Chicken five-a-side

Whoever said chickens are feather-brained? Watching our flock of hybrids amuse themselves with these toys makes me wonder what they’re really capable of. The White Star hybrids seem particularly smart and took to their new activity with alacrity. The plastic balls consist of two halves each with a hole in their base and are kept together with elastic – we simply prise the cups apart and fill with corn putting them back together, place them on the floor of the run and sit back to watch the fun unfold. There’s the odd scuffle and blow as the game of soccer plays out. I reckon the Pied Suffolk, our biggest and most formidable bird, would have committed a few fowls (sorry, couldn’t resist!) by now if this was in fact the real deal.

White Stars surround the Pied Suffolk who’s in possession of the ball

The yellow toys are part of James’s and my efforts to improve our chicken’s lifestyles, which will also include mini climbing frames and placing apples on canes. Country Living‘s expert Suzie Baldwin, has some great ideas for hen entertainment, including swinging perches and placing mirrors around the coop and run. For other ideas, don’t miss the February 2013 issue (on sale 10 January) and glean her advice on in the December issue (on sale 8 November). In the meantime, happy henkeeping.

Slightly off-topic but – along with chicken football – the most exciting event at The Smallholdings this week was the return of our German Shepherd Darcy after three months away being trained. He’s come back super-obedient and with the same lovely nature he had before, so we’re delighted to have him home again, as are the Labradors and Beau the Bengal

Box-fresh hens

It was when James returned from the chicken coop last Friday night with just two eggs in the basket that we knew we needed more hens, or rather some young ones. Yields have been fairly low over the past few months, but just a pair took the biscuit – we’ve got customers to supply! The flock is a respectable size of ten but the majority are lovely old ladies enjoying their retirement scratching about, devouring their afternoon treat of corn and not producing much in the nesting box. So on Sunday morning, we headed down to Upson’s farm shop in the nearby village of Hatfield Peverel to recruit three new members of the team. It was tempting to choose more, but we resisted as then they’d all grow old and cease laying at the same time, which is precisely what we want to avoid.

James lifts out and admires our Rhode Rock

John Upson clearly loves his chickens. The farm shop which, as well as selling fresh produce, staple household supplies and poultry, stocks a large range of agricultural-themed toys, is very busy and I suspect that the opportunity to go and see his hens in the roomy coops and large fields outside is a welcome one. He ushered James and I into the light and airy shed where there were all different kinds of hybrid pullets (young female chickens which have not yet laid). We picked a Rhode Rock, Blue Rhode and a Redco, based largely on good laying abilities and the appearance of health – bright eyes, shiny feathers, upright tail – and John had the task of catching them as they attempted to run circuits around the coop floor. All three are Rhode Island Red crosses – this a popular breed to hybridise, being a utility bird (good for both eggs and meat) with a pleasant temperament and a fairly hardy constitution.

Our trio of new hybrid pullets, (from left) Rhode Rock, Blue Rhode and Redco exploring the pigsty-cum-kennel

We kept the new birds in the pigsty-cum-kennel (not currently in use!), with some food and water, until dark when we placed them on the perches alongside the others. The theory is that they’re then more readily accepted as all the chickens wake up together. And it seems to have worked a treat – we shined our torch through the henhouse window last night and saw the new girls huddled up with the old guard on the perches. Now they just need to start laying and address the egg deficit.

An apple a day…

James and I had fun making this snacking station at the weekend. We have decided life should be more interesting for our flock, with different foodie treats, toys and climbing frames made of branches and twigs. As a result, we too are enjoying a little respite from the significantly bigger DIY projects on our home.

With some slightly whizzened apples we’d neglected in the fruit basket and a cut-a down garden cane and corks, we’d whipped up the edible entertainment in minutes.

James drilled a hole through a cork which we threaded down the cane to keep the apple in place – and we drilled a hole half way through another cork to top the cane
It was easy inserting the cane through the slightly soft apple’s core

They gave so much pleasure to our lovely girls – and us in return as we sat watching them over a cup of tea by the coop. If anyone has some similarly speedy poultry projects to share, please let me know – we’d love to try them.