The hens’ rush hour

The veg patch has been distinctly sluggish this summer – check out the big black beast snapped this morning.

There couldn’t be a greater contrast between the speed of these slimy lettuce-munching pests and that of the hens when the coop pop-hole is opened and they’re released out into their run – their morning rush hour, perhaps more like ‘rush minute’ (as captured in rather poor-quality video on my phone in rather this morning),  could rival that of Liverpool Street commuters.

There’s no holding back – the girls will walk all over each other and barge past in order to be the first to have some greens from the garden. I can’t help thinking that getting onto a train home this evening through Stratford – just before tonight’s Opening Ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics  is held at the stadium – might resemble such a scrum.

Did you know that there is a kind of chicken olympics held in Derbyshire every August? This year it takes place Saturday 4 August at 1.30pm. Click here for full details

If you know of any other poultry-themed athletics, please let me know! You never know, it could even make a feature in Country Living Magazine.

I love filling bowls with the Araucanas’ pale blue and khaki eggs

Hens at home and away

I’ve been out and about a fair bit over the past week, so haven’t spent as much time as usual with the flock – well, not my own anyway. Our local agricultural show last Saturday went ahead, despite our fears it would be cancelled like so many other similar events this somewhat soggy summer. Instead, we happily waded in mud up to half the height of our boots, going from tent to tent to admire the exhibits, from beautiful Red Pol cattle to country clothing stalls to farm machinery trade stands, but most importantly of course, the poultry tent. There was a mesmerising variety of birds, from tiny bantams to geese and turkeys. The only problem with show exhibits is that so often they are shown without any information about the breed – just a first, second or third prize card attached. While it’s a pleasure to browse all the chickens –  I became particularly smitten with the Silkies on show – I was stuck when it comes to identifying the different types.

Can you name this chicken? Not 100 per cent sure what breed it is – I think it’s a Red Millefeur Pekin cockerel but if anyone can identify, please let me know!

Next time, I’ll go equipped with my chicken books ready to ID each one. Another highlight was being towed out of the car park by a tractor. Surely a rite of passage for any show-goer.

An award-winning Silkie scratches about

The weekend’s chicken theme continued on Sunday when I was off to the Brecon Beacons for a couple of days to write a short travel piece for Country Living Magazine, staying at a wonderful bed and breakfast where seven Marans and brown hybrid hens roam around the grounds (providing fabulous eggs for breakfast), just a couple of miles from beautiful Crickhowell. See the October issue of CL for more (on sale 10 September).

Now I’m looking forward to hanging out with a coffee watching my own hens tomorrow morning.

A heap of wildlife

Eggs are, of course, the most exciting offerings from hens but there is also a wonderful byproduct: nitrogen-rich manure. You might have to set aside half an hour every weekend to clean out the coop, but add the contents to the compost heap, mix it with more brown and green matter and turn it regularly (adding air helps break it down) and you’ll be spreading top-quality soil improver on your veg patch come spring (Garden Organic offers a great video and written guide). When James lifted the tarpaulin off the heap yesterday to add the usual bucket-load, he got a bit of a shock – a vast slow-worm, around two foot long, slithered out and onto the grass.

The walking boot is for scale!

On closer inspection, he could see she had a huge swelling and was full of eggs, so in case she returns to the same spot, we’ll be adding chicken droppings and veg peelings to the other compost bay for a while – and perhaps taking a peek at the baby slow-worms in the main one (and you can also find grass snakes in heaps). The heat, which is generated as the organic materials break down, is what attracts them apparently – at its centre the heap can reach a staggering 60°C.

On the smallholding theme, despite the wet weather sadly resulting in cancellations of both the Great Yorkshire Show and CLA Game Fair, in our slightly less waterlogged part of the country, the Tendring Show near Manningtree is still on, so fingers crossed for tomorrow. I suspect that we might need waders rather than wellies, but at least it’s still on.

Anyone else heading off to country fairs this weekend?


Nice weather for ducks, but not for hens

The girls have been stoically going about their business recently but sometimes I wonder how they manage to keep their little beaks up when it’s pouring outside. They waddle about in the rain, feathers sticking together, pecking at the ground for any little morsels – Mabel and Audrey have had the run of the garden this week and decided to attack my chilli plants that my CL colleague Jackie so kindly gave me (must net them over the weekend). Persistent rain means the ground becomes so muddy that when they head into the nesting box they cover all the eggs laid by their fellow hens with their grubby feet so we end up practically chipping off the soil before we can box them up for friends, family and colleagues.

I’m hoping next Saturday’s weather will be an improvement – it’s the Tendring Show, a wonderful country day out held at a park near Manningtree in Essex and a real highlight of the summer. As well as viewing the stunning Longhorn cattle and learning a lesson or two from the expert husbandry of the young handlers, complete with white coats and flat caps, last year I spent a very contented hour or so in the poultry tent, admiring rosette-worthy beauties, and being tempted by all kinds of different breeds from Orpingtons to Polands, boxes of incubator-ready fertile eggs and even the odd duck…


Anyone out there dabbling in duck-keeping?