Had a lovely few days on holiday at home this week to look after our three dogs who usually go to work with James, while he took his parents to see relatives up in Lincolnshire. It was also, of course, a chance to spend some proper time mingling with our newly acquainted chickens. The three glamorous black Araucanas, who I can’t help comparing to a group of Sicilian beauties in black lace dresses and high-maintenance, back-combed coiffures (along the lines of a Dolce & Gabbana shoot), still do everything as a trio but are part of the main flock and subject to fewer instances of bullying from their fellow hens. The one we fitted with a pink leg ring (because she could have white chicks if we put her with the lavender cockerel) is especially friendly and loves a stroke whenever we pass.
Audrey’s new mate Margot has also come into her own, ranging very freely around the garden and even venturing out and about by herself.
Meanwhile, the Ixworth cockerels have been flying up onto the roof of their coop, surveying the garden and peering into our next door neighbour’s place. To put an end to their peeping Tom antics and stop any escapades too far afield, James and I clipped their flight feathers when he returned home. Verging on the wild side is the theme of the week as the dogs and I became a little feral ourselves! The highlight of our days spent on the Smallholdings was messing about in the river that runs past the willow land at the bottom of our land – them swimming and cashing after the sticks I threw, me just about keeping dry feet in wellies.
It was great to live the simple life for a while: reading, gardening, walking, wading and cooking (pulled pork with our own Gloucestershire Old Spot meat, and hazelnut ice cream from a Sarah Raven recipe). Of course, I couldn’t also help plotting more smallholding activities and, in particular, pigkeeping. We’ve missed having porcine characters about the place and so have reserved two Oxford Sandy and Black gilts from a farm in nearby Wethersfield. They’ll be ready to pick up at the beginning of August and we’ll be visiting them soon, but, in the meantime, here’s a picture the breeder sent me the other day. I just love their gingery coats, black splotches, excellent reputation for bacon and very fitting nickname: the plum pudding pig.
The fact that James and I ended up on a veritable poultry shopping spree the other day – and ended up acquiring not one but five Araucanas to add to our growing flock – has almost overshadowed the nature of our original mission: to find a new mate (above) for our beloved hen Audrey (below).
Chicken introductions are always a little risky and at the weekends we questioned whether a companion was necessary – Audrey seemed perfectly happy hanging out with our three dogs and cat in the side garden where they all lounged in the sunshine and drank from the same water bowl. But then during the week, she was a lone ranger, having always resided in the coop by our house, away from the more serious layers down the end of the plot. So, there was nothing for it but to seek out a friend and, mission accomplished (see The great Araucana acquisition), we slipped the 15-month-old cuckoo lavender Araucana into Audrey’s henhouse at night and hoped for the best. Due to her tallness, our love of the BBC’s The Good Life series’ character played by the marvellous Penelope Keith, and the need to call chickens old-school-WI-appropriate names, we named the new girl Margot. I woke early the next morning, anxious that there’d be a ruckus as Audrey emerged to find an invader in her midst. Instead, our two mature ladies were having a dustbath together in the undercover run (below) as if they were old friends catching up on news in a spa.
It was love at first light! Now they scratch around together, eat together and even lay together, it seems. Similarly harmonious is the bromance between James and the little lavender lad continues – he was even brought into the kitchen for a cuddle the other day (below). If James disappears for any length of time, I know where he’ll be: in the coop bonding with the little guy sat on his lap!
Elsewhere, our four handsome Ixworth cockerels are getting on nicely, though once the hormones kick in there might be some interesting power struggles going on in that pen. The layers and the five incomers (our two Ixworths pullets and three new black Araucanas) are finally beginning to be accepted by the hybrids. Our new girls have already started laying beautiful pale-green- and blue-shelled beauties, which is a real treat – and means they’ll have paid for themselves in eggs soon. So all’s good on the poultry front this week!
Mission accomplished. We’ve now found a fellow lady Araucana to keep Audrey company, with the help of blog follower Karen, who recently kindly introduced me to the breeder via Preloved (thank you, Karen!), and a browse on the British Araucana Club. Both websites pointed me in the direction of an enthusiast based on the edge of a Suffolk village near Newmarket. So off James and I drove (via one of our favourite market towns, improbably pretty and thriving Clare) with a cardboard box to collect the pure-breed beauty. We arrived at Wendy and Alan’s delightful smallholding to see an impressive collection of fancy fowl divided into a variety of pens and runs.
There were Malaysian Serama bantams and pretty Marans running about the place as well as dozens of lavender, black and white Araucanas at different ages. Wendy showed us to our lavender cuckoo girl, who has a pretty stripe through her plumage, like her namesake, and we were smitten. Naturally, we took up Wendy’s offer of showing us around the other pens (we love to learn about fellow henkeepers’ set-ups) and were next introduced to the black Araucanas with their iridescent feathers and elaborate headgear, as is true to type. Five minutes later and we’d chosen three young point-of-lay ladies. Moments later and we’d fallen head-over-heels with a sweet seven-week old cockerel, who – being surplus to requirements – was thrown in for free. Those Araucanas are so moreish! We stopped at a total of five (having intended only to buy one chicken!) – and needed to borrow Wendy and Alan’s proper plastic poultry crate in order to transport them.
Once we reached home, we placed them all in the dog kennel and run until we could clip their flight feathers and settle them into their respective new residences under the cover of darkness. Not only are they most docile and therefore easy to handle at night, but if the incomers are already settled into the coop when the others wake up in the morning they are generally thought to be more readily accepted. Unfortunately, any chicken introduction generally results in the youngsters getting a bit of a hammering – and squawking and mounting – as the pecking order re-establishes itself. And this one was no different: on Sunday it was all kicking off.
We decided to keep the tiny young cockerel in a separate coop to give him a chance to get a little bigger before he faces the rest of the flock.
With him and our own homegrown Ixworth boys we like to think we’ve laid the foundations of a future breeding programme, which may even see us attempt to mix East Anglia (where the latter originates) with South America (homeland of Audrey and our five newbies). An Ixworth x Araucana anyone?
I’m still on a lonely hearts-style quest to find Audrey a fellow lady companion. It’s highlighted that a) there’s definitely a gap in the market for Araucana breeders in East Anglia, and b) To my horror, I’m a bit of a poultry fancier, ie quite fussy about the look of our new recruit. When it comes to hens I thought I was pretty laid back. But this week I’ve surprised myself by reeling off a list of must-have criteria that I would usually guffaw at. It reads…
– Barely visible pea comb
– Fully crested head
– Plenty of muffling around the face
– Upright tail
I made this alarming self-discovery last weekend when I was fully prepared to drive beyond Ipswich, around an hour from the Smallholdings, to collect a ‘Red Splash’ (ginger and white) pullet that I’d tracked down on the internet until her picture came through on an email from the breeder. The said bird had none of the features that I now realise I adore in Audrey – crucially, it was missing the pom-pom or top-knot.
I’m sure I would have come to love her once she settled in, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to drive all that way for a chicken that I wasn’t smitten with. I sheepishly replied to the owner and continued my search. I’m now crossing my fingers that I’ll be able to collect a lavender number located in Newmarket – which ticks all the boxes – this weekend, but the breeders haven’t yet committed to selling her. If the purchase falls through, I’m tempted to hold out until James and I visit Chagford in Devon at the end of the month when we could make a trip to see Gillian Dixon at South Yeo Farm East near Okehampton, the origin of our young Ixworth flock, as she also breeds Araucanas. Are there any other henkeepers out there on similar chicken crusades?