The henmobile

The flock free-ranging around the garden
Some of the flock free-ranging around the garden

The plan to move our chickens onto healthier ground is progressing nicely. James and I have settled on the idea of a coop on wheels, so we can move it around the garden, which has the additional benefit of outwitting the rodents that keep plaguing us and our flock. We put chicken food away every night yet they continue to tunnel into the undercover runs. James set a hen-safe trap the other day and claimed that his quarry was the size of a small dog (although I’m taking that with a pinch of salt). So, we’re hoping that a mobile henhouse will solve a variety of problems. We loved the look of the readymade ones available but didn’t want to fork out what was looking like £1,000-plus on poultry accommodation. So, DIY is the way forward, and we have ordered a 5′ x 7′ shed. This weekend we’ll be selecting wheels and tyres and James will be seeking out a suitable axle to fit them. It’ll come to around half the cost of buying one off the peg.

Audrey and Margot are thick as thieves, so will they mix?
Audrey and Margot are thick as thieves, so will they mix?

We’re even considering consolidating our flocks – it seems like madness that we’ve Margot and Audrey in a coop and run by themselves. They’d be on healthier ground free of rodents if we invited them to join the others, though I’m slightly concerned they could feel stressed in a big group. Audrey’s only ever had one friend to live with – Margot now and Mabel before her. Something to mull over, anyway. We also plan to have fewer hens overall. As our older girls pass on, we’ve decided not to replace every one as a smaller flock will mean it’s easier to keep an eye on each chicken’s health and treat them for worms and parasites.
Over in the porcine world, our attempts to prevent the trio of Oxford Sandy & Blacks destroying the elder tree in their run have failed. They scoffed at the barbed wire barricade, which we considered to be very off-putting, and – naturally – it was naughty pig that I spotted stepping through the gap between the strands to carry on digging and chewing through the roots. So, sadly, electric fencing is the next option and James is setting that up today. The elder is not only precious for its flowers and fruits, but also for the shelter it affords the pigs. The ground under its branches is often the driest spot for sprinkling their feed or apples. Silly things. My sister pointed out very wisely that they may be nibbling at the bark for good reason – perhaps it has a health benefit. I’d be really interested to hear if anyone knows if this is the case…? In the meantime, happy smallholding all.

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Naughty Pig looked rather pleased with himself

 

All change

Ever the gentleman, Jeffrey steps back from the corn, even though he loves being fed from the scoop itself. Such a star.
Ever the gentleman, Jeffrey steps back from the corn, even though he loves being fed from the scoop itself. Such a star. Note our chocolate Labrador Megan sniffing around for eggs in the background

It’s time for an overhaul at the Smallholdings. We’ve been keeping our main flock in the same, albeit large, run for what we realise is seven years. A combination of all the rain we’ve been having and the mild weather this autumn means it must have become the perfect breeding ground for all kinds of ailments and pests. We’re also battling very persistent rats. When we first installed the coop and fenced the area, it seemed more than large enough for our layers, but we were soon proved wrong when the grass was scratched and pecked away and the pen became pure mud. And, of course, our flock grew as demand for eggs increased among friends, family and colleagues, adding to the wear and tear.

The catalyst for making changes now is that it turns out that our black Araucana had Marek’s disease – and we now realise that Rhodie, who James had to dispatch a fortnight ago, had the same complaint. We’d misdiagnosed water on the brain, but her symptoms – which included disorientation, weak legs that eventually gave way and a dropped wing – all point to the same illness. Unfortunately, there is no cure, so we decided the kindest thing to do was put our young black Araucana out of her misery last weekend, too. So Sunday evening was rather gloomy for both James and I – we loved that friendly little hen. Still, the silver lining was that we had discovered a very helpful forum through which we found out what the complaint was. Despite my misgivings about the helpfulness of such online groups, we joined Backyard Chickens and posted our question. Just a couple of hours later, we received a reply from two knowledgeable users. This will prove very handy in the future, too.

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As far as the Smallholdings’ makeover is concerned, we’re considering a range of options, from moving the flock up to our spare henhouse and just letting them free-range around the garden every day to buying a shed and putting it on wheels to move it around our plot (helpfully, James runs a garage so has access to the right tools for dealing with axels and such). Of course, both ideas have the disadvantage of not having a secure fencing-dug-under run, but with that you can also end up in the mess in which we find ourselves now. I know there are ways to get round this problem, such as digging over the soil with a disinfectant but, realistically, I can see that job remaining regularly undone on the weekend list of chores. We like to think that – while touching all things wooden, of course – the scent of our three dogs and the secure fencing around our perimeter will mean foxes and other predators aren’t a problem. If anyone has some views about this, I’d love to hear them.

On the bright side of things, Jeffrey continues to crow beautifully but remains friendly and fond of a stroke or two. His porcine neighbours seem to be evening up a bit weight-wise, too. Bully pig is looking almost as large as Porky pig, while Naughty pig still has a little way to go (held back by his brief illness, no doubt). So, no need to isolate Porky in a kind of health farm setup after all. We managed to fence in the elder tree they were uprooting last weekend. It wasn’t the most pleasant job in the rain but was a fairly simple case of driving four fence posts in the ground and tacking three strands of barbed wire to them. It seems to have done the trick and hopefully saved the tree.

IMG_20141120_145826A couple of dry days have improved life on the Smallholdings no end – not so much slipping around in the boggy ground for the porkers, chickens or us – and tomorrow James and I will be hatching plans for moving the hens. Onwards and upwards, as they say. Happy weekends all.

Off their perches

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These grubby little urchins are our formerly immaculately pure-white Ixworth pullets. The brown patches on their plumage are partly down to what seems to be endless muddy conditions in their run, but also the droppings from their fellow hens as the pair have, oddly, taken to sitting on the floor of the henhouse. So, for some reason they seem to be off their perches. James and I have been scratching our heads over this one as, until now, they’ve been perfectly happy to do the honours each evening. If it were summer, we might assume that they were trying to get away from red mite (which we keep on top of with Diatom powder anyway), but there’s no sign of these nasty little parasites. And the chickens are behaving perfectly normally in every other way. Curiouser and curiouser.

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What’s particularly odd is that it comes at a time when one of our black Araucanas has, unfortunately and suddenly, acquired a bad limp. We’ve moved her and her

two glamorous friends into a run and coop with a straw-strewn floor so she can rest herself and is near our house so we’re able to keep an eye on her. I can’t help feeling that these two developments must be related, as we haven’t had either complaint before and it seems like too much of a coincidence for the leg-related ailments not to be linked. None of our books help on the matter – can anyone offer any wisdom on the subject, please?
In other news, the Oxford Sandy & Blacks have done even more damage to the elder tree in their pen, digging deeper and deeper into the ground to perform a full excavation of the roots. James and I will be making a structure to protect the increasingly vulnerable arboreal specimen. So, all in all, a few niggling smallholding issues to deal with tomorrow, but I’m sure a little thought – and, in the case of our pigs, fencing – will solve the various problems.

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We’ll also be ordering more fertile eggs to hatch out from South Yeo Farm East in Devon. As well as more Ixworths, we’re keen on raising some Welsummers, too. Nothing like a few chicks to cheer up a winter’s day!

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The adorable clutch of Ixworths at just a day or two old

Simple porcine pleasures

Rootling around, munching on apples and snoozing in the afternoon: just a few of our herd’s favourite pastimes. Watching them doing these activities is inexplicably relaxing – it’s a great way to slow down and tune into the weekend, as is watching the hens peck and scratch about. Is it the animals’ concentration on the uncomplicated task in hand that’s absorbing in turn? Whatever the reason is, time watching farmyard creatures should be available on prescription.

Just a little light digging
Just a little light excavation

However, the porcine trio’s latest hobby has given us cause for alarm – what began as a crater around the elder tree in their enclosure, has turned into a full-scale archaeological-style excavation and it would appear that they intend to undermine its roots! I think they’re taking their rotovating duties a little far. They haven’t even finished clearing the land of nettles yet and seem to be going for maximum impact instead! Has anyone else had this problem? We’re thinking of putting in some stock fencing around the poor specimen to prevent root damage (not to mention the potential threat of frosts pending). Any advice for handling this blatant vandalism would be most welcome!

The pigs progressed from digging a crater in front of the tree on Friday to mining the ground all around it yesterday
The pigs progressed from digging a crater in front of the tree on Friday to mining the ground all around it yesterday