Vegging out, chicken-style

I returned home last night from Country Living HQ and, as is the custom, let Araucanas Audrey and Mabel out to free-range round the garden. After being cooped up all day in their run, a stretch of their little legs and wings as they peck and scratch about on the lawn is usually just what they need. After opening up the henhouse door, I ran upstairs to change into some gardening clothes so I could do a little lawn edging and returned five minutes later to discover that Mabel had shunned her perfectly adequate, well-established dust-bathing station by the shed for a patch between a courgette and tomato plant in my raised bed and was merrily burrowing into the organic compost therein. 


Mabel dust-bathing betwixt the veg


Hens do this seemingly paradoxical act of cleansing (often in plain soil) to rid their feathers of pesky insects and cool themselves down. As she wasn’t damaging either crop I decided to turned a blind eye, unlike Audrey, Mabel’s white counterpart who could barely believe her tiny, feather-covered eyes.


Audrey peers at her sister in disbelief

Meanwhile James has been a little disappointed over the strawberry crop so far, which has been decimated by slugs. He’s managed to eat approximately one undamaged one a day on his way down to let out the chickens and, rather than leaving the semi-munched fruits for the slippery pests to enjoy finishing off, he’s had great satisfaction in feeding them to the flock instead (as well as leftover potato which they always enjoy). Simple pleasures!

A berry nice snack

If you keep hens, I’d love to hear what you treat yours to.

Is that a chicken or a piglet? Black Rock gets stuck in to the spuds

The curious case of the chickens, a syringe and some olive oil…

Last weekend I was all set to head off to the wonderful fruit farm in nearby Tiptree, the produce of which is turned into world-famous Wilkin & Sons preserves in the on-site factory. It was one of some 400 farms taking part in Open Farm Sunday. Sadly, I discovered a problem on my own miniature farm which needed attending to and put paid to any such plans. Yet again the brown Araucana Mabel (purveyor of the beautiful pale-green eggs) was attempting to enter the house via the open patio doors. I heard her scrabbling around on the frame and caught her just as she tottered onto the mat. On scooping her up I discovered a large lump on her front. I gently probed it – it felt like a squash ball, both in terms of size and flexibility. I placed her back on the lawn and picked up Audrey to examine her. She had exactly the same bump. I must admit I felt completely panic-stricken and grabbed all the henkeeping guides I have from the bookshelf to search for the ailment. It was the Haynes Chicken Manual by Laurence Beeken (Haynes, £21.99) that, again, offered the best advice along with a handy illustration of a hen’s anatomy. It was clear that the girls had impacted crops – ie the crop, where they soften their food before it passes down to the stomach was blocked (in the morning it should be empty after a night’s digestion). The most common causes of this is ranging on grass that’s too long. I felt terrible – I’d been meaning to mow the lawn for weeks, it had shot up due to the rain. The book stated three options. We could:

a.) Pour warm water into the beak to encourage vomitting, hold the hen upside down, taking care not to allow blockages which could suffocate the bird

b.) Syringe warmed olive oil into beak and gently massage crop to lubricate grass and help shift the mass

c.) Take chicken to the vet for an operation to remove mass of grass from the crop

Unsurprisingly, James and I decided that option two sounded the most pleasant. So there was no time to lose – we moved the henhouse and run onto some slabs rather than grass and mixes up some pellets with water and a little olive oil so the girls had food that would slip down nicely. Next James managed to find a tiny chicken-size syringe!), which seemed like a mini-miracle (we’ve no idea why he had it – we’ve never had to perform such a treatment before!) and placed one chicken at a time on my lap.

Mabel ready for her olive oil treatment

I managed to keep their legs under control by gently tucking them into my apron. James skillfully managed to steady their heads, which frantically bobbed about, as they avoided the syringe and open their tiny beaks. I then carefully massaged their crop and I think they rather enjoyed this part – as did I. I might well do it in future anyway as it was a rather lovely way to bond. The girls were then on liquid food supplemented by some lettuce for two days and, thankfully, this seems to have done the job. Their crops are now back to normal and, suffice to say, I plan to mow the grass first thing on Saturday morning – weather willing!

One for us, one for the hens…

Half the lettuces in the veg patch are devoted to the hens this year. They get through a fair number during summer and we’ve some lovely cut-and-come again leaves that mean we should all at least be self-sufficient in salads over the next few months. En route to the flock of hybrids at the end of the garden, James simply lifts the protective frame he made with wooden batons and fine mesh and – with the old knife wrapped in a plastic bag beside them – slices off the girls’ daily ration.

Megan takes it easy by the raised bed (DIY lettuce shelter, right)

We try not to give them too much – just a handful of the outer leaves between the 13-strong gaggle – as lettuce is a good digestive aid but isn’t packed with nutrients. Dark-green veg such as spinach, chard and leftover broccoli provides the calcium and vitamins to boost the birds’ wellbeing and ensure those soughtafter eggs retain their all- important rich, orange yolks.

The girls love their daily treats of lettuce and corn

Many of those crops grown for our consumption are plants kindly donated by Country Living‘s greenfingered picture editor, Jackie, who’s supplied virtually the whole office with beautiful tomato plants, plus I’ve been lucky enough to also receive purple sprouting broccoli (especially excited about this as I’ve not grown it before), chilli and courgette plants, too. They’re doing very nicely and have enjoyed lashings of rain, now let’s have some sun. Not that I’m wishing time away, but I’m looking forward to poached eggs with spears of PSB as soldiers this winter!

Poultry pursuits

It’s been a game of chase the chicken this week as Speckledy has gone broody yet again. Although she’s a hybrid, which have been developed without this and other tendencies, one of the breeds that she descends from, the very beautiful French Marans (from which her attractive markings derive), is strongly maternal. I’ve concluded that Speckledy must have a generous helping of this fancy hen’s genes.

The solution to her broodiness is to separate her and the rest of the flock by placing her outside the main chicken run with a bowlful of pellets and mixed corn plus some water. This has the triple aims of:

 a) Separating her from a nest to sit on.

b) Frees up a bay of the nesting box so that hens who are keen to lay those lovely, orange-yolked eggs are able to do so.

c) Encourages her to eat and drink. She’d happily sit on eggs all day otherwise and become thin and dehydrated – such is her urge.

Speckledy in isolation outside the main chicken run

So, overnight she is kept in the undercover section of the henhouse and the trick is to catch her when you open the door in the morning – otherwise, she manages to nimbly out-run you, and the scenes that ensue no doubt provide the neighbours with some quality early morning entertainment. I only realised the solution to this when I, somewhat out of breath, took a break from pursuing her and realised she’d slipped into henhouse to sit in the nesting box. All I had to do was raise the lid and lift her out. Or so I thought. She’s a feisty old bird and managed to wriggle out of my arms. We went through the same kerfuffle again – though, this time I was ready to hold her more securely and outside the run she went to think things over. Hopefully, she’ll be back in lay soon – I miss her pretty dark-brown eggs and I’m not sure we’ve the stamina for many more of these high-speed pursuits.

Poultry pedicure

Last night when I got home I let the Araucanas out to range freely around the garden. It’s lovely for them to stretch their wings and have more space to scratch about in and I enjoy watching them. They’re always drawn to the house – in particular, the open patio doors and hover just outside somewhat nosily peering in and chirruping away. One day I’ll turn my back and the next thing I know Audrey and Mabel will be perching on the coffee table or the sofa, making themselves at home.

Just waiting for their moment to head into the house when I’m not looking

I like to sit just inside the door and stroke their silky-soft feathers. It’s soothing for all concerned, but it’s also a chance to check the girls over. I noticed last night that both hens’ feet could do with a bit of attention. The scales are lifted which indicates they have the parasite scaly leg mite.

Audrey’s feet in need of attention

When writing the little column for Country Living‘s September issue I discovered that one of the most effective remedies is immersing your hen’s feet in surgical spirit. Drying them afterwards, you then apply Vaseline over the scales to seal them and prevent further attacks. James and I treated the hybrids last weekend – at night to ensure they were docile – but I didn’t think Audrey and Mabel needed it until closer inspection last night. I also discovered, when looking into showing hens (for the August column) that clipping nails can be necessary – and Audrey’s in particular look like they would benefit from cutting. Time for some poultry pampering this weekend I think.

I’m not sure we’ll go as far as painting your toes, Audrey