Having visited the farm shop to equip ourselves with all the necessary electric fencing and wooden posts we needed last Sunday, James and I spent an hour or so marking out the run for our new charges. Battling through the wildly overgrown piece of land on which they will live, I made a rough rectangle by treading down umbellifers, tall nettles and other assorted plants, and placed stakes in the ground to which I attached garden twine. Meanwhile, James followed using a scythe to fell some of the tougher weeds that defeated the electric strimmer – a triumph for the old ways over modern means – to clear the boundary properly and make putting in the plastic electric fencing sticks that bit easier. These nifty little posts make the whole business so much easier – you can just pop them in the ground with your hand, no mallet required. According to farmer John Upson, owner of our local farm shop, you only need wooden ones at the four corners, knocked deep into the ground, against which to tauten the three lines of wire, which means the whole fencing business is considerably easier than it used to be.
We’re going to visit the piglets on Sunday to introduce ourselves – they’ll be ready for collection around the third week of September. What will Audrey, Mabel and the gang make of the porcine interlopers, I wonder.
There’s something extremely rewarding about supplying family, friends and colleagues with our own hens’ freshly laid eggs! We’re proud of our flock’s orange-yolked beauties, collected warm from the nesting box, and take pleasure in others enjoying them, too. As previously reported, it’s members of Country Living‘s art department who are the keenest purchasers here on the magazine. Senior Designer Julie Pond loves a leisurely alfresco breakfast on Sundays when, along with her home-baked bread, she serves her 18-month-old son a poached egg. She brought in the picture above to show me and it was lovely to see Dylan’s yolky smile – probably our youngest customer.
Even the basic act of selling them is somehow very fulfilling in itself. I have a dedicated purse in which to put the proceeds – £1.50 per half dozen – and empty it at the end of each week into the tin we keep in the kitchen cupboard at home. It’s huge fun counting this up once in a while and going to buy some more pellets and corn with it – the chickens easily earn their own keep. Simple pleasures!
I’m happy to report that Araucana Audrey is back to her full feathery glory this week. Her new plumage is even softer and more white than before and it’s a particular treat to stroke her as she emerges from the pop-hole each morning. I don’t know if this has anything to do with her rejuvenated appearance, but she’s also crowed once or twice, as if in celebration! Now, obviously, this isn’t normal lady chicken behaviour, though I’ve come across it before and read in one of our poultry-keeping books that it has something to do with declaring territory. But I wonder why now? Perhaps another animal (sparrowhawk? New cat in the neighbourhood?) has been in the run…? No matter what the cause, I imagine our neighbours on the henhouse side of the garden are hoping it’s just a passing phase. Does anyone else have crowing hens and are there other theories about why they do this?!
The hens are laying prolifically at the moment – we’re collecting a good nine or ten eggs every day from our 13-strong flock of hybrids, plus one from Araucanas Audrey and Mabel, so there’s an extra box to sell in the CountryLiving office today. Friday seems to be the best time to take them – there are some avid bakers in the team who bring out their mixing bowls at the weekend and, of course, lazy Sunday breakfasts beg for super-fresh eggs. James has heard from his pig-breeding friend, too, and one of his Gloucestershire Old Spot sows has had her litter of piglets, two of which we will be collecting once back from holiday in mid-September and bringing back to The Smallholdings. Of course, what we have to remember – hence the title of this blog post – is that they are not going to be pets but will provide us with plenty of fantastic home-grown meat, so James can enjoy his cooked breakfasts with even greater gusto.
Having said that, we may visit them this weekend and choose our pair. Being just a few days old, they’re going to be impossibly cute, so I think we’ll have to let our guard down temporarily. We’re also looking into types of arks to buy and have read that the wooden ones with an apex like a shed are the best, as corrugated iron becomes too hot in summer and cold in winter. Does anyone out there have some tips on this or any other topic relevant to us prospective pigkeepers? If so, I’d love to hear from you.
Araucanas Audrey (above) and Mabel haven’t been looking quite themselves recently. A few weeks ago, I came home on a Saturday afternoon to discover what appeared to be hundreds of their feathers lining the porch tiles. Naturally, my first thoughts were that they’d been attacked – the slim possibility of a neighbour’s dog getting into the garden and taking a shine to the chickens is the main reason I’m often in two minds about leaving these two and the hybrids to free-range. I quickly tracked down the poultry pair who were happily wandering in the garden and was relieved to see they were in tact. Well, more or less. On closer inspection, I discovered both were clearly going through the moult and looking decidedly scrawny. It’s their time of the year, I remembered – the same thing happened at this point last summer, their plumage dropped out rapidly and I couldn’t help wondering whether it was down to the fact I’d given them both a bath, but it was just an unfortunate piece of timing (which meant that washing them had been rendered rather pointless).
Audrey definitely wins first prize for the most dramatic moult. Not only has she out-done little Mabel by a fortnight or so, but she has such beautiful plumage, comprising largely white feathers with the occasional black polka dot, that when this magnificent covering is gone, she looks quite lost and very small indeed. No pantaloons, no luxuriously layered skirts, just a tiny bird. It’s been fascinating watching the feathers come through and I’m happy to report that she’s steadily returning to her former glory. And both she and Mabel have resumed egg production to the relief of us and our small band of customers. Angela from CL’s Finance department will be delighted to find one of Mabel’s pale-green offerings, alongside the various browns and whites laid by our trusty flock of hybrids, in her half-dozen today.