Bumper crops of eggs and marrows

It may not have been a very wonderful growing year, but one edible crop that’s thrived this summer is the courgette. Outshining every other vegetable, our two enormous plants continue to send forth magnificent and delicious offerings. We haven’t even been able to keep up with them so a few have morphed into marrows, which we chop up and feed to the hens who love every piece, along with servings of bread porridge (essentially, slices of wholemeal loaf soaked in water) – not the prettiest-looking dish, but it seems to go down very well.

The girls feast on bread porridge – note the incredible pose of Speckledy (in the foreground) having a good shake and twisting her neck right round in the process!

It’s definitely veg harvest time and the season seems to be on the turn, too –  James even noticed a frost on the roof of the extension roof this morning. Along with a daily helping of tomatoes, and courgettes of course, we’re collecting a bumper crop of eggs each evening – perhaps the girls prefer to lay on cooler days. Whatever the reason, there’s certainly been a surge in productivity from our dozen hens.

A lovely clutch

And the girls seem to moult just when you think they need to keep warm – one of the many baffling things about hens. Here’s Mabel looking slightly dishevelled having shed a few feathers. She has some lovely soft downy fluff that’s filling in the gaps, which I can’t resist stroking.

Mabel, mid-moult

Talking of such activities, there’ll be plenty of adorable animals to make a fuss of at the Burghley Horse Trials tomorrow where Country Living has a pavilion and, most importantly, runs the Dog-and-Owner Lookalike Competition with sponsor James Wellbeloved. If you’re going along, come and say hello at the CL stand!

Megan’s looking forward to accompanying me at Burghley tomorrow

The eggs factor

Thought I’d take the opportunity this week to spill the beans on a cracking new series in Country Living, starting in the October issue. You may have noticed a mini henkeeping column in the magazine over the past few months as part of our Simple Pleasures series – well, the good news is that we’ve a brand-new section called A Month in the Country and The Eggs Factor is bigger and better. Written by Surrey-based poultry farmer and expert Suzie Baldwin – author of the wonderful Chickens (Kyle Cathie, £14.99) – it’s full of lovely stories about her hens, which come in all different shapes and sizes, including Buff Orpingtons, Frizzles, Polish and Silkies, as well as hybrids.

Suzie enjoying a moment with one of her trusty hybrids. Photograph by Cristian Barnett

In each issue, she also provides reminders about jobs to do plus she takes a different topic and offers her inspiring tips and practical advice. It’s amazing what poultry-friendly properties pumpkin seeds have… You can find out what they are in the October issue of Country Living on sale 10 September (or subscribe here).

Hens and holidays

August is animal-sitting month. People with menageries, including us, need a bit of help when they go away. Having admired our chickens Araucanas Audrey and Mabel, friends Suzie and Lee decided to get their own birds and did so with gusto. They’re now on a week’s holiday in Dorset and I’m enjoying looking after the flock along with our own.

They started with one coop, but that wasn’t enough: now they’ve two houses and a gorgeous assortment of resident point-of-lay pullets.

I believe this is a Polish Frizzle – looks like my Araucana Audrey with a perm

The ultra-keen nature of the new henkeepers has highlighted how blasé I’ve become about creating interest for my lovely birds.

Suzie cooks a saucepan of potatoes and beans as a treat, a portion of which I dish out each morning, plus peas that she encourages them to eat out of her hands.

She also fills plastic ball-shaped containers with corn – the toy dispenses the grain when the girls kick it about, so they have a steady stream of their favourite snack.

Suzie and Lee’s very pretty Polish hen

These days, I do so little for my own flock in comparison, it’s been a timely reminder that I need to inject a bit more excitement into their lives than the odd handful of corn and portion of greens. Inspired by this example, James and I are planning to build a climbing frame of wooden offcuts and branches, cook vegetables especially for our girls’ consumption and pop some toys in their run, too. They certainly deserve a bit of pampering in return for those beautiful orange-yolked eggs – the centrepiece of weekend brunches.

Tales of the uneggspected

As many of our hens grow older they seem to enjoy laying us a few surprises. Younger birds are pretty consistent in their output – they tow the line and produce regular-sized eggs at regular intervals. Perhaps age and experience means that a chicken becomes a bit more experimental – just when we’ve given up all hope of any more offerings from her, she promptly rustles up something against which those normal little beauties pale in comparison, as if to say “I’ve still got it”.

What a corker!

Take this giant egg, which dwarfs the comparatively small offering from a fellow young bird. How any members of the flock lay one that size I’ve no idea. It turned out to be a beautiful double-yolker.

They may be laying less often but their produce stands out. Almost every evening there’s often a slightly unusual offering in the nesting box, just to keep us on our toes, from torpedo-shaped ones to the ‘jelly eggs’ as we’ve come to call them. When we head down to collect the girls’ produce from the coop in the evening, James takes great pleasure in handing me what looks like a perfectly ordinary shelled egg to place in the basket – only to enjoy my horrified reaction to the strange sensation of holding what feels like a baloon full of jelly in my palm.

It’s not as if the hens don’t get all the oyster shell, greens, corn, grit and, of course, layers’ pellets to provide them with the right raw materials for proper, hard shells, so I think it’s another age-related complaint – or perhaps just another practical joke from a wise old hen.

The last straw

We were down to one remaining handful  of straw last weekend, having been somewhat remiss in keeping up our stocks of such henkeeping essentials, but it was a good excuse to visit our favourite farmshop and replenish supplies. I’ve been going to Upsons Farm Sales in Hatfield Peverel since I was a toddler when I was more interested in its penny sweets than its poultry supplies. It’s expanded in the meantime and today you’ll find displays of toy tractors and cows alongside chicken drinkers and displays of preserves from local Wilkin & Sons. Instead of opting for our standard-issue barley straw, owner John Upson showed us a giant bag of beautifully soft, short straw which has anti-bacterial properties and is also promises to be extra absorbent – always good when the occasional egg breaks. I never knew straw could be so sophisticated. Seeing as the Araucanas Audrey and Mabel still sleep in their nesting box, I reckoned they should have the best possible lining. Along with a coffee and walnut cake, green fig jam and various other treats from the shop shelves, we went to the counter where we couldn’t resist asking John to show us the hens he keeps in a field behind the shop.

John and his girls

It’s always a little dangerous browsing chickens – a little like window shopping, the temptation is to steam right in and but half a dozen items without thinking it all through, but it’s always hard to resist seeing hens for sale. John looks after his girls beautifully – we walked up to a field divided into two different free-range runs withal house each and plenty of grass and space for the flock to roam. The coops are huge and, having bought some pullets the day before, John was keeping them inside one one to acquaint them with their digs. He showed us inside where the beautiful, tiny young birds from Rhode Rock Hens (Rhode Island Reds crossed with Plymouth Rock) and pure-breed Leghorns which produce around 300 eggs a year – far exceeding most pedigree yields (and almost doubling our lovely Araucanas’ Audrey and Mabel).

White leghorns with Redco hybrid hens

We didn’t come away with any poultry purchases, as tempting as it was, but no doubt we’ll be back soon to stock up on some lovely layers. Happy henkeeping.