Poultry in the Peaks

ImageOn On a self-catering holiday in the Peak District this week, but couldn’t resist bringing a supply of fresh home-laid eggs for easy suppers. Image

Staying in a beautiful, typical Derbyshire cottage, which may well end up being reviewed in the pages of Country Living as it’s just too good to keep to myself – a wonderful blend of Georgian features and proportions with some contemporary furnishings and a very cool Grand Designs-style glass extension overlooking the little garden.  

Spent the entire day at Chatsworth yesterday and returning today because even though we were there from 11am until 6pm, there was only time to see the garden and house. I can see why people become besotted with the place – it’s a world of itself. We’re going back to get a chicken fix this afternoon at the farmyard – the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire famously kept a large flock of hens when she was at Chatsworth and there are still some fine poultry specimens to be seen, along with cattle, sheep and pigs. I’ll file a feather report about it next week. In the meantime, happy henkeeping.


Rub-a-dub-dub, Two hens in a tub

It was when I saw this comical but distinctly grubby picture of Audrey last weekend, taken by James, that I decided it was time for her bath. 

Following the interesting summer we’ve just had with downpour after downpour, the usually elegant Audrey became pretty dishevelled, not quite living up to her filmstar namesake. Her pom-pom head is beige rather than white and some of her feathers are still plastered together after those downpours in July and August, a real contrast to her usual snowy plumage.

Audrey earlier this year, before the wet summer

I didn’t realise you could wash a hen until I read about it in Suzie Baldwin’s brilliant book Chickens (Kyle Books, £14.99; click on the link and order it for £11.99) where she suggests doing this, when necessary, using a small amount of baby shampoo. I’ve toyed with the idea ever since, but hadn’t yet plucked up the courage – though friendly, Mabel in particular doesn’t put up with much handling and isn’t afraid to voice her concerns in a series of deafeningly loud protesting clucks. And, really, chickens are a little like cats in that they’re preen and clean themselves. But there are some places hens can’t reach – unlike felines such as our Bengal Beau whose yogic abilities to stretch and flex are awe-inspiring. Anyway, I decided the best place to perform the task was the barn where we could shut out enough light so the girls were at their calmest – they become very docile in semi-darkness. Given the Araucanas’ small size I decided an oblong mop bucket would be the best vessel in which to bath them – anything larger and the hens could escape mid-shampoo.

Boiling the kettle and adding plenty of cold from the outside tap, I made sure the water was warm, but not hot, before scooping up Audrey as she free- ranged around the garden. After some initial fuss about being interrupted mid-forage, she was delightfully placcid and on being placed in the foamy water she became completely silent. I even began to wonder if she enjoyed being in the bath. After a light lather through her feathers and a thorough rinse, I wrapped her in a towel (last Saturday there was a bit of a breeze and didn’t want her to catch a chill) and took her back into the garden. After an initial drying, she resumed her amble about the garden and it was now Mabel’s turn. As I suspected, Audrey’s little sidekick has plenty of spirit and isn’t one to suffer in silence. She did, however, remain in the water while I washed her and seemed to quite enjoy a cuddle in the towel afterwards – but probably not quite as much as me.

Unfortunately, due to the fact James was doing some DIY – ripping down the ceiling in our spare room, one of the last hardcore tasks left on the house renovation list – I haven’t any pictures of the hens in situ, but there’s one of Audrey still wet and looking a little bedraggled above. The wash certainly gave their plumage a new lease of life, but Audrey’s pom-pom head didn’t come up quite as well as I was hoping. I suspect it’s somewhat stained and will improve only when she moults. Funnily enough, Mabel started shedding feathers this week, bit of a shame as cleaning them was obviously the object of the wash! Perhaps she’s getting her own back with a post-bath poultry protest.

Chickens of the wood

Now the weather’s a little cooler, we give the girls extra snacks such as leftover boiled potato, pasta and bread porridge. As soon as we start walking down the garden, they’re at the gate like a shot

We’d been meaning to order a load of firewood for some months, but when James saw the first frost a fortnight ago and it was clear the season had shifted to autumn and it spurred us into action. He rang our local timber merchant and arranged for two winters’-worth of hardwood logs to be delivered at the weekend, so when I returned from a shoot and interview day at the smallholding in Cambridgeshire (for Country Living next year, starting in the April 2013 issue), he was busy storing the pile of beech, hornbeam and ash which lay on the grass a the lean-to. It’s a much quicker job with two, so I threw the logs over and James caught them and slotted them into his neat rows.

There’s something so pleasing about a stack of wood, the round ends of the logs creating a stunning pattern of circles – I think it’s a beautiful sight. Audrey and Mabel seem to agree and enjoyed free-ranging over the assortment of timber, without worrying about the perils of logs flying over their sweet pom-pom heads. So we’re going to build a similar, but more stable, woody assault course in their run which they’ll be able to wander around any time.

Audrey on a woody adventure

Going the whole hog

A slight animal diversion this week – I couldn’t resist sharing these pictures of Gloucestershire Old Spot piglets which belong to James’s friend Roger. A full-time smallholder near us in Essex, he raises pigs and sheep on small parcels of land he rents around the villages Great and Little Leighs, supplying the piglets (how tempting) and lambs to other good lifers (and also sells meat for the freezer), plus has chickens and sells the eggs from his house. We’ve talked about adding to our dozen chickens with a few pigs for a little while now and I think this coming spring may be the time we take the piggy plunge. Another source of inspiration is the smallholding I’ve been visiting for a very exciting series in Country Living next year and I’m off there for a day with our photographer Cristian tomorrow to shoot and interview. As well as some magnificent Saddleback sows, a young litter of around six weeks, bees, several flocks of chickens, ducks and geese – and vegetable plots, of course – the owners have a British Toggenburg goat and her kid. We’re going to be there for the milking in the morning, which I’m really excited about (read all about it in the inspiring series in Country Living‘s April-December 2013 issues).

One of the gorgeous henhouses at the smallholding

Anyone else tempted to go the whole hog and start a fully fledged smallholding?