The grass is always greener on the other side

I’m happy to say that, having moved in to the new coop with her sister Araucana Audrey a week ago, Mabel has finally got the hang of going to bed at night all by herself. She follows her feathered friend up the little purple stairway and into the house at dusk instead of loitering outside, perched on a wall waiting for me to tuck her in.

The twin Araucanas Audrey (in front) and Mabel (behind, following Audrey like a sheep as usual)

If I return from work when it’s still a lovely light evening, I let them out of the run so they can free range for a while under my watchful eye. I love this time with them – they’re at their most docile and friendly, plus they chirrup away gently which, for some reason, is one of the most soothing sounds I’ve ever heard. At some stage I’m going to don an old skirt and try what Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple but also The Chicken Chronicles (Phoenix House, £7.99) recommends, which is sitting down so you’re closer to your hens’ level and waiting for them to settle in your lap. I think Audrey would be keen on a cuddle but Mabel might need some persuasion – I expect bribing her with corn is the answer.

As well as Mabel’s improved  bedtime behaviour, she is also back in lay, producing those tiny – almost bantam-size – beautiful pale khaki eggs I adore. There are few things more delicious than one poached and eaten in a toasted and lightly Marmited muffin; I know what I’ll be having for breakfast tomorrow.

Audrey’s gorgeous pastel-blue egg, left, and Mabel’s pale khaki beauty

That’ll provide the strength James and I need to lift and move the henhouse and run to another spot in the garden. In just three days the girls have completely destroyed the grass in their run. What was green and dense has been pecked and scratched into something that resembles coconut matting. If we rotate their pen at least weekly hopefully each patch will have a chance to recover and the girls will be furnished with fresh grass to enjoy. It’s the least I can do considering what excellent chicken companionship and beautiful orange-yolked eggs they provide me with.

The purple poultry palace

Audrey has settled into her new coop a treat. I think she must realise it shows off her snowy-white plumage beautifully and she seems to know how it all works – she even laid an egg in the nesting box as a celebration on Sunday, the very first day she and Mabel took up residence. If only her sidekick was so keen. Ever since Mabel went broody (see this blog by clicking here), she’s not been quite herself and hasn’t been putting herself to bed at night. I kept both birds inside the coop for a day as is recommended when poultry move henhouse – this is meant to familiarise them with their new home. It hasn’t done the trick, though – each evening this week I’ve come home to discover her perching on a low wall near the coop, while Audrey has retired to the straw-lined nesting box to sleep. I’ve scooped Mabel up and placed her inside the house, but she is reluctant to do so herself. Last night she clung to my hand with her claws (they’re blunted by her scratching around and so not remotely sharp) in a way that reminded me of hawks and their handlers. It was actually rather a lovely feeling and I humoured her for a while, acting like a human perch as she chirrupped at me, before I popped her inside. Anyway, hopefully Audrey’s good example will influence her friend’s bedtime behaviour.

Meanwhile,  I’ve been marvelling at the new house’s features and modifications, including the brilliant slide-out tray that James made. I know this sound terribly nerdy, but it will make cleaning out the henhouse so much easier! It even has a hinged wooden flap covering it to ensure the girls don’t feel a draught! So, even if Mabel isn’t digging it, I’m enjoying the new coop offers.

Maternal Mabel

The eBay henhouse makeover is almost complete – it will do Mabel, in particular, good to have a change of scene. She’s gone broody – yes, little Mabel, the tiny Araucana. She’s so small – and it being only two years since she hatched out herself – it seems really rather sweet. Plus, she isn’t pecking or being remotely aggressive, she just wants to sit on her eggs and that’s that. We first noticed her maternal mood when it was only Audrey emerging from the henhouse each morning. On inspection, Mabel had lost weight, as broodies tend to simply incubate in the nesting box without eating or drinking. So we’ve been taking her out of the house – closing the pop-hole so she doesn’t return – and placing her by her food and water.

At first she simply sits there entirely still while Audrey animatedly pecks about, no doubt wondering what on earth is going on with her poultry pal. After a while she gets back on her feet and eats some layers’ pellets and has a drink, then impatiently paces up and down the inner run and up to the closed henhouse door. Still, stopping her from resuming her position on the nest seems to have worked over the week as she’s emerging out of the house of her own accord now.

The only oddity now is that she has taken to perching outside the coop at night instead of heading to bed. I’d suspect this to be due to red mite, but Audrey happily struts in and beds down as usual. Never mind, as long as Mabel resumes production of her beautiful pale bluey-green eggs soon, we’re happy to tuck her in at night.

We spent most of last Sunday getting the new (but second-hand) coop up to scratch (sorry) for her and our other exacting client Audrey. James channelled his inner carpenter crafting a very clever hinged wooden flap that keeps the draughts out while allowing access to a slide-out a tray each time we clean the coop, as well as various clever features such as a dual-purpose latch. I’d erected a cardboard canopy over the house so the rain didn’t stop us painting in that I’m-damned-if-the-weather’s-going-to-stop-us mode. We’ll complete it with finishing touches this weekend and install the poultry residents.

Home, Sweet Home

Audrey and Mabel pacing up and down their present run – with the new coop they’ll have access to fresh grass all the time

Finally, I’ve a new, portable coop for the Araucanas Audrey and Mabel. After much henhouse-hunting over the past couple of months – viewings have included the beautifully crafted collection by Flyte so Fancy and the super-eco builds by Green Frog Designs made from recycled industrial plastic waste – I followed in the footsteps of friend and fellow henkeeper Lisa Sykes and trawled the internet for a second-hand (or should that be second-wing?) one. Of course, eBay was the obvious choice – though I also signed up to my local Freecycle group and now receive countless emails about first-time buyers in Chelmsford who need a fridge and people in Colchester who have a spare 1990s-era remote control – but alas and perhaps unsurprisingly there were no complimentary coops on offer. The main criteria, apart from it being second-hand – so it was green in a sense, whatever materials it was made of – was that it should have an undercover run, so the girls have somewhere dry to shelter and their food could be kept out of the rain. Plus, the trick – as seasoned eBayers know – is to find large objects, such as chicken coops, that are in your area so you don’t have to drive hours to collect them – we instantly discounted poultry properties up in the north of Scotland and Devon, no matter how many boxes they ticked.

James began the search in our county of Essex and located a dream home for Audrey and Mabel in Rayleigh, near Southend, barely half-an-hour’s drive away. With just a couple of hours to go till the online auction ended, we placed our bid and then went about our jobs in the garden setting a timer for 30 minutes before the end-time. We hurried in, expecting a last-minute flurry, but after a few bids from the other interested parties, we were soon on our own with just seconds to go. Much whooping and excitement ensued – we even cracked open a bottle of Prosecco – it made me wonder how, if I feel this thrilled about buying a secondhand henhouse on eBay,  bidding and securing a piece of art feels – such as The Scream which sold at a real auction this week.

The new coop – ready for a bit of a makeover with lavender-coloured paint which will help protect the wood as well as make it pretty

We picked it up – during the only gap in the rain last Sunday – and now, after a couple of simple repair jobs, I’m hoping to paint it a pretty lavender colour this weekend if there’s a spot of dry weather. Then – after it’s dried and aired – Audrey and Mabel can move into their new dwelling. Anyone else doing any henhouse DIY this Bank Holiday?