Bare bottoms and ruffled feathers

It is, as Winnie the Pooh would say, a very blustery day. In years gone by, this would not have been too much of an issue for me – I would have settled down with my editing, putting not so much as my nose out of the door. But not so now – keeping livestock means that you have to consider their needs before your own and you must venture outdoors whatever the weather. In my case, it’s only ensuring the welfare of four chickens, which doesn’t take long, but it does make me appreciate the dedication of all those farmers who care for their animals in all conditions 365 days of the year.

So, out I went in my pjs, wellies and raincoat first thing this morning to let the hens out, check their water and feed and give them a handful or two of corn. Out they pop, whatever the weather, and start to scratch around. They seem to prefer to drink from a puddle rather than their water bowl when it’s wet – I guess the mud gives it flavour!

The wind ruffles their feathers and they get soggy in the rain, but most chickens are waterproof and well-insulated and they have a dry house with perches and nest boxes, so they don’t have to be exposed to the elements. Unfortunately, however, naked chickens are not so protected from the elements and so we need to keep an eye on poor Tiffany.

A week ago she looked like this:

Bye-bye feathers

Bye-bye feathers

Just a couple of days ago, she looked like this:

A bad-hair day, chicken-style

A bad-hair day, chicken-style

And now, she’s getting lots of feathers on her back, but her rear-end is rather exposed:

I think she might need some big pants if those feathers don't grown back soon

I think she might need some big pants if those feathers don’t grown back soon

Hopefully, it won’t be too long before she returns to her warm and feathery glory like Anna in the background here:

Back: Anna, post-moult; Front: a very tatty Tiffanny

Back: Anna, post-moult; Front: a very tatty Tiffany

Chickens with full plumage, like Esme below, may get ruffled, but are simply not bothered by a day like today:

A fully-feathered bottom weathering a very blustery day

A fully-feathered bottom weathering a very blustery day

So, here’s to all those dedicated people who are out in the fields and on the hills caring for their cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry whatever the weather.

A feathered nest (box)

It’s that time of year when hens are transformed from from feathery egg-producing bundles to walking oven-ready chickens… or at least it is for Tiffany. Lorna, Anna and Esme moulted last month, but this month it is the turn of our best egg-layer… which means that cakes are currently off the menu.

It's hard to believe there are any left on the hen!

It’s hard to believe there are any feathers left on the hen!

Moults can vary in their extent, with some hens losing a few feathers and some going all-out to replace the lot. The latter is what Tiffany is doing at the moment – the garden looks like it has been the site of an almighty pillow-fight and the hen house looks like a fox has been in there. In fact it’s all because of a single moulting hen. The feathers fall out because new ones are growing underneath – a bit like when baby teeth are replaced by adult ones. But all this new feather growth requires lots of energy and protein. So resources are diverted from egg-production to feather-production… leaving hungry humans!

Bare-back chicken

Bare-back chicken

Hens can get quite under the weather during a moult, so it’s important that they get plenty of good food. Ours are currently enjoying rummaging about in the fruit cage (from which they are banned during the summer), eating any leftover berries and scrumming slugs and the like. In addition, they get the usual layers’ mash, organic corn and a generous serving of apple cores on a regular basis (yes, I’m still processing apples). I always worry that they will get cold during a moult, but they snuggle together at night and their house is dry, and they seem to cope ok,

Although we miss the eggs during a moult, we do benefit from all those feathers, which go into the compost and break down over a long time, thus acting as a slow-release fertilizer. I like this sort of connection to the seasons and natural cycles… something we miss out on if we don’t produce any of our own food.

Spreading feathers all around the garden

Spreading feathers all around the garden

Whatever happened to the mealworms?

Adult and juvenile

Adult and juvenile Tenebrio molitor… and a cauliflower stalk

Well, that was a question that I had been asking myself too. You may remember that I was having a go at raising mealworms as a source of protein-rich food for my hens (details here). I’ve been very quiet on the subject recently because I thought that it hadn’t been successful and I was looking at other options, However, I am pleased to report that the lack of success was only because I hadn’t been patient enough. I decided to tip the contents of my three mealworm tubs into a bucket last week with a view to feeding the contents to the chickens and giving up. However, disturbing them like this revealed much more life than I had thought remained.

Never having had a go at this sort of thing before, I knew little about the ecology of Tenebrio molitor, the species in question, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I think I may have been wildly optimistic about the speed of the lifecycle… a salutary point about doing your research first! I’ve now done more reading:

The life cycle of Tenebrio molitor is of variable length, from 280 to 630 days. Larvae hatch after 10-12 days (at 18-20°C) and become mature after a variable number of stages (8 to 20), typically after 3-4 months (at ambient temperature) but the larva stage can last up to 18 months (Feedipedia)

All the life stages seem to be present now

All the life stages seem to be present now

So, the fact that I was not seeing large larvae as soon as I expected after raising the adults was certainly because it was too soon. My newly disturbed bucket, in fact, contains lots of mealwormlings, as well as live and dead adults, large larvae and a few pupae. They are currently feeding on rolled oats and gaining moisture from pieces of potato and cauliflower.

In addition, I discover that

Commercial mealworm producers sometimes include a juvenile hormone into the feed to prevent the larvae from molting into adults, resulting in “giant” mealworms that can achieve a length of 2 cm or greater and weigh more than 300 mg (Feedipedia)

A range of sizes of larvae

A range of sizes of larvae

Meaning that I may not be able to produce the big chunky mealworms that are available to buy from pet stores.  I don’t really mind this, because the hens are not fussy about the size of their food! And I suspect that the size issue is important for producers of dried mealworms, because they are bound to shrink with the loss of water as they are dehydrated.

During my recent research I discovered that the species is also known as ‘Darkling Beetles’, which sounds rather romantic to me. Plus, I was amused to read on one site:

Tenebrio molitor larvae are easy to culture (they are often raised on oats, and females lay up to 500 eggs), high in protein, and readily available commercially, so are a good food source for pet owners

But personally, I don’t fancy snacking on them myself!

Anyway, I will continue to care for my colony and see if I can viably produce enough to replace some of the chickens’ feed.

Eggs and citrus

Frosty mornings

Frosty mornings

Despite the cold nights and frosty mornings, all four of the hens have decided that they are going to lay (Lorna had a year off – June 2013 to June 2014 – but is fully back in the swing of things now despite being about five years old). This means that we have eggs. Lots of eggs. The newbies are laying pretty much every day and the other two every few days, so that’s about 20 eggs per week. We are genuinely delighted that they are all doing so well, having lost two of our flock late last summer, it’s good to know that the remaining oldies and the new girls are happy and healthy.

Happy hens this morning

Happy hens this morning

Having had a bit of an egg famine in recent months, I had got out of the habit of using them, but I’m remembering what to do with them now and trying out some new recipes. You can always find homes for eggs, but it really is good to be able to make use of them at home; and with so many available this does require some creative thinking. This is where reading other people’s blog posts can be particularly helpful. For example, I was delighted to come across Anne Wheaton’s post the other day about making Seville orange curd. I am not a fan of marmalade, but I really like citrus curds. They only store for a limited time, but Anne’s recipe is for a single small pot and uses one egg – perfect, and adaptable for other citrus fruits too. So, on Friday I made a pot, and as you can see we have already been tucking in:

I also returned to an old favourite – lemon cake with lemon icing. This recipe is from the first Hummingbird Bakery cookbook. It’s supposed to have poppy seeds in, but I don’t bother; and this time I made it with soft brown sugar because I realised once I’d started that I did not have enough caster sugar. It’s a marvellously light cake because you beat the egg whites and then fold them into the mixture right at the end just before baking. You don’t use the yolks, but I’m planning ice-cream for later in the week… a recipe that, coincidentally, requires exactly the number of yolks I have left over.

In addition, we had bacon and egg butties on Friday and waffles for breakfast this morning… even so, I think there are probably the same number of eggs on the eggskelter as when Mr Snail arrived home for the weekend. I see omelette in my future!

Lots of eggs

an eggskelter… in case you didn’t know what one is!

This is my life: cheese, squares and a tiny egg

Please note the comma between ‘cheese’ and ‘squares’ – this post is not about processed “cheese” abominations.

So, in reverse order…

Lorna and Tiffany's eggs flanking today's contribution

Lorna and Tiffany’s eggs flanking today’s contribution

This morning I embarked on the usual chores. Once it’s light enough (and sometimes well after) I pull on my Wellington boots and venture out into the mud (known as ‘our garden’ in the summer) to let the hens out. I open their pop hole and the door that lets them out of the small run, then I go into the shed to get a handful or two of corn to scatter for them as a morning treat. Whilst they are pecking around in the corn I take a scoop of layer mash from the feed bin and go and fill up their feeder in the run before returning to the shed with the scoop. It was as I was exiting the shed after putting the scoop away that I noticed what I, at first, thought was a small, slightly muddy potato where the hens were eating their corn . I closed the door and stooped down to examine the object, which turned out to be hard and warm. As far as I can think, there is only one warm ovoid object that might appear suddenly in our garden and that’s an egg… but this one was tiny. So clearly, between the corn being scattered and me finishing the feeding (a period of less than two minutes) an egg had very quietly been laid. It’s so small I’m sure the hen responsible barely noticed – she certainly did not announce its arrival. Who laid it is a mystery… such tiny eggs used to be laid by Perdy, but she is no longer with us. Since Lorna and Tiffany are currently laying normally, I think it must be a first post-moult egg from either Esme or Anna. My money is on Esme as the colour is closest to the eggs that she normally lays. For comparison, the picture shows a Lorna egg (left) and a Tiffany egg (right) with the tiny one in the centre.

Beautiful squares from Jenny at Simply Hooked

Beautiful squares from Jenny at Simply Hooked

Not having solved the mystery of the egg, I returned to the dry and got on with breakfast… homemade yoghurt, homemade granola and home-bottled apple (from apples grown by my dear friends at Highbank). I do love the feeling that I am managing to deliver such a large proportion of my diet without using commercially processed foods. I settled down to work and not long after that the doorbell rang… Henry the postman delivering a new insert for my diary, a book about cheese-making and a lovely parcel of crochet squares. Not long ago, I had an offer of some unwanted crochet squares from Jenny over at Simply Hooked. She has been having a love-hate relationship with this particular project and had decided to let it go… offering the squares to me to use for our friendship blankets that are raising funds for Denmark Farm Conservation Centre. The squares she sent are made of gorgeous, soft merino/cotton yarn… I really hope we can do them justice. If you want a chance to win the resulting blanket, or one of our other creations, I still have raffle tickets on sale and you could also win a long weekend at Denmark Farm in the lovely eco-lodge… details of the raffle here.

I must mention, at this point, that despite a lack of posts, my hands have not been idle in recent weeks. Amongst other things, I have been working on a very large granny square in my palette of blues. This is going to have its corners folded (like a traditional envelope) in to form a sofa cushion cover. It’s nearly large enough and has been a lovely relaxing project… easy on the fingers and the brain!

So, what about that cheese? Well, my first attempt at cheese-making has been a success. I was able to turn the cheese on the evening that I made it (this had to be done twice) and it could be handled easily by the next day. I salted the surface and left it to drain further on Sunday. That morning I used some of the whey (non-salted and pre-treated the night before with lactase enzyme) to make raspberry and white chocolate muffins. The young cheese is firm and crumbly, with a mild creamy flavour. Sprinkled with some freshly ground pepper yesterday and served with homemade bread, it provided me with a very acceptable lunch. In the evening, I crumbled some into baked potato scooped out of its skin, then mashed it up and added a little fried bacon. The resulting mixture was returned to the baked skins, topped with a little local cheddar and grilled for a very tasty dinner.

My friend Snufkin tells me that  she does find the unpredictability of cheese-making frustrating and that’s why I’m a little nervous of the volume of milk and time required to make hard cheese, but I shall give it a go soon. In the mean time, I will be settling down with my new book on cheese-making to drool over all the different varieties and try to work out what I might try next…

-oOo-

I’ve had a hard time writing this post today. I heard the news about the shootings in France when I was part way through and I wondered whether to continue as I was so upset. But, in solidarity with all those who write – and draw – about the world around us and continue to have the freedom to do so, I completed my post (with tears in my eyes). Let us continue to prove the the pencil truly is the most powerful weapon.

 

Rays of sunshine

This week has been very grey. Despite temperatures around 17ºC, we’ve hardly seen the sun. That combined with the hour changing and thus it being dark so early in the evenings has made me rather gloomy. It’s great, therefore, that I have such lovely friends to bring some metaphorical sunshine into my life.

Beauty from New Zealand

Beauty from New Zealand

First, I received the first contribution to the ‘lap blanket of late-comers‘. All the way from New Zealand (my most distant square ever) from Mrs P, the Contented Crafter, came this lovely square. And not just a square, but some of her beautiful cards… which I think I’m going to put in a frame… possibly with a crochet border. If you like her cards (and really my photo does not do them justice), do check out her etsy shop.

An abundance of friendship!

An abundance of friendship!

Now that was something to make me smile straight away, but on the same morning I also received a parcel of knitted squares from a dear friend in Yorkshire. These are squares that she had intended to make into a blanket for herself, but she’s got distracted by quilting and decided to contribute them to the friendship blankets that we are making to support Denmark Farm, the conservation charity I am a trustee for. I may be naughty and divert one of these squares (and perhaps one of the ones below) to my lap blanket, even though this will mean that Nia has contributed to both that and the Masterpiece.

And another lot

And another lot

But that was not the end. Yesterday I went to my regular learning guild meeting and was presented with yet more squares for the Denmark Farm friendship blankets. Again, another friend who was planning to make use of these squares for herself, but decided that she had enough projects and that we could give them a better home. In fact Ann has made the most wonderful bedspread out of squares in some of those rich colours that you can see… I must get a photograph of it sometime, I’m sure you’d be impressed. The squares were not her only gift, though. She also presented me with something for the chickens. Originally grown for popping, this colourful corn just didn’t want to cooperate, so it has been consigned to being chicken feed. I tried it out on the girls this morning and they weren’t sure whilst it was in the tin, but soon tucked in once I’d scattered some on the ground:

So, even though the sun hardly showed its face this week, there were many bright moments. Many thanks to everyone who acted as a sunbeam!

PS You may notice that Esme is looking rather the worse for wear… on Monday about half her feathers fell out, but the reason is now clear… she had a whole batch of new ones just ready to burst forth! I have never understood why chickens moult in the autumn, but this year she’s certainly not getting chilled!

A duty of care

Safe, happy hens photographed today

Safe, happy hens photographed today

It has become very popular in the UK in recent years to keep chickens. Many a back garden, like mine, contains a small flock of hens. There are all sorts of companies selling fancy hen houses, feeders and accessories. From Eglus to gypsy caravans, you can treat your backyard chickens to grand accommodation, co-ordinated with your garden design. But, before you embark on keeping chickens, there are a few things that you should consider.

First, they are not garden ornaments. This means that, unlike a statue, they do stuff. They poo, scratch, dig, eat things you don’t want them to, escape and poo. Yes, I know I mentioned pooing twice, but it’s important – you will have to clean out their housing (even if it is a gypsy caravan costing nearly £4000) and dispose of the soiled bedding; and you will get poo on your shoes, because you cannot train chickens to use a special place – hens (unlike badgers and horses) do not have latrine areas! And you can’t not clean them out – just adding extra layers of bedding works up to a point, but eventually you will need to clean the house and scrub the perches.

And so we come to parasites. If you don’t clean out their housing, you will find you get a build-up of parasites. Similarly, if you have a small enclosed area for your hens, you will get a build-up of parasites. Hens that are able to range about over a wide area will have much less chance of re-infestation with intestinal worms than those that are enclosed in a small space. In addition, enclosed hens will scratch up a small area and turn it into mud (even if you do start with grass) and then they will be deprived of the opportunity to graze. One way to get round this issue is to have a ‘chicken tractor‘: a mobile coop/run that you reposition regularly. It sounds like a great idea, but they can be unwieldy to move and they tend to work best if your ground is nice and smooth as lumps and holes make them wobbly and provide ideal escape routes for determined hens.

I’m not terribly keen on small pens for chickens – I think they should have room to stretch their legs and their wings, have a dust bath and go for a run if they feel like it. Ours do have a run that we can shut them in if necessary, but most of their time is spent wandering round their half of the garden, which includes the compost bins, shed and lots of hedge. Chickens are the descendants of Jungle fowl and, in my experience, they like being underneath trees and shrubs, and they enjoy rooting about in fallen leaves and in the soil building up underneath deciduous woody plants. Understanding the needs and behaviour  of your livestock is important, whether they are chickens, goats, sheep or rabbits, so that you can supply them with everything that is required.

Don’t get me wrong – I love keeping hens. The do all sorts of things in the garden that are really worthwhile: they provide fertilizer, they eat pests (especially slugs and snails), they provide eggs and entertainment and they consume vegetable waste. By keeping hens I can be assured that the eggs we eat are from happy and healthy birds that have led a good life and have not been pumped full of antibiotics and other chemicals. And, thus, it is important to ensure that your hens do lead a good life: that you do provide for all their needs.

The beans did not survive the storm

The beans did not survive the storm

With all livestock-keeping you take on a duty of care. And so it was that in high winds and driving rain, in the dark, yesterday evening I was hunting chickens in the garden. We experienced the remains of Hurricane Gonzalo yesterday – mainly in the form of strong winds. Even so, our hens were out and about and doing their normal thing, albeit with rather ruffled feathers. I kept an eye on them on and off all day just in case, but all was well. Usually they put themselves to bed at dusk and I go out a little later to close up the run and the door to the house (double security over night). So I was most distressed to get outside and discover the house door had been dislodged and was closed (that has never happened before) and a large bag of bramble prunings had blown against the entrance to the run, blocking it completely. Both these things had happened in the hour since I last checked on them and just at the time they would have been going to bed. Hopefully I looked into the house, but none of them had made it in before the entrances were blocked. So, I set off in the rain, with my torch (flashlight if you are in the US… I wasn’t carrying a flaming brand) to find the girls. Even though it was still very windy I could hear the gentle noises of roosting hens and was quickly able to locate Lorna and Annagramma in the ‘nest’ under the hedge where Anna lays every day. Although it was awkward, I was able to crawl in and extract them, one at a time, and place them safely in their house. What about the others? Not in the nest, not under the old chicken house (which was quite sheltered and dry), not tucked up by the compost bins, or in the nettle patch. Back to the hedge I went and listened again… I could here chickeny noises. Illuminating different areas, I finally spotted a hen behind the old wooden hen house and thus inaccessible without moving the structure… which I did. And there was Esme – balancing on the edging that surrounds their raised area of woodchip and runs between the old house and the hedge. I battled my way into the gap I had made and got number three out safely. But where was Tiffany? I shone my light into the bottom of the hedge but could see no sign of her. I listened again and thought I could hear her somewhere in there, but where? Hunting for a grey hen in a hedge on a dark night is not easy, but I really felt I needed to find her.

At this point I want to remind you that it was raining and I was very wet. I wasn’t wearing a waterproof as, normally, shutting them in is a really quick job and I certainly wasn’t going to shred a waterproof as well as myself by diving into the prickles!

Tiffany was in the depths of this

Tiffany was in the depths of this

More light shining, higher up in the hedge this time looking for a possible roost… and there was a patch of grey at about waist height. Sadly, deep in the hedge amongst blackthorn and brambles, not just willow. I fought my way in, reached out and sure enough I had found Tiffany. However, getting her out was not easy. She’s a big bird and the gaps between all the pointy things were not large. In the end I just had to reach in and grab her, hoping all the time that she didn’t struggle too much. Usually they are quite docile once they are roosting, but she was quite upset and I had to hold her firmly to get her out, but finally I had all four in the hen house.

I was wet, I was scratched, I was bleeding… but my girls were safe and under cover. I peeked in and they were arranging themselves quite happily in the dry… cooing gently. After a change of clothes, vigorous towelling of hair and a large glass of wine, I too settled down, just without the cooing. I’m happy to report that all was fine this morning – all four girls emerged from their house with barely a feather out of place and no signs of any lasting damage – the same cannot be said for my arms and hands, which will take a while to heal.

And the moral of the story? If you decide to take on animals, you have to put their needs first. You have a duty of care. You will have to make decisions about their well-being and take action, and this is likely to mean you sometimes have to do things you would prefer no to, possibly including sticking your finger up a hen’s bum and fighting your way through a hedge in a storm. And, be warned, few vets are chicken specialists! What I really want to say is that chicken keeping is great, but do your research first and make sure you are really willing to take on the responsibility.

Making a grab for it

Sadly we are back down to four hens after Aliss died a couple of weeks ago. This leaves us with two oldies who are rarely laying and two newbies who are providing us with a steady supply of eggs. Tiffany doesn’t lay every day, but some days she lays a small egg with one yolk, some days she lays a large egg with two yolks and some days she lays two small eggs, each with one yolk. She quickly got into the routine of laying in one of the nesting boxes. Annagramma, on the other hand lays a smallish egg every day, although these are gradually increasing in size. However, we can’t persuade her to use the nesting box and she has a preferred spot in a lovely inaccessible part of the hedge.

We rapidly got fed up with fighting our way through blackthorns and bramble to retrieve Anna’s eggs, and so a long unused tool was brought out – the slug grabber. Since the chickens have mostly rid the garden of slugs, we no longer have to do the nightly slug hunt, and so the grabber has been hanging in the shed unused for a couple of years. It had been cleaned up after its last use and we realised it made an ideal tool to retrieve eggs. Here it is, expertly operated by Mr Snail:

… you see I know there’s a reason I don’t throw stuff out- you never know when it can be repurposed!

The great egg hunt

They are not backward at coming forward!

They are not backward at coming forward!

I knew that the Bluebells were point of lay when we got them – they were giving all the signals and were exactly the right age to start (19 weeks). I was also unsurprised that they didn’t start straight away, as the move to a new home would have disturbed them somewhat. But it did seem to be taking rather a long time for them to get going.

I should have known better. I had searched the fruit cage in case someone had decided that the vegetation in there would be the ideal spot, and I’d looked under the wormery, where Lorna has been known to lay an egg in the past, but there was nothing to be seen.

Then, I went outside on Thursday and could only spot one Bluebell – Tiffany. Where was Annagramma? I hunted round in all the usual places, but could not find her. I got a bowl of corn and shook it… all the others came running, but not Anna. I got some mealworms and was promptly mobbed by the rest of them, but no Anna. I peered over the fence in case she had somehow got herself high enough off the ground to get into next door’s garden… and then I heard a burbly noise from deep in the hedge. I peered in, amongst the willow, brambles and blackthorn and, sure enough there she was. So, I left her to it. Great, I thought, our first Bluebell egg.

I peeped out a bit later and she had emerged, so I went to retrieve the egg and found this:

In the depths of the hedge

In the depths of the hedge

Finding them was, however, somewhat easier than retrieving them. Whilst it was easy enough to stick a camera in to photograph them, actually accessing them was a wholly different matter. First, I had to move the old wooden chicken house, which was directly in front of this part of the hedge – leaving it in place was simply not an option as there was no other way in. And then I had to fight my way through a rather robust blackthorn, but I did retrieve them in the end.

Esme and Lorna enjoying some dandelion leaves

Esme and Lorna enjoying some dandelion leaves

So, whose were they? Well, the warm one was certainly Anna’s and they all looked very similar, but I couldn’t be sure. I watched Tiffany carefully for the rest of the day, but there were no signs of laying. The next morning, however, I opened the hen house and Lorna dashed out carrying something soft and pale in her beak… a soft egg almost certainly, although she’d eaten it before I could grab her. It seemed likely that Tiffany was responsible, as first eggs are often defective and anyway it was less than 24 hours since Anna and Esme had laid and Aliss and Lorna currently aren’t producing eggs. Later that day Anna showed signs of laying, so we locked her in the hen house. After an hour we let her out and she went straight into the hedge and laid an egg – typical!

The next day, however Tiff looked like she might want to produce something and she went on one of the laying boxes and did her stuff – a very pale egg, much lighter than the hedge eggs. Clearly all five in the Hedge had been Anna’s. And so, we have developed a routine – Annagramma lays in the hedge; Tiffany lays in the nest box. Esme is also laying on alternate days, so we have plenty of eggs – although the ones from the new girls are very small currently.

So I will finish with a brief identification guide, since I have now learned to tell the Bluebells apart by their combs (Anna on the left, Tiffany on the right):

Flocking

Under the watchful gaze of Esmeralda…

The new flock is starting to get established

Unfortunately, Aliss has been a bit under the weather, but we are hoping that special meals of natural yoghurt plus a few doses of antibiotics will see her right. She’s spending most of her time with the others, but just occasionally, we put her on her own with a layer pellet/yoghurt mix so that no one else (Esme) will try to gobble it up first.

Special treatment for Aliss

Special treatment for Aliss

And, for the first time last night, they all slept together.

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