Mouse party

Is it that I’m acutely aware of them this year of are there more mice (and their revolting, larger counterparts) than ever before? The other day I opened up the feed store where we keep the girls’ pellets and corn to discover each of the half-dozen strong paper sacks had been nibbled by mice. Not only that but when I lifted one bag out and two of the infiltrators jumped out of one of the tiny holes and scurried into the nearest hole in the ground. Needless to say I let out an involuntary shriek despite their completely unterrifying nature. James and I still can’t work out how they’re getting into the supposedly vermin-proof plastic box. There doesn’t seem to be a hole anywhere. Baffling.

As well as being more populous, this year’s mice seem that bit bolder. This morning I lowered Audrey and Mabel’s hopper from its hook and found a mouse still on board, clinging on till it was nearer the ground so it could run away across the undercover run. Clearly, it wasn’t remotely scared of me.

Mabel (left) and Audrey feeding at their hopper, also beloved of mice
Mabel (left) and Audrey feeding at their hopper, also beloved of mice

The cheek of it! Meanwhile, we continue to do battle  with the not-remotely-endearing larger variety of vermin – the rat – by replacing the bait beneath the coop (safely out of reach from the girls, of course), on a regular basis. Judging by the quantity we’re getting through, there’s an army down there – which, of course, means we’re not supplying any of our much-in-demand eggs to friends or family just in case they’ve come into contact with the dreaded creatures. Let’s hope we crack the problem before our customers revolt!

Two little hens

The inseparable – and camera-shy – Mabel (left) and Audrey emerge from their run to range freely around the garden

Audrey and Mabel made the most of the beautifully bright and sunny day last Sunday and seemed to enjoy pottering about. It was lovely to see them out in daylight, a refreshing change to the usual Monday to Friday routine of trekking across the garden in the dark at 6am with a torch to lower their food (we keep it suspended from a hook overnight in a somewhat futile attempt to deter vermin), refresh their water, open up their pop-hole and whisper ‘Good morning’. They’re usually asleep in the two straw-lined nesting boxes (they never learned to perch – we accepted their wilful ways long ago) looking appealingly snug, with no intention of emerging for some time. Of course, they don’t leave the coop until daybreak due to the fact they, like all chickens, can’t see in the dark. How very sensible to live by the light, I can’t help thinking.

Hens need treats to help them through winter, just as we do. After a roast lunch last Sunday, I cooked potato, carrot and parsnip peelings and left-over cabbage and mixed these up with cod liver oil and oats, which helps them keep warm. We had a hard frost the next morning, so this extra boost of calories should have done the trick.

I’ve taken Monday and Tuesday next week as holiday and will be mostly at home so, among other things, I’m looking forward to hanging out with Audrey, Mabel and the hybrids. It’s great sometimes just to wander down to their runs, throw them some corn and take time to watch and appreciate them. I think I’ll also take a leaf out of their book and not get up in the dark, but wait until the sun wakes me.

Oh, rats!

There’s no avoiding the vermin topic any longer – we have a rat problem down in the hybrid run. I’m not quite sure why – we keep all sacks of layers’ pellets and corn in a sealed store by the shed, hang the hopper high off the ground on a hook and don’t leave any tempting spillages overnight. The first signs were some rat-size holes in the ground of the undercover run, which clearly had tunnels beneath. Then there were some signs of disturbance in the nesting box – instead of being flat in the centre and deeper around the sides, the straw had channels in it where the little blighters had made their way in to take the eggs. Along with the fact our flock is ageing, this may also account for a lower yield lately – the eggs could have been eaten by the time we went to make our collection in the evening. Yuck.

I couldn’t quite bear to include a picture of a real-life rat on the blog, so here’s an Ikea version, beloved of my cat Beau

So, after some deliberation, we’ve put down a bowl containing the standard rat poison deep beneath the henhouse – so none of our lovely girls can get to it – hoping for some gullible vermin to take the bait. Still, I consider myself quite fortunate that the rats are confined to the chicken run – Country Living‘s Picture Editor Jackie has this week discovered rats scurrying inbetween her living room ceiling and bedroom floor. A very no-nonsense kind of gal, she’s keeping calming and taking a similarly old-school approach to the problem. Meanwhile, James and I are planning to lay slabs in the undercover run, cementing them in between to stop any future rats becoming resident. Those extra few eggs we’ll collect as a result of de-ratting will make the task worthwhile, I’m sure.

Hoping to blog about something more pleasant next week! Until then, does anyone else want to vent on a vermin-related or similarly revolting topic?

Looking forward to egg abundance again soon – this picture (including the pale khaki and blue offerings from Mabel and Audrey respectively) was taken in the summer

Cracking advice

I miss Audrey and the gang during the week – it’s dark when we let them out in the mornings and shut them up at night

I was delighted and inspired by the helpful comments and cheery suggestions readers of this blog made last week – thank you so much. Colder weather and dark evenings led me to ask for any useful hints and tips to make henkeeping in the colder months that bit more pleasant. I must confess that I can’t help looking forward to spring, when it becomes light enough on James’s and my return  from work to see the girls before they head back to the coop. The cold snap earlier this week reminded me that the pipes and drinkers freeze in winter, although I now know not to put the containers directly on the ground but to place them on straw instead (thanks to Country Living‘s henkeeping expert Suzie Baldwin). The ideas from fellow henkeepers for making both us and our hens more comfortable include hanging an old set of Christmas lights around the pen and setting them on a timer so you can see what you’re doing in the evenings (brilliant!) and putting down a thick layer of wood shavings and chopped straw on the floor of the coop which chickens can snuggle down into (pick out any litter each day and top-up with more bedding).

However, one response in particular put our lot in perspective:

‘In the arctic North of Montana USA some folks use a red heat lamp any time it dips below freezing. The light gives our girls more “daylight” for laying, but also keeps our ladies and their eggs from freezing. Nothing worse than frozen, cracked eggs and when it can hover below freezing for weeks at a time, I rest easier knowing our chooks won’t suffer frostbitten combs.’

Frostbitten combs! Cripes. Thank goodness we live in East Anglia!

The case of the missing egg. Unfortunately, not quite enough to fill the box!

Empty nesters

That’s my new term for henkeepers in winter: eggs are decidedly slim on the ground lately. This is mainly down to shorter days – hens get up when it becomes light and head back to the coop at dusk, so they’re active for fewer hours in autumn and winter.  There are so few in the nesting boxes that Country Living‘s art editor Chris, my most regular customer hasn’t been supplied with his weekly half-dozen for a fortnight. And what I’m bringing in today is a collection of rather small offerings laid by our new pullets who are coming up with the, albeit minuscule, goods virtually every day.

The new hybrids are plugging the gap with their tiny pullet eggs

The other hybrids have seriously reduced production, while the Araucanas led the way by shutting up shop back in September. Still, I’m grateful we’ll at least have a few eggs a week from the stoical flock. A newly henkeeping neighbour whose pure-breed chickens I looked after during the summer sent me the following text message yesterday:

‘My hens aren’t laying – even the Polish now isn’t!! Very strange! I bought them some tonic, hope it helps them! Susie’

When I replied, telling her not to worry, explaining it was perfectly normal and they’re likely not to lay until around mid-February, far from being disappointed about the lack of eggs for several months, she was hugely relieved, having thought they had an illness.

Chris’s box of eggs – the pullets’ eggs are admittedly small but they’re also a lovely dark-brown colour

Another factor affecting henkeepers during shorter days is, during the working week, we open up the pop-hole in the morning and shut them up at night in total darkness, so only see the girls at the weekend. The morning and evening routines require a torch, of course, and it wasn’t until I visited the Cambridgeshire smallholders Country Living is running a series (from April 2013), that I realised the ultimate solution is one you wear on your head! Then your hands are free to collect eggs, fill up drinkers and put hoppers away. Ben, the man at the helm of this fantastic community farm, carries out all his morning and evening duties, from feeding the pigs to milking the goats, with one of these great little devices strapped to his wooly hat and I’m following suit. Simple pleasures, eh? Does anyone else have any tips for making henkeeping in the colder months that bit more comfortable?