OK, so the title this week really does take the biscuit, but forgive me – it’s hard not to shamelessly squeeze in a chicken-related word in my blog headings where possible and I think any such whims should be indulged in at this rather challenging time of year, quite frankly.
We’ve had another magnificent egg yield from the girls this week – James and I encourage each other to guess the number as we take turns to collect our treasure from the nesting box and then announce it rather like the judges do their points on Strictly Come Dancing: 8, 7, 9, 8. Now they are coming thick and fast, I’m discovering again one of the great delights of henkeeping: cracking a good deal (again, lashings of apologies all round). James has his own clutch of customers, including his parents who are particularly partial and I sell the odd box to my mum who savours a boiled egg for lunch. It’s in the office where I do most of my trade though, sending ‘egg alert’ emails to flag up the covetable boxes of delights I’ve brought in on the train. They’re always laid no more than two days ago and I pencil on the dates. I take enormous pleasure in receiving payment for them – it’s like playing shop as a child.
We charge £1.50 per half dozen, which compared to supermarkets is pretty competitive. The flock’s fed on organic pellets and corn, plus the greens, pasta and bread we throw their way. Not only is it immensely satisfying that we can more than cover the cost of out henkeeping hobby, but there’s a fundamentally feelgood factor about receiving money for your own produce. I have a dedicated tin for the proceeds – a Matthew Rice design just right for the coins and I enjoy emptying the contents into the large box in the kitchen cupboard when I get home. James’s dad counts the weighty earnings every few months and changed it into notes, which sit in our white china chicken till it’s time to buy more feed or more birds! The simple life, what could be better?
You know the days are getting longer when you come back from the coop with a basketful of eggs. The excitement I feel when I open up the lid of the nesting box and look inside never fades, though this must be the fifth year we’ve kept hens. And frankly, with the orders coming in thick and fast, the fact that there have this week been as many as eight offerings each day – rather than the dreaded two or three that occur during the bleakest, shortest winter days – is a blessed relief.
All different colours, ranging from deep speckled mahogany to the purest white, always seem like little miracles nestling in the straw, the loveliest shapes laid out in a pleasing, natural arrangement. Picking them up and putting them in the dedicated egg basket is an equally satisfying part of the ritual. They always need a bit of cleaning in the kitchen – a lightly damp piece of kitchen roll usually does the trick, though the occasional ones come so filthy I fear a chisel might be more effective (these often end up as an added bonus on a bowlful of dog food). The finishing touch before we pop them in the boxes is the pencilled-on date, written carefully on the pointed end so our customers know when their eggs have been laid. I’ve heard of henkeepers also writing on the name of the bird that produced it, but we’re not that great at knowing who’s rustled up what. Perhaps one day.
Of course, there are two birds whose eggs you are in no doubt about: Audrey (pastel blue) and Mabel (the palest green), the Araucanas. They won’t begin laying for another three weeks or so, when the days are longer – they shut up shop back in September – so their produce is eagerly anticipated. Last year, it was almost as if they’d read a text book on the subject and knew that pure breeds such as themselves come back into lay around Valentine’s Day, because just a couple of days later there were two perfect little pretty eggs waiting for us, just in time for a cooked breakfast. Bring on February 14th!
At the farm down the end of the road we live on, along with a delightful Border Terrier puppy, a sweet old chocolate Lab, a cat and countless horses, are some fine free-ranging fowl tended by ten-year old Toby with the help of his younger brother and sidekick, Albert, seven (but almost eight, on 26 January, he would like to point out). “Some of the birds even like nesting in the stables,” they say of the charming way in which members of the menagerie mix together.
The young henkeeper, whose interest in birds began with the ambition to own a parrot, first took a shine to chickens when visiting a family friend who had a flock and sold the eggs. When he turned nine, Toby acquired five black hens, and for his confirmation, was given three bantams – two hens and cockerel. Using not an incubator but one of the original five hens who was showing promise as a mother, he tried his luck with hatching out some of the bantams’ eggs the natural way with a magnificent result of five chicks. As is ever the case, he ended up with more cockerels than pullets.
We, too, hatched out more male than female chickens. Due to their overly amorous advances to the fewer pullets we managed to produce, they had to be segregated and put in another pen. Literally cooped up, they turned on each other and we had to allow them to free-range in the garden in order to avoid fights. Only recently had we got our German Shepherd, Darcy, who was then a young and rather lively dog. Doing our best to keep them separate failed and Darcy played a little too enthusiastically with them. So when Toby offered us one of his cockerels, despite a fondness for their crowing and splendid appearance, we declined and instead paid a visit last Sunday to see his set-up.
I was mightily impressed with his and Albert’s passion for their hobby and their expertise. They’ve come up with an ingenious way to fill up the chickens’ drinkers via a hose that’s fed into the inside of the coop and plan to create another pen for their warring cockerels, separating the relatively gentle and the decidedly aggressive, in order to keep the peace. It was particularly inspiring to visit my young fellow enthusiasts during what I find can be a quiet period for the poultry keeper and I look forward to seeing more of their chicken capers during the year.
Wasn’t it just lovely having a long holiday over Christmas? All that time to enjoy the company of loved ones, graze on rich food and simply indulge in the luxury of time, pottering around and hanging out with the hens. As I noted in my last post just before the festive break, I was keen to put an idea to the test: Alice Walker (author of The Color Purple, but also The Chicken Chronicles (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99), writes that as soon as she sits on the ground in her garden one or two of her birds sit in her lap. Our hybrids, a 13-strong flock at the end of the garden, are wonderful egg layers, but apart from one or two particularly friendly souls, are a pretty flighty, nervy bunch who won’t let you so much as stroke their feathers. So the other day, I tried getting down to their level, literally, as I commandeered an empty layers’ pellets sack and sat in the middle of the chicken run wearing old clothes, Wellington boots and protective glasses (lest the girls became a little too interested in something shiny).
Admittedly, I also had a container of corn – it’s early days for my new approach and I thought I could do with the helping hand of an incentive. I was delighted when I soon attracted a crowd, mobbing me for corn and even clambering over my legs to reach it – the girls interacted quite differently with me, compared to when I stand in the run.
I was no longer a giant human towering above them, but a chicken-height corn dispenser! It was great fun to be this close to them – and also to observe individuals at such close range: the differences in the shape and feel of their beaks was interesting – some, such as the White Stars, were beautifully rounded, others, including the Rhode Island Red felt razor-sharp as she pecked away into my palm.
My intention is to sit in the run every weekend and try the Araucanas, Audrey and Mabel, too, – that is, until my neighbours call the men in white coats – and hopefully the flock will become more and more welcoming. Here’s to a happy new henkeeping year!