Roosters and Rhodies

20140725-080949-29389716.jpgOur Ixworth lads have become better and better at heralding the dawn this week. Combining the power of their fully grown lungs, the four-month-olds no longer emit a tentative croaky declaration, but a full-blown crow that is muted effectively by the thick wooden walls of the coop only until 6am during the week – the latest time I can let them out before getting ready for work at CL HQ and heading off for the train. Living in a semi-detached house, with the addition of an occupied static caravan in our neighbour’s garden stationed a matter of feet away from the chicken run, James and I have been feeling rather guilty about the inevitable alarm calls of our boys. Perhaps one wouldn’t be so bad, but four is a bit much for anyone’s early-morning livestock-tolerance levels.

So last weekend we temporarily downed DIY tools in our own home and bit the bullet, gathering up enough pieces of waste wood that are scattered about The Smallholdings to build a new chicken house for the vocal quartet. Deciding to place it in the large run that belongs to the laying flock, we began to work out how to make the structure when we hit upon another idea – converting part of the hens’ existing undercover run into a coop for the boys – that way we already had a roof and we just needed to fill in the sides, make a floor, door and pen. Feeling as if we were already halfway there, we set to work with enthusiasm and although the modest design is not yet finished, we’re confident it will be this weekend.

The semi-complete new coop to be finished this weekend

In the laying flock, there’s been some pretty interesting cockerel-like behaviour occurring – and not from our dear little lavender lad Jeffrey, but from our four-year-old Rhode Island Red hen, one of our first hatchlings. We’ve caught this mature lady regularly mounting the other hens, usually the brown hybrids. I expect, as with other animals such as dogs, it’s an act of domination,  but it’s odd nonetheless. Perhaps it’s Jeffrey’s presence that’s inspired the distinctly male goings-on and maybe Rhodie’s competing with him to rule the roost. There’s not much warning before the act occurs and the victims appear rather baffled and ruffled afterwards, as you’d expect.

Rhodie is the picture of innocence here as she dustbathes in the shade of the hawthorn, but she's been bullying her fellow layers
Rhodie is the picture of innocence here as she dust-bathes in the shade of the hawthorn, but she’s been bullying her fellow layers

The Oxford Sandy & Black piglets are not yet sufficiently weaned from the sow, so we won’t be collecting them this weekend but next. I was initially disappointed, of course, but on the other hand we still need to pick up straw and prepare the ark. We can always do with some borrowed time at the Smallholdings!

PS Came across this interesting article when I was looking into cockerels’ crows…

The piglet parade

20140718-072128-26488600.jpgWe’ve embarked on our second foray into pigkeeping! This magnificent Oxford Sandy & Black sow belongs to Dave and Linda Aldous, breeders of our next pair of little porkers, which we visited last Saturday. I’ve started with the image of this impressive beast as, since becoming smitten with all animals of the porcine variety, I consider even these hefty creatures utterly beautiful but have found that others don’t often share those feelings – including even James, who looked at me with bafflement as I admired her girth and cooed over her cute lop ears and lovely big snout.

20140718-073934-27574772.jpgWhen it came to the piglets, however, beauty was no longer in the eye of the beholder. The litter of five scampered about in the pen – to a chorus of oohs and aahs – on Linda and Dave’s idyllic smallholding in Wethersfield, a village towards the Essex-Cambridgeshire border, north west of where we live. They nipped under the fence, from the run where they are gradually being weaned from their mother, to visit the boar that sired them, and even the Border Collie popped in to see them (note the piglet with the pink stripe across its shoulders – looks like there must have been some Saddleback somewhere in the line).

20140718-074951-28191333.jpgIt was a harmonious scene, with the livestock and pet dog mixing together nicely, set against a sunlit range of low lush green hills and arable land. Complete with a stunning thatched cottage, the set up did inspire pangs of envy in us both, I must confess. Linda talked about her and Dave’s three years’ experience of pig-breeding and we gleaned plenty of tips from her, watched the young animals and began the tricky business of choosing two.

20140718-082322-30202194.jpgHowever, the fact that it is boys we were after again (due the theory that it’s meant to be harder to become too attached to them!) narrowed it down, thankfully, and we followed Linda’s advice, picking the largest piglets, one with a smattering of spots (pictured above) and the other splodgier (below). In fact, the selection process, was very much along the lines of the way we plumped for our Gloucestershire Old Spots.

20140718-082448-30288046.jpgIt was a delightful way to while away an afternoon and we left the smallholding counting down the days to next weekend when we are due to pick them up. Back home at our miniature ranch, Young Jeffrey, who we keep with the dozen-strong flock down the end, is managing up keep his end up – despite our misgivings – and is even perching alongside his ladies in the coop. His fellow Araucanas, the three black ladies, continue to socialise as a elite trio and, more or less, shun the other hens’ company.

20140718-084643-31603070.jpg The Ixworth cockerels have been crowing in unison at an increasingly high volume and James and I are stealing ourselves to build them a new house and run down the end of the garden, well away from our neighbours. They also like our small veg patch a bit too much, so the relocation will do us all good, just not sure if we can quite face a whole Saturday and Sunday of poultry DIY, when there’s still so much to be done on our own house! Perhaps we’ll see what the weather holds. Happy henkeeping, whatever you do this weekend!


A smallholding spread is served

Without wanting to sound too self-satisfied – am well aware there are many foods we are yet to produce and we’re growing only a fraction of what the garden could yield – I feel as if James and I reached a microholding milestone at the weekend. A big birthday celebration on Sunday for his mother Flo meant that we spent most of Saturday cooking (and attempting to make a very unkempt house vaguely presentable, which involved furious cleaning and moving piles of papers and assorted objects from place to place). But we didn’t have to buy a single piece of meat – despite making Quiche Lorraine, baking 50 sausage rolls, roasting a chicken and slicing a large ham.

20140711-072223-26543239.jpg It was all our home-raised pork and poultry. The pig is a magical animal, as Homer Simpson says, according to CL’s Food and Drink Ed Alison! You can do so much with it. And making a feast of a lunch to serve 11 guests gave us a particularly warm glow. James learned how to use the machine he’d bought some months back to mince shoulder and belly for the sausage rolls which I then made in batches – Tweeting Alison (@CLfoodie) when I noticed a significant amount of oozing from said savouries. Next were the meringues, whisked with our own egg whites, of course – they were turned into Eton Mess when I discovered they were too crumbly to hold up as a pavlova. We finished preparations at around midnight, but our efforts were well rewarded by the appreciative comments of James’s family the next day.


After consuming a large amount of food, we all headed down to see the chickens – many of whom had contributed to the success of the spread (including our excellent layer Rhodie, below).

20140711-073645-27405626.jpgMuch to the amusement of his relatives, James had his usual cuddle with our young lavender Araucana Jeffrey, who clings onto this hands with his super-soft feet.

20140711-073904-27544070.jpg We also let the four Ixworth cockerels out to range freely around the garden. They’re a comic-looking bunch – having recently developed wonderful tufts at the back of their heads and an ungainly way of walking about.

20140711-080434-29074737.jpg They are also a ticking time bomb in terms of neighbourly relations; the nearest local residents live in a static caravan (with what I imagine are very thin walls) around only 20 foot from the cockerel coop. One of the boys has been tentatively softly crowing for around six weeks or so, but they are all beginning to join in to the rather tuneless and increasingly loud early morning  call. We might have to think about relocating the flock down the other end of the garden, if we can take the time out to build a house and run. But that won’t be happening this weekend as James is working part of Saturday and then, in the afternoon, we ‘re off to meet – and choose – our Oxford Sandy & Black piglets. Can’t wait to have little porkers running around the plot again!

My Tweets this week

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Poultry in motion

Why is watching chickens so relaxing? No matter what else is on your mind, it seems that just a few minutes spent in their company dispels any other thoughts. Their gentle movements during activities such as eating, scratching about, preening, dust-bathing and, of course, laying, somehow mesmerise us, while the range of cooing and clucking sounds are surprisingly soothing. Is it because the sheer simplicity of their behaviour and purpose contrasts so starkly with those of our modern, complicated lifestyles?

Lavender cuckoo Araucana Margot is now a firmly established character at The Smallholdings

Whatever it is about observing these charming birds, it works a treat. Perhaps time with a flock could be made available on prescription. Or as part of British Airways new in-flight entertainment initiative Slow TV, it could treat its long-haul passengers to videos of hens carrying on with their daily business. Currently, it includes a seven-hour train journey through Norway with footage of the landscape, villages and towns filmed from the side of a carriage, someone knitting and garden birds feeding. I’m pretty sure that my amateur efforts would end up on the cutting room floor, but I thought I’d share them with my fellow poultry enthusiasts here.

I still harbour ambitions to one day set up a hen-cam to record them while we’re absent – it would be fascinating to see if there’s a difference in the way they interact without humans around. We could also catch on camera whatever creature is gnawing holes in our chicken wire fences. We suspect it’s a fox wanting to feed cubs, but haven’t had this problem before due to, we think, the scent of our three dogs around the plot. Anyone else under siege at the moment?