Gorgeous, fun-loving white hen seeks fellow lady Araucana for a lifetime of companionship and free-ranging

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Following the loss of Mabel last week, Audrey’s been living alone, which is far from ideal, so I’ve begun a search for a hen of her breed with whom she can cohabit. It’s not so much that she could only be with a fellow Araucana, but that – from our limited experience – they are so docile and sweet-natured that we think one of her fellow kind is likely to be the best match. However, I’ve also heard that Silkies have gentle natures and, no doubt, other henkeepers could suggest similar types with which Audrey is likely to have a harmonious friendship (if you have any suggestions, please get in touch). So far, it seems Araucanas are few and far between in our patch. Being Essex-based, I am looking in Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire or Kent, but am beginning to think I need to widen my search. If anyone knows of an Araucana pullet or hen for sale in the area or slightly further afield, please could you let me know? Either by commenting on this blog or Tweeting @CLchick – Audrey and I will be most grateful.

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Audrey (left) and her mate Mabel, who died last week (note German Shepherd Darcy’s legs in the background)

Acquisitions are the theme of the week on the Smallholdings, as we’ve also been plotting our next porcine purchase and will again, introduce the weaners to the smallholding in late summer/autumn when we can feed them plenty of acorns and apples. We’re thinking of buying three, rather than just a pair as we did last time, and trying out two Oxford Sandy & Blacks (OSB) with one Gloucestershire Old Spot. And both happen to be classified as minority types on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust Watchlist, which is even more reason to keep them. Although we were delighted with the Old Spots and had high praise for their meat, I’m rather smitten with OSBs, affectionately called Plum Pudding pigs – and met some more fine examples at Walnuts Farm (featured in a Country Living series this year) last week – so thought this way we coud do a compare and contrast, both in terms of the animals’ temperament and their meat. I’ve since contacted a breeder nearby who confirmed this morning that he is expecting piglets any day now and invited us to visit once they’re born. Irresistible, no?

An Oxford Sandy & Black piglet
A somewhat portly Oxford Sandy & Black piglet

In memory of Mabel

We try to be quite matter of fact when we lose a chicken, which happens once in a while due to their old age, but we’ve become very attached to our pet Araucana hens – not to mention their limited-edition eggs. Mabel’s were particularly special – a pale khaki shell containing a very generously large, deep-orange yolk inside – more often than not, we chose them to star in a cooked breakfast.

What a beauty!
What a beauty!

She died rather suddenly on Wednesday. We’d noticed she had been sitting in the henhouse more frequently recently – but with her feathers all puffed up and being positioned on the pair’s clutch of eggs, she had shown all the signs of a broody hen. Lifting her up off her nest and out into the run seemed to work fine and soon she would be back to her usual noisy self, eating, drinking, and often protesting loudly at the pop-hole if we didn’t let her and Audrey – also known as the terrible twins – out to range freely around the garden or, more usually, hang out in our porch and attempt to enter the house.

Mabel (right) and her partner in crime
Mabel (right) and her partner in crime in our (not-quite-finished) porch

She was a dear little bird and James and I were particularly fond of her, as we hatched her and her sister out – along with our Rhode Island Red, who lives with the hybrids – just over four years ago.

Mabel had stunning plumage
Mabel had stunning plumage

We still don’t know what she died of – James had lifted her off her nest that morning (she had laid, albeit a smaller-than-usual egg) and placed her on the ground, but this time her tail feathers drooped. Having no visible comb, she didn’t have another way of showing that she was under the weather, I realise – perhaps we would have noticed sooner in another bird. A little while later, he returned home to find her completely lifeless.

Mabel laid to rest
Mabel laid to rest

James placed her in a cardboard box, having lined it with straw, grass, daisies, dandelions and cleavers, and showed me after he’d broken the news – which had us both in tears. But I loved her makeshift coffin – there was something quite Pre-Raphaelite about it and couldn’t help being reminded of that famous painting of Ophelia by John Everett Millais. We buried her in the box and its greenery last night. It was a lovely thing to do.

Audrey doesn’t appear to be affected by her friend’s demise. This surprised us they used to do everything together – they even laid their very first egg on the same morning in the same nest (pictured in the header of this blog). But, of course, we anthropomorphise animals all the time and they have their own ways and means. We won’t be able to keep her alone though so are considering introducing one of our teenage Ixworths at the weekend, selecting a female (if, fingers crossed, we have one), once we have identified the cockerels and pullets. I’ll be keeping a watchful eye, though, just in case she doesn’t take the young charge under her wing. We don’t want any more trauma at the Smallholdings this week.

A jollier note to end on - we're looking forward to more dog-swimming this weekend (Megan, left; Darcy, right)
A jollier note to end on – we’re looking forward to more dog-swimming this weekend (Megan, left; Darcy, right)

Poultry parenting

It’s goosegrass season again and how the hens love this sticky weed! (As do geese, presumably…?). I often pluck handfuls of the leggy plant, also known as cleavers, from the hedgerows at the end of a walk with the dogs or, during the week, as I finish jogging around the village, avoiding nettles, which always seem to grow alongside it. It’s the most popular green among the girls and I put this down to its reputation for sweetness. It must be good as they’re willing to contend with its tacky feel on their beaks. Next on their list of preferences is lettuce and last seems to be any kind of brassica.

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We’ve been spending more time with the young Ixworths this week – handling each one so we keep them tame and friendly. James even had a cuddle with what he thinks may be our only pullet (we’ll be able to tell between the males and females in another week or two). While the Araucanas (above) have beautiful feathers compared with the slightly rougher texture of the hybrids’, it’s our youngest birds who win the prize for the silkiest plumage. The fledglings are so ‘new’ and super-soft that it’s a pleasure to put them away at night, which is just as well because that is what we have to do every evening! Being home from work first, James is generally the one on bedtime duty. For some reason, the miniature flock gathers on the floor of the coop, but doesn’t quite make it to the wooden perches, which have been specially modified for the small birds. So he picks them up, one by one, and places them in their elevated positions. We had the same problem with the brood of 2010 that we hatched out and raised from chicks and can’t help wonder whether it’s down to something we’re doing wrong. If any more seasoned henkeepers out there can offer some words of wisdom on this parenting topic, I’d be much obliged…

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Poultry parenting

It’s goosegrass season again and how the hens love this sticky weed! (As do geese, presumably…?). I often pluck handfuls of the leggy plant, also known as cleavers, from the hedgerows at the end of a walk with the dogs or, during the week, as I finish jogging around the village, avoiding nettles, which always seem to grow alongside it. It’s the most popular green among the girls and I put this down to its reputation for sweetness. It must be good as they’re willing to contend with its tacky feel on their beaks. Next on their list of preferences is lettuce and last seems to be any kind of brassica.

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We’ve been spending more time with the young Ixworths this week – handling each one so we keep them tame and friendly. James even had a cuddle with what he thinks may be our only pullet (we’ll be able to tell between the males and females in another week or two). While the Araucanas (above) have beautiful feathers compared with the slightly rougher texture of the hybrids’, it’s our youngest birds who win the prize for the silkiest plumage. The fledglings are so ‘new’ and super-soft that it’s a pleasure to put them away at night, which is just as well because that is what we have to do every evening! Being home from work first, James is generally the one on bedtime duty. For some reason, the miniature flock gathers on the floor of the coop, but doesn’t quite make it to the wooden perches, which have been specially modified for the small birds. So he picks them up, one by one, and places them in their elevated positions. We had the same problem with the brood of 2010 that we hatched out and raised from chicks and can’t help wonder whether it’s down to something we’re doing wrong. If any more seasoned henkeepers out there can offer some words of wisdom on this parenting topic, I’d be much obliged…

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Fledgeling chickens and mother hens

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In just a week, what was a shy flock of miniature Ixworths, rapidly flying back into the house at the merest sight of us humans, has become an exuberant gang of six rampaging amongst the straw. The hatchlings are thriving and, at this rate, it won’t be long before they range freely around the garden. Their breeder (Gillian Dixon at South Yeo Farm East in Devon) kindly got in touch on Twitter last week to say that it’s possible to sex them when they are between ten and twelve weeks old: the feathers on the base of their tail are rounded if female and pointed if male. So just a fortnight or so until we know our cockerels from our pullets. Can hardly believe they were this small at the end of March (below).

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Elsewhere, our poultry residents are just getting on with the day-to-day business of laying eggs, as they do, but not getting as much attention as they deserve I fear, due to our being distracted by the young ones.

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Araucanas Audrey (below, left) and Mabel continue to delight us with their inseparableness and eccentric charm. Mabel’s even turned a tad broody, so we have to lift her off the clutch of eggs occasionally and encourage her to eat and drink. The dedication that would-be mother hens show is really touching. She sits there for hours on end – all puffed up plumage – and, of course, with no hope of incubating offspring due their being no cockerel. So as long as she’s happy…

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Cheep show

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The Ixworths are growing so rapidly now that we opened up the henhouse to let them into their undercover run this week. Fully cat-proof, it’s a good halfway house between being cooped up and free-ranging in the great outdoors. Possibly slightly overwhelmed by the idea of exploring their new kingdom, the six-week-olds seemed quite reluctant to venture out at first, clustering around the pop-hole as if they were daring each other to be the first to set foot in the straw-lined enclosure. Well, that’s what I thought until I put the time in and used the lean-to next to the henhouse as a hide. I stood perfectly still, was mousey quiet and just watched – sure enough, the flock soon emerged to explore.

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Continuing to observe them through the cobweb-covered chickenwire, I began to feel a little like a peeping Tom. Clearly, they’re just a little shy around us, because as soon as I moved, they scurried back up into the coop. And so each time we’ve opened up the gate to their undercover run this week, they probably heard us coming and did the same! Note to self: must spend more time handling them and getting acquainted. How many are cockerels and how many are hens remains to be seen, though the tail feather theory seems quite a good one, considering some are definitely upright and others point downwards.

Elsewhere on the Smallholdings, the hybrid flock continue to enjoy their newly extended run – ever curious, they enjoy nothing better than sticking their beak into our business while we potter about fixing the fence and gate. Those brown hens are delightful creatures!

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