Hens and holidays

Now is the time to plan holidays and long weekends away and it can take some extra organisation when you have animals. We’ve found a wonderful woman who takes the two Labs and German Shepherd into her own home and (extremely well-fenced) garden and looks after them beautifully. The Bengal and the hens aren’t as portable, however. We’ve never attempted to take Beau to a cattery – he’d become super-stressed and scream the place down the minute he was shut inside on of those pods (and he has one hell of a voice) – you can’t even lock the cat-flap in the evening to keep him in without ear-piercing protests throughout the night. So James’s sister has come recently to look after our very own wildcat and the hens, though last time Beau attacked her mid-stroke with no warning so she won’t be cuddling up with him on the sofa during future stays, unfortunately. To ease her routine, we’ve bought a treadle feeder which James introduced the hens to at the weekend.

It operates as the name suggests: the hens tread on the lower part and that dispenses a small number of pellets at a time from the filled container. The beauty of this is that you don’t have food hanging around attracting vermin and rats and mice aren’t heavy enough to operate it, so the feeder can be left in place 24 hours a day, while our usual hopper needs putting on a hook out of reach. We’ve invested in a solar-powered pop-hole arrangement, which means in the middle of summer, when it’s light in the early morning (looking forward to that!) she needn’t be up at the crack of dawn because the hens will automatically be let out at whatever hour we’ve set the timer to. It can also be set to close after dark, once the flock has retired for the night. So now the animals are geared up for the holidays – we just need to sort ourselves out.

Rhodie is an intelligent hen who likes being the first to try new toys and equipment
Rhodie is an intelligent hen who likes being the first to try new toys and equipment

Tuber fever

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A slight digression from henkeeping this week as the growing season is officially underway after a rite of passage last weekend. It started for my friend Lucy and me on Saturday morning in a barn near Stowmarket in Suffolk: East Anglia Potato Day. As Editor of a gardening magazine, Lucy is not only extremely knowledgeable about all things fruit and veg related but has a passion which verges on obsession when it comes to tubers, so there was no holding back at this spud spectacular. Not having been to a potato day before, I was expecting a fairly low-key event with few trays of varieties and some sage gardeners dispensing the odd tuber-growing tip. So when I entered the barn I was surprised to find a veritable scrum of enthusiasts desperate to seize the particular potato species they desired from the staggering 102 kinds for sale.

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A rectangular arrangement of trestle tables displays the boxes containing spuds from ‘Arran Pilot’ to ‘Yukon Gold’ (there wasn’t a potato beginning with Z!) and we began methodically working around them in alphabetical order.

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Banter with other keen growers added to the fun, including a particularly colourful Belgian TV programme-maker and his crew who were at the potato day as part of a tour of Britain’s grow-your-own highlights, which also included visits to the Milennium Seed Bank at Kew Gardens and the rhubarb-forcing sheds around Wakefield.

Lucy and Wim, the Belgian TV chap
Lucy and Wim, the Belgian TV chap

I followed  Lucy’s advice as she’d been honing and highlighting her selection from a list downloaded from the EAPD website and picked up her spud-selection tips -‘pick the ones the size of a bantam’s egg’. The variation in shapes and sizes was remarkable. Now I was feeling the same excitement as I soaked up the atmosphere and began filling my paper bags with eight of each type including ‘Pink Fir Apple’, a beautiful purply roasted called ‘Violetta’, and the diminutive ‘Bambino’ which will be good with salad come summer. We met some wonderful characters along the way who gladly offered growing advice, such as Julian who organised the day and was clearly delighted with the turnout and Andrew of the Norfolk Organic Group (norfolkorganic.org.uk) who swears by liquid seaweed concentrate called Marinure by Glenside Fertility.

After a good couple of hours, we heaved our collection of paper bags to the Tally Table where they were counted up and then we bought them at the Tuber Pay Desk.

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Now I’ve been initiated into the world of potatoes, I’m tempted to obtain my own copy of Lucy’s beautiful book The Story of the Potato by Alan Romans (below) – fully illustrated with oil paintings (yes, oil paintings!) of myriad varieties.

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Check it out! How organised are these people?! A must-go-to event for next year’s calendar.

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A gratuitous picture of Araucana Audrey, below, to conclude with! We did a mini photo-shoot the other day.

A gratuitous picture of Audrey to conclude with! We did a mini photo-shoot the other day

Hen-like behaviour

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The girls don’t hold back when bread porridge is served. They’re easily pleased – it’s simply wholemeal bread soaked in water overnight

There are some striking similarities between flocks of chickens and groups of humans as Country Living‘s henkeeping writer Suzie Baldwin has reflected in her mini column in this month’s issue. Hierarchy is evident in their pecking orders, reflecting similar structures in human social groups and organisations. Other behaviours have amusing parallels in the workplace.

Our Bluebell hen is always the first to get stuck into apple bobbing
Our Bluebell hen is always the first to get stuck into apple bobbing

Last weekend I couldn’t help likening the way the girls seized on the treats I gave them to the excitement at CL’s HQ when there’s a delivery of cakes or biscuits or – even better – a member of the team has brought in some home baking, which is a frequent occurrence, thankfully. There’s often a flurry of excitement around the central feeding area – in our case, the top of a filing cabinet in the middle of the office. We’ve been particularly peckish this week due to the colder (but lovely and bright) weather – this has entailed popping to the newsagent and purchasing bags of sweets. And our poultry counterparts take every chance to top-up their layers’ pellets with extra snacks. Not chocolate, of course, but a pail of bread porridge goes down very well, as do apples on the canes that we stuck into the ground, corn scattered in the run and a hanging corn feeder in the undercover area (below).

Meanwhile, the Araucanas are hopefully getting to work and are preparing to lay some beautiful blue eggs for our delectation. Will keep you posted. Anyone else’s pure breeds laying yet?!

James has made the undercover run really cosy for the hybrids, using a combination of clear plastic sheeting (to allow the light in) and wooden boards
James has made the undercover run really cosy for the hybrids, using a combination of clear plastic sheeting (to allow the light in) and wooden boards

An egg-citing month

Happy 1 February! Some people find  this a dreary month, but not henkeepers. The countdown to Valentine’s Day, when pure breeds traditionally come back into lay, starts now!

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Despite the impressive egg yields from our 13-strong flock of hybrids (above) and the many subtle variations in the shape, shade and size of their eggs, it’s those stunning pale-blue offerings from the Araucanas that excite us the most. Perhaps it’s the fact they’re limited edition that makes them so desirable – Audrey and Mabel down tools in autumn and much of winter, so the production period is between mid-February and September. Around this time each year, James and I lift up the nesting box lid of their henhouse to see whether they’ve back in the swing. The inseparable girls do everything together and the first year they began laying, 2011, they did so simultaneously. We discovered two tiny pullet eggs (the diminutive early prototypes rustled up by young birds) in the straw one morning. I can remember running in to the kitchen with them in my hands, still warm. Naturally, we didn’t lose any time in poaching the beauties for breakfast.

Rhodie, who's discovered her maternal instincts
Rhodie, our Rhode Island Red hatchee

It was such a lovely experience hatching out Audrey, Mabel and Rhodie, our Rhode Island Red who lives with the hybrids, three years ago. James is thinking about buying some fertile Rhode Island Red eggs and doing the same this year. Being utility birds – good for the table and laying – they’re an obvious choice. Even if all your chicks turn our to be cockerels, at least they can be raised to eat. I’m also rather taken with the idea of keeping a few Silkies, especially after seeing the cute specimens in the feature on p104 of Country Living‘s new issue (on sale this Wednesday 6 February)! There was also the rather beautiful picture below in our December issue. Definitely my latest chicken crush.

Photograph by Cristian Barnett
Photograph by Cristian Barnett