Counting my eggs before they’ve been laid

Lovely Rhodie, one of the birds we hatched out four years ago
Lovely Rhodie, one of the birds we hatched out four years ago

I was hoping to have a dozen fertile Ixworth hen eggs incubating away in the machine on our kitchen worktop by now, but – as every farmer I’ve ever met or interviewed says – when it comes to animals, nothing is guaranteed and you have to be flexible. Unsurprisingly, the West Country holding (South Yeo Farm East in Devon) where the said clutch are being produced have had more than their fair share of wet, blustery weather over the past few weeks, which has meant their flock have been off-lay. Gillian called this week to say she plans to post a dozen fresh beauties early next week instead. The delay means James and I are even more excited about their arrival – plus we now have borrowed time to read up about raising chicks. A favourite poultry read in the office at the moment is the River Cottage Handbook: Chicken & Eggs by Mark Diacano (Bloomsbury, £14.99) – part of the highly covetable series of hardback guides to the good life  (although no edition on the subject of pigs as yet – still to come, I hope!). CL Picture Editor and fellow country commuter Jackie is an avid reader of all things henkeeping-related at the moment as she is taking delivery of a coop next weekend and visiting our plot with her boyfriend Cristian that Saturday to glean some advice. I’ve already warned her that we will spend most of the afternoon saying ‘We did this, but what you want to do is…’ when it comes to setting out the run (we should have divided ours into two so that we could rest what was once the grass on one side while the hybrids grazed the other) and what types of bird to keep. Does anyone else have a snippet of advice for a first-time henkeeper?

Looking forward to collecting some lovely blue eggs from our two Araucanas, who lay only between mid-February and September
Looking forward to collecting some lovely blue eggs from our two Araucanas, who lay only between mid-February and September

The big six

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When we reach the day when there’s half-a-dozen eggs to collect from our flock of hybrids, currently 11-strong, James and I kid ourselves that spring is on its way (despite it being a good two months before it’s officially declared!). I collected the clutch pictured above on Sunday, only to dent a speckled one (shown, bottom) – but that just meant it was a good excuse to poach it later for supper. At the weekend, those slightly later sunsets are a bit of a treat, too – the extra hour between four and five in the afternoon feels like borrowed time, giving us more light for cleaning out the hens and hanging out with the pigs.

Speaking of our porcine tenants, who were due to be dispatched this week: they have a reprieve of several weeks! The farmer who will transport them to the abattoir with us, and later butcher them, came to visit the plot recently and said we could ‘grow’ them for up to another month and a half,  with little chance of their meat tainting (a possibility for boars, due to their hormones affecting the taste). So, it’s good news for the Old Spots and it’s good news for us. Although the cost of their upkeep is seriously pulling on the smallholding purse strings – the pair chomp through about £16-worth of organic pig grower pellets a week – which means we’re half-wondering whether the size they’ll reach is worth the extra money spent on feed! On the other hand, they’re incredibly lovely to have around and we’ll miss their rootling ways when they’re gone, so best we make the most of them!

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Spring chickens

The class of 2010 in the brooder
We last hatched out chicks in 2010, including Buff Orpingtons (top left and right), Rhode Island Reds (left) and Araucanas (centre and below)

Now James’ cobb chickens have been dispatched, with two served at Christmas lunch and three stowed away in the freezer, his thoughts have turned to rearing more chickens for the table. While researching a piece for Country Living on rare breeds last spring, I became interested in the Ixworth, a utility or dual-purpose chicken (meaning that the hens make good layers and cockerels good eaters) bred by Reginald Appleyard, of Appleyard duck fame (a type favoured by the community supported agriculture scheme CL featured in the series ‘A Share of the Smallholding’ last year).

It may not be a particularly attractive chicken, being quite plain, but The Ixworth is a hardy bird that needs help as it's defined as 'vulnerable' on the RBST Watchlist
It may not be a particularly attractive chicken, being quite plain, but The Ixworth is a hardy bird that needs help as it’s defined as ‘vulnerable’ on the RBST Watchlist

An enquiry through Rare Breeds Survival Trust led me to contact Gillian Dixon at South Yeo Farm East in Devon, who offered to post us fertile eggs (packaged in polystyrene so they’re well-protected). I’ve sat on the idea until now as last year was a busy one – among other events, we got married, had a party, acquired the pigs, continued with renovating the house and there were quite a few exciting projects at Country Living, too! However, this year there’s a little more time for poultry pursuits such as the delightful business of raising chicks. So, I’ve contacted the Dixons to see if I can order a dozen to arrive in a few weeks. Time to dust off the incubator! Anyone else hatching similar plans?

PS More information on the Ixworth:
A recent search online for information about the breed shows that we’re not the only ones interested in the native East Anglian – see this article from The Guardian

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I’ve been enjoying watching the Old Spots dash around their run like dogs and then suddenly freezing and staring into the distance. Fantastic entertainment value

Through the pop-hole

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Audrey, our white Araucana, elegant and dignified even in muddy conditions
Dark, short winter days and wet, cold weather mean we’re far more likely to greet our hens and pigs in the morning when we go to feed and let them out around 8am at the weekends. During the week, there’s no chance that Audrey and Mabel will even consider emerging from their warm nest of straw (why perch when you can sleep in comfort?!) to see me at 6am when I go into their run to put down their food and water and open their door. The hybrids are a little more enthusiastic, although I think they may be duped into thinking that the temporary light afforded by James’ torch belongs to the rising sun. They’re probably baffled once he’s left them to it, as hens can’t see at dusk let alone in the dark.

I love the way the pigs always come out of their ark with straw dangling from their nose, ears or tail
I love the way the pigs always come out of their ark with straw dangling from their nose, ears or tail

And, until now, our pair of Gloucestershire Old Spots have raced each other to the feeder as soon as they heard me coming, even before their pellets are poured into the feeder, but not at the moment. The other day I actually had to go round to their ark – which still smells clean and fragrant – and check they were OK. It turned out that they were just snoozing and soon stirred when they saw me peering at them from the entrance. Lately, it’s been quite a challenge to walk or, rather, wade across the quagmire that is their run and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before my boots become stuck and I fall over – or get knocked over. Dainty pigs’ trotters are designed for these conditions and there’s something quite alarming about the porcine pair racing towards me as I remain almost knee-high in the mud. Hopefully, the colder winter weather forecast to come our way will harden up the terrain this weekend. The time for their dispatch is just ten days or so away, however, so I’m going to be making the most if them, swamp or no swamp – our microholding will be a sadder place without these delightful characters rootling around.

Quite simply, pigs rock
Quite simply, pigs rock

Who let the pigs out?!

The hybrids
The hybrids look a tad sheepish…

Today, I’m returning to Country Living HQ after a whole fortnight’s holiday during which James and I spent lashings of time with the hens, pigs, dogs and cat – as well as friends and family, of course. The two chickens that we raised for Christmas dinner went down very well indeed with our ten guests and, along with leftover potatoes, parsnips, chestnuts and sprouts, provided us with another half-dozen or so meals on which to feast after the big day. It was, quite frankly, heavenly, to slow right down to savour simple pleasures.

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New Year’s Day began in a suitably leisurely fashion. We tended to the animals then returned indoors to enjoy a coffee by the fire. James tinkered with the new shelves we had finally got round to fitting in the sitting room cupboard and I did a little light laundry. Next, there was a huge rap on the door and Darcy barked furiously at the poor person the other side. We quietened him down and opened it up to reveal a distressed-looking woman and were horrified to be asked ‘Do you own some pigs?’ to which we, of course,  replied ‘yes’. ‘They’ve escaped,’ she continued, ‘there’s one wandering down by the bridge.’ Naturally, this piece of news provoked pure panic and, after thanking the stranger profusely, we threw our boots and coats on and headed into the driving rain to find them. It was a huge relief to see that one pig was actually still in the run and the other was poking his snout through from the other side, so it seemed to be a simple case of luring him around three sides of the perimeter fence and encouraging him back in. However, he was obviously enjoying his new-found freedom and wasn’t going to relinquish it too readily. I grabbed the nearest thing we have to a traditional board (used at shows and by farmers to herd the animals about) – in reality, a heavy rectangle of wood – and tried, in vain, to move this vast animal back towards its mate, while he happily rammed into me. Seeing that this simply wasn’t working – ie, I was almost flattened by the hefty beast – I shouted at James to get some food as this seems to motivate them most of the time. Magic! A shake of the bucket and he practically galloped back to his porcine friend inside. What a relief! We then had time to work out exactly how it had all happened. And, yes, it was me who had let the pigs out! I’d like to share the responsibility with James, but it would be unethical! When we let them out to rotovate their extra piece of land, we’d switched on the electric fence but I’d forgotten to pull the corrugated-iron fence across which funnels them out into it, so there was a perfectly pig-shaped gap just waiting to be exploited.

Back where he belongs
Back where he belongs

A timely reminder that it’s probably best we don’t go far when our porcine pair are free-ranging in their extra enclosure – and to make sure we remember to secure every exit. But, of course, it wouldn’t feel right to have kept pigs and not have a story about an escape up my sleeve…

Did anyone else have some smallholding dramas amid the festivities?

Collected a nice clutch from the flock yesterday
Collected a nice clutch from the flock yesterday