Old mother hen

Speckledy’s been at it again. Every spring, this five-year-old hybrid hen sits tight in the warm, straw-lined nesting box on a clutch of eggs in the vain hope that she might hatch out some young. She’s a classic broody – all her feathers puffed up (presumably to trap warm air for better insulation), she goes off lay and is uncharacteristically agressive towards anyone who attempts to thwart her maternal plans. 

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Her devotion is such that she doesn’t leave her station to eat or drink. I feel guilty that I’m not indulging her – she’d probably make a great mother – but the control freak inside me doesn’t like the idea of leaving it all to chance, just popping a few fertile eggs underneath her and seeing what happens (of course, that’s what a proper smallholder would do). I prefer using the incubator on the kitchen worksurface and setting the temperature and humidity. Then when the chicks hatch, I’m able to ensure they’ve a good chance of survival in a brooder. We’ve learned that the trick with broody birds is to separate them from the rest of the flock – this also frees up laying space for the other productive hens – so each morning when we discover Speckledy in the nesting box, we scoop her up, despite her pecks on our hands and arms, and place her outside the run and coop with her own supply of layers’ pellets and water. Here she won’t nest and make herself too comfortable – she does a lot of pacing around. After only a short period of this treatment, she’d broken the pattern and was eating and drinking. James let her back into the main run and coop where our Heritage Skyline – who we reckon is right at the bottom of the pecking order – immediately challenged her as if Speckledy was a brand/new hen – Heritage was obviously interested in a promotion but her old colleague wasn’t having any of it and the poultry equivalent of a punch up ensued. Good to see I haven’t broken Speckledy’s spirit.

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Poultry power struggle

This Tuesday, 24 April, our Rhode Island Red, imaginatively called Rhodie, will be two years old. I know this because 24 April 2010 will for ever be known at the Smallholdings as Hatching Day. I was at Country Living HQ, but James was back home, (small)holding the fort and spent much of the day watching the curious appliance on the kitchen worksurface that is the incubator – but at first glance, could easily be mistaken for a breadmaking machine or similar device. Inside were 16 fertile hen eggs – four Welsummers (not so sure these were fertile as none hatched), four Buff Orpingtons, four Rhode Island Reds and four Araucanas (all acquired at Francine Raymond‘s hen party that Easter). Throughout 24 and 25 April that year, cracks began to appear on the shells and if you looked closely you could detect the efforts of the chick inside to extricate itself, it’s tiny beak chipping away. In total, 11 emerged. Once out, the strange, damp little birds soon fluffed up and tottered about in the humid machine.

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Chicks, just a couple of days old, in the brooder. Rhodie is the gingery one, second from left at the back

It was a joy to then install the chicks in a brooder with wood shavings and an infra-red lamp to keep them warm and watch them eat chick crumb (and hard-boiled egg. Yes, I know this sounds odd, but it’s what you do). They skipped about and tumbled over each other like toddlers. Soon their fluff turned into feathers and we could eventually sex each one. Sure enough – as every other hatcher will tell you – the majority were, disappointingly, cockerels but we’d three pullets. Two were named Audrey and Mabel (our white and brown/black Araucanas) and one was a beautiful copper-coloured Rhode Island Red. Audrey and Mabel were thick as thieves right from the start and Rhodie just didn’t seem to fit in to their exclusive club of two. So we decided to introduce her instead to the flock of hybrids down the end of the garden – after all, most of these cross-breeds are bred from the Rhode Island Red. It seemed her natural home. It’s never a particularly good idea to add just one bird to a large, existing flock, so we drafted in four more hybrids (reliable layers White Stars and Bovan’s Goldline) to accompany her. Once it was dark we popped the new recruits on the perches in the large hybrid chicken shed (nocturnal introductions seem to lessen the impact). And after a little bit of new-girl bullying, the pecking order was established and the five girls knew their place right at the bottom.

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Since then though, there’s obviously been a little jostling and Rhodie has emerged to be top bird – quite a feat when you consider there are 14 other chickens to deal with, some almost five years old and pretty cantankerous. We hadn’t noticed much of this poultry power struggle until the other day when James was cleaning out the chicken shed. It’s clear that Rhodie considers herself chief bird – she hopped from the nesting box onto the top of the door (wide open for cleaning duties) and onto the roof even. Once she performed the magnificent flying trick, she pecked at all the other hens and clucked away, aubibly claiming her crown for all to hear. Respect for the Rhode Island Red! We will watch her reign with interest.Image

Food, glorious food!

James and I were doing a little hen-housekeeping last week and discovered the best before dates on one of our giant 20kg bags of organic mixed corn was fast approaching. In a bid not to waste it, we have been treating the flock to an unusually large ration of the golden grain (normally, it’s just one or two handfuls of it in the afternoon), which the rabble, of course, have been polishing off no problem. It’s also not as nutritious as their staple pellets containing barley, maize, oats and wheat. I reckon corn is to hens what Green & Blacks milk chocolate is to me: there’s no holding back.

The girls love nothing better than scratching about for corn and other treats

The girls have been working their way through it nicely, but the surplus corn has had the opposite effect on daily egg yields which have plummeted dramatically. Just three offerings from the 15-strong hybrid flock on Wednesday and only five yesterday so unfortunately something had to give and it’s the usual Friday box of half-a-dozen eggs for my most regular customer, Country Living‘s art editor Chris’s. I don’t know quite how I’m going to break it to him.

I’d heard that overfeeding has an effect on laying but didn’t realise there was such a direct correlation. Has anyone else experienced this? Suffice to say, corn distribution has been reduced to normal, pre-surplus levels – using it up was definitely a false economy – and we’re hoping egg production will resume to respectable numbers in time for weekend deliveries to friends and family.

How do you eat yours?

I’m not talking the Cadbury’s Creme variety but that of the hen! Could there be a more appropriate time than this weekend to celebrate freshly laid eggs in a delicious brunch for an easy, indulgent start to the day?

I’ve been browsing cook books – and consulting Country Living‘s Food and Drink Editor, Alison, for simple dishes which make the most of the flock’s offerings. Below is a taster of what made our mouths water (the baked kind features quite heavily!):

1 Delia Smith’s Swiss Baked Eggs has always been a favourite if mine. She suggests it for supper, but I think it goes very well with soldiers of top-quality wholemeal toast for a late breakfast. Similarly a Country Living one including sorrel.

2 Soft-boiled eggs and broccoli soldiers by Elisabeth Luard (to serve two)

Simmer 500g purple-sprouting broccoli in lightly salted water for 4-5 minutes or until tender. Then drain immediately.

Meanwhile, soft-boil four eggs by your usual method or, following Luard’s, start with the eggs at room temperature, place them in a pan which will take them in a single layer and add enough cold water to cover the shells generously.

Bring the water gently to the boil, leave it to bubble for 2 minutes, turn off the heat and wait another 2 minutes – whether the eggs are large or small, the method is the same.

Transfer the eggs to their eggcups, with a little pile of broccoli spears on the side. Hand butter, salt and pepper, separately.

3 Yotam Ottolenghi’s Baked eggs with yogurt and chilli (serves two) is a rather exciting alternative, featured in his largely meat-free book Plenty (Ebury, £25)

Pre-heat the oven to 150°C (gas mark 3). Place the 300g rocket and 2 tbsp olive oil in a large pan, add some salt and sauté on a medium heat for about 5 minutes, or until the rocket wilts and most of the liquid has evaporated.

Transfer to a small ovenproof dish and make four deep indentations in the rocket. Carefully break four free-range eggs individually into each hollow, taking care not to break the yolk. Place in the oven and cook for 10-15 minutes, or until the egg whites are set. (Alternatively, divide the rocket into two small pans and cook two eggs in each.)

While the eggs are in the oven, mix 150g Greek yogurt with one crushed garlic clove and a pinch of salt. Stir well and set aside; do not chill.

Melt 50g unsalted butter in a small saucepan. Add ½ tsp Kırmızı biber and a pinch of salt and fry for 1-2 minutes, or until the butter starts to foam and turns a nice golden-red. Add six shredded sage leaves and cook for a few more seconds. Remove from the heat.

Once the eggs are cooked take them out of the oven. Spoon the yoghurt over the centre, and pour the hot chilli butter over the eggs. Serve immediately.

4 Jamie Oliver’s Eggy crumpets from his Jamie at Home (Michael Joseph, £30) book are pretty tasty, too.

5 But then there’s always the super-simple Smallholdings muffin – as James and I like to call it – hard to beat in my opinion. Simply poach your egg in just-simmering water (three minutes for medium-size) – choose those which are likely to have the largest proportion of yolk, if possible, I imagine bantam’s would be brilliant – toasting an English muffin in the meatime. Personally, I love a decent covering of Marmite on mine. Then simply place the egg betwixt the halfs of muffin, season with salt and black pepper, and apply a gentle pressure to break the runny, orangey-yellow yolk so that it’s roughly evenly spread throughout.

As long as the eggs you’re using are as fresh as possible the above poaching method works a treat, but the technique is the subject of much debate – see the Guardian’s Word of Mouth blog for a run-down through alternative approaches.

In return for their top-quality ingredients, I’ll be giving the girls bunches of goosegrass, a sweet, sticky weed they adore, which I’ve noticed already springing up in verges and under hedgerows.

Happy Easter!