The five point-of-lay hens we picked up almost a month ago have proved to be fascinating characters. It would seem they aren’t quite ready to rustle up any much-needed eggs for us and our nearest and dearest, but that’s often the way with birds you buy in at that age. And four of them roam the garden together while the fifth is a lone ranger. But it’s their lack of interest in perching that is rather more interesting at present. When we collected them, the farmer told us they were a new kind of hybrid, fresh on the farm.
We wonder if they have been specially formulated for the intensive poultry industry, ieenriched cages, which are an improvement on battery conditions, but still do not allow as much natural behaviour as free-range systems. Every evening, James would find all five of them bundled on top of each other in one nest box (they had three to choose from). This must have been mighty cosy, but it was also a little messy as chickens produce most of their droppings at night. It was as if they didn’t like the space available to them or that they simply didn’t know how to roost, so he would take them one by one to place on the perch alongside the rest of our flock, in the hope that they’d finally get the message. This week, growing tired of the nightly ritual, he struck on the perfect solution. He would finish our Henmobile, the shepherd’s hut-style coop we began constructing from a shed almost a year ago(!), which currently has no nest box for them to sleep in. The accommodation would also prove a suitable retirement home for our oldest brown bird, who has been bullied by the rest of the flock – she was chased into the nettles by some of the youngsters just last week (a reminder of how unpleasant these generally adorable creatures can be). She’s already taken to her new des-res, keeping James company while he gives the place the finishing touches (pictured below).
Little ladder made, perches installed and automatic pop-hole wired up, we introduced the livestock and crossed our fingers. Hurrah – the young hens are perching a treat, and the veteran is showing them the ropes and thoroughly enjoying her retirement. There’s just the nest box to make (by which time, we hope the girls have got the general idea: that it is for laying eggs in), and we need to create a lean-to shelter where the flock can keep out of the worst of winter weather. But the Henmobile is finally up and running. James has so enjoyed tinkering with it and practising his carpentry skills that I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s inspired a whole new enterprise. An old adage about not counting chickens until they’ve hatched springs to mind, however. Happy henkeeping all.
In a bid to up the Smallholdings’ egg yield, James and I decided to buy in some standard brown hens last week. These no-nonsense birds should ensure that we can soon give away and sell the odd box – the lack of such a service over the past few months has proved rather a disappointment to our various egg enthusiast relatives and friends. And we’ve even found ourselves having to buy them, which really goes against the grain. Still, there’s nothing like a lack of freshly laid beauties and the watery whites and small, pale yolks of shop-bought imitations to highlight just how worthwhile it is to keep hens. Most of our girls are now either pure breeds (and therefore not laying until mid-February time) or past production age and enjoying a well-earned retirement. We’d intended to wind-down our flock until the girls and Jeffrey were installed in the Henmobile (a shepherd’s hut-style house on wheels that James began making out of a shed a while back), but that mini project has, naturally, taken a back seat while we focus on finishing our own house before our four-month-old baby Charlie becomes a toddler and discovers a variety of all-too-rustic bits of unfinished plaster and wooden surfaces around the place. So, we couldn’t wait any longer for some new layers – and nor could our recently-deprived band of customers.
An old boy we know who keeps just under 50 on his garden and allotment, supplying his entire neighbourhood with their offerings, recommended a farm in Pleshley, near Chelmsford, that sells reliable hens very cheaply. Intrigued by the bargains prices, we headed out to select our new recruits. The place was scrupulously clean and our five ladies were swiftly scooped into a large cardboard box and into the boot of our car – a very efficient business. After a night-time introduction, as is the ritual (to avoid the stress of meeting our established posse head-on in broad daylight), they’ve spent much of the week coyly tip-toeing around the older girls and keeping themselves very much to themselves. In fact, they barely venture out of the undercover run or the dustbath, which sits under a corrugated roof lean-to affair. It’s as if they fear the great outdoors. Perhaps this hybrid chicken has been bred to prefer indoor conditions…
Anyway, to our delight, three of the new layers laid an egg each yesterday – our first for what feels like weeks and weeks – so James and I celebrated last night with an all-day breakfast in which they were the centrepiece. A trio of beautifully poached numbers to delight the eye and the palate starred in the quite delicious teatime treat. What more could one want? Happy henkeeping all.