching Audrey and Mabel like to sleep. Rather naughty of them, but pretty adorable – and while they’re not laying it isn’t a problem. I just like to check they’re OK – as by the time I’m home they’ve well and truly retired for the night. Slightly dazzled by the brilliant light, they look back at me all snoozey and I leave them to rise in their own time. But this is the only chance to see them during the week.
The other thing I’m not keen on during winter is that the runs barely have a chance to dry out. Both the Araucanas’ and the hybrids’ areas have become horribly muddy and re-grassing them is a top priority for 2012. Due to the waterlogged conditions, James and I ensure we worm them every three months. It’s an easy task – essentially mixing Flubenvet into their pellets, but for some reason we dread it. Last Sunday morning we took the kitchen scales down to the chicken run, along with various utensils, and weighed out the right ratio of pellets to powder medicine. The girls need the treatment for seven days so we prepared plenty for the week ahead. All done now till March when conditions will be improving and the egg count will have increased.
Just five offerings from the rabble yesterday – an all-time low from our baker’s-dozen-sized flock. Still, many have entered retirement and we again are grateful to the White Stars for their key role in fulfilling our orders, slavishly laying every day, come rain or shine. Chris, Country Living‘s Art Editor, will be receiving this odd number ‘on the (hen) house’ for his eggcelent customer loyalty this year. Ordering a box every Friday, he helps my hobby pay for itself. And I rather enjoy my role as shopkeeper – there’s something fundamentally satisfying about earning money from your own produce – just one of the many pleasures of henkeeping.
It was while reading Alice Walker’s (author of The Color Purple) gentle memoir The Chicken Chronicles (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99) that I was struck by the dull nature of my foodie offerings to the flock. In winter especially, they need extra carbohydrates to get through the cold, so I make bread porridge (slices of a stale brown loaf soaked in water), which they adore, toss them leftover potatoes or boil some extra spaghetti so I can watch them play with their food. And then there is the usual supply of greens, of course – lettuce generally as mine don’t seem to have a taste for brassicas. But before I read that author Alice treats her flock to all manner of foods including grapes, pear and mulberries it would never have crossed my mind to offer them such goodies. So on Sunday, feeling the need to make up for years of being decidedly mean, I headed down to the coops with a mid-morning coffee for me and some chopped up clementine and a beautiful russet apple to gauge the girls’ interest in fruit.
First port of call is the Araucana run where Audrey and Mabel were at first decidedly suspicious, approaching me and my strange offerings one little chicken step at a time – as ever, simultaneously. The hybrids were typically less cautious, steaming towards me and practically mugging me for my plate. The goods were devoured in seconds and the rabble were looking for more. (Sometimes, I realise, if I’m feeling a little underpar, I will put off entering the run until I’ve mustered the energy to resist their assaults).
I guess in terms of quality control, it’s best to avoid anything too pungent. An excess of orange and I imagine you’d be collecting some citrus-scented eggs one or two days later (and perhaps dealing with some upset stomachs). Similarly, there are those crops to avoid such as rhubarb which is poisonous to poultry. Jane Eastoe in Country Living‘s Henkeeping (Collins & Brown, £6.99) recommends a handful of sunflower seeds as a treat, which no doubt does lovely things for their yolks, putting the greens you give them – cabbage, spinach and lettuce – in a string bag so they remain clean and off the ground and giving the flock leftover bits from breakfast such as cereal and toast crusts (soaked no doubt), though obviously no animal protein. After gleaning the wisdom of both Walker and Eastoe, I’m going to make it my resolution for 2012 to be more generous with foods I have up till now reserved for us humans. If anyone has any suggestions up their sleeve – or in their fridge – please let me know…
Finally, we’ve had a couple of frosty mornings this week at the Smallholdings in our patch of Essex. The recent mild spell was pretty disconcerting, wasn’t it? I don’t think I’ve ever been more glad to wrap up in warm layers than now. Pacing down to the chicken runs in the pre-dawn dark through crystallised grass has been especially lovely – and today I saw the rather endearing faces of two muntjacs starting at me. Though while I’m swaddling myself in wool, the hens are doing quite the reverse: some are going through the moult just as the cold has set in.
I opened up the house the other day to see dark feathers scattered everywhere. A sense of alarm spread through me and I searched the floor for any sign that the fox had broken in (he’d be highly cunning if he had because we’ve an electric fence and the chicken wire dug well under). But no, nothing thankfully: just the result of rejuvenation. The Black Rock is looking particularly ropey – feel like I tempted fate when I hailed her the Helen Mirren of the hen world in a blog a few weeks back. I’ve never seen her shed feathers like this before – being a hybrid, she isn’t really meant to, but perhaps it’s the fact she is half Rhode Island Red (our Rhodie is also shedding plumage) that she performs the ritual, starting with the neck and head feathers, as is the custom.
They are already resembling porcupines, as the stubs of replacment plumage are emerging. Next with be the breast, petticoat and tail. Let’s hope they re-feather quickly – it can take up to three months, which would be a bit sad as they’d only be fully clothed, as it were, in February when it starts warming up. Plus, we’d be eggless till then and that will never do.