I’ll carry on with the henhouse hunting for the two Araucanas over Easter – I don’t think there could be a more appropriate time to be poking around coops and it’ll be great to have four whole days to devote to poultry matters as I haven’t had a great deal of spare time to explore chicken residences over the past week or so. Another issue has sprung up with all this lovely warm weather: the red mite. This little parasite can really blight the henkeeper’s summer if not caught early enough, but stamped out now and we can keep on top of the issue for the rest of the season. The tiny red specks live and reproduce on chickens (though they’ll readily latch on to humans – I have dived into the house to rid myself of the creeps with a hot shower many times after cleaning out the house). They live in the tiny cracks and crevices of a coop (and some believe, under the felt roof), which is why our shiplapped sheds are particularly attractive dwellings for them, and at the ends of perches, crawling onto the poor chickens at night to feed on them (hence their larger and redder appearance in the morning).
In her excellent book Chickens, Susie Baldwin has a very handy chapter ‘General Health’ on this and other maladies, in which she suggests a natural treatment called Diatom Powder (Diatomaceous Earth), which I hadn’t come across before (available to buy from Flyte So Fancy) that you can puff into the corners and cracks of the coop. She also recommends placing crushed garlic cloves in the drinkers, as red mites loathe the taste and amazingly the eggs themselves don’t take on the smell and flavour of the eggs. I’m afraid to say that James and I, in a desperate bid to rid our flock of the parasites, have only ever used a rather harsh chemical spray treatment, aptly called Total Mite Kill, and never took time to explore the alternatives! As Susie says, whatever treatment you opt for, the most important thing is in order to eradicate these fast-reproducing creatures you need to treat your birds and the house regularly to break the life cycle of the mites and rid you and your feathered flock of the critters.
The search continues! As I was last week, I am looking for a new, mobile henhouse, which I can move around the lawn so the grass isn’t decimated. Thanks to those of you who came up with some great suggestions – in particular, I am keen on the Green Frog Designs that are made entirely out of waste industrial plastic – decidedly eco-friendly and with fun contemporary styles to choose from (below). However, I did find that the accompanying runs were a little too small for my liking. Audrey and Mabel would kick up the most almighty fuss (and racket) if I confined them to just a few square feet of grass.
I’ve also found myself lusting after the bespoke coop crafted for henkeeping expert 0- and Buff Orpington enthusiast – Francine Raymond by her son Jacques who runs joinery business Moosejaw Woodworks. I fear, however, that my budget won’t run to one of these beauties – surely, the kind of Grand Design even Kevin McCloud would be impressed by.
Francine relocated to Whitstable on the Kent coast from Troston in Suffolk and has now set up a new henkeeping enterprise Kitchen Garden by the Sea. She gave two inspiring talks at the Country Living Spring Fair this week which no doubt inspired several of her listeners to snap up some hens and a coop at the weekend. She is also running courses at Assington Mill in Suffolk and offers tailor-made ones at her home for two or three friends (see her website for details).
Meanwhile, I will continue checking eBay for suitable bargains and mulling over the two companies mentioned here. To be honest, the search – as with human property – is almost as much fun as the purchase! Any more suggestions in the meantime, are more than welcome!
I’ve been feeling guilty for quite some time about the lack of fresh grass in our two runs for the hybrids and Araucanas. They’ve been bare earth for a while now and quite apart from the fact the girls love nothing better than scratching about to glean insects in between the blades, if it becomes waterlogged, bare ground can harbour a greater number of parasites such as the various worms that prey on hens.
When we first set up the coops and chicken-wired enclosures, we’d no idea how voracious poultry are. Completely green to the whole delightful hobby, we imagined the runs were so large (and they’re a very good size), that the parcels of pasture would sustain them for years. Bald patches started to appear however and soon the grass had receded completely.
The hybrids’ run is so large that we’re planning to divide it in two and rest one half and re-seed it. Once the grass has grown up in that one, we’ll move the hybrids across and tend to the other. Simple.
Due to the fact there are only two, Araucanas Mabel and Audrey, in our other flock, I’m going to find a mobile coop with an attached run that I can move around the garden, rotating areas of grass so the lawn isn’t destroyed and the girls get plenty of greens. The theory is with these that – if moved frequently enough – the fox doesn’t have a chance to excavate under the run, as this can take several attempts in the same place.
In an ideal world, we’d be building this henhouse and run out of salvaged materials, but considering we’ve been renovating a house for almost six years, I feel that’s unlikely. So a purchase it will be, though I don’t want to spend very much (though I want one that, if wooden, was made with sustainably sourced timber) and would prefer a second-hand option if possible. I’ve been looking at funky Omlets, arks stocked by a nearby farmshop and searching eBay (sadly, the most bargainous buy is in the West Midlands) and Freecycle (where chickens were on offer but not a coop!) for suitable candidates. Does anyone else have any suggestions about where to buy?
Along with the first eggs of the season, there are other significant events that punctuate the henkeeper’s calendar. For me, many of these are about daylight: the long days of summer when you’re actually in your pyjamas waiting for those hens to retire so you can lock them away for the night; that slightly grim time when the clocks go back and the flock are soon retiring by 4pm. And today is the first time I’ve opened up the pop-hole at 6am and both Mabel and Audrey are ready to leave their warm nestbox (they’ve never taken to perching, but that’s a whole other story), which means I get to see them before going to work instead of taking a torch to light up the coop and opening up the door long before the two Araucana hens are ready to emerge.
The girls emerged so swiftly this morning they must have been waiting by the pop-hole, keen as mustard. Not so wide awake and eager was Beau the Bengal who’d evidently been up all might and was found snoozing on this chair in the bathroom.
At long last, the goods I’ve been waiting for since last September have arrived: two pastel-coloured eggs from my little Araucana hens, Audrey (pictured) and Mabel. I made a real fuss of them on discovering these thrilling gifts and Audrey especially enjoyed a good stroke of her white feathers (still as unfeasibly soft and silky as the day she first acquired them), waddling about the run, her little pom-pom head bobbing about.
While I’m delighted with any offering from our beloved chickens, it’s these that have the eggs factor! I like to think that one day I’ll take the shells to a DIY store to be reproduced in a paint colour. Till then I’ll enjoy arranging them in a bowl on the kitchen table and, at the weekend, make the best breakfasts James and I have ever eaten; poached and sandwiched in a toasted English muffin, there’s nothing better. I also take great pleasure in lining up all the eggs from our flock on the worksurface to display the subtle differences in their shades.
There is a huge sense of satisfaction to be had from popping a blue or pale khaki Araucana edition – or a snowy-hued one from our hardworking and high-yielding White Star hybrids – in a box for my customers, who I know covet them just as much as I do.
Anyone else take such simple pleasures from a certain type of egg?