Three Things Thursday: 18 May 2017

*three things that make me smile: an exercise in gratitude – feel free to steal this idea with wild abandon and fill your blog [or Twitter account or Facebook page or diary or life in general] with the happy*

Emily of Nerd in the Brain originally created Three Things Thursday, but it’s now being hosted by Natalie of There She Goes. Anyway, here are my three things this week…

First, The Sisterhood of the Travelling Sketchbook. It has been a great honour to make a contribution to this wonderful project, but today I am bidding farewell to the sketchbook and sending it on its way to The Crafty Creek. If you want to read more about it, check out its very own web site here.

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Second, four eggs in one day. We have four hens – Anna, Tiffany, Mags and Alice. The latter three are regular layers, but Anna (short for Annagramma – the awkward one for those of you in the know) has not laid for eighteen months. Recently, however, there was evidence that she was going to start again. Over the past few weeks, there have been two or three eggs that might have been from her, but we have never been certain… until yesterday, when four eggs were laid. Hens only lay once each day, so four eggs means one from each hen and that means that Anna is doing her thing again. Hurrah!

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Third, fool-proof recipes. Some friends came for lunch on Monday and I decided to try a new recipe – peaches and cream cupcakes. What a disaster – never test out new recipes when you are cooking for guests. Fortunately there was still time before they arrived to make something else, so I fell back on an old favourite, based on the recipe below (much covered in ingredients), which comes from a little book called Country Inns in the White Mountains: Favorite Recipes:IMGP2886

I generally make this with raspberries and white chocolate chips rather than strawberries, but you can use any fruit you fancy. The other good thing about this recipe is that you can use an off-the-shelf gluten-free flour if you need to and it still works well. When I have whey from cheese making, I use that rather than milk and the recipe still works… honestly it’s one of the most reliable recipes that I have and the muffins are always delicious. To give you an idea of how good it is, my guests all wanted this recipe to take away and use at home (and one of them runs her own B&B).

So, those are three things making me smile and that I am grateful for this week. What is making you happy?

Three Things Thursday: 11 August 2016

As usual I’m joining with Emily of Nerd in the Brain (and others) for Three Things Thursday’. As she says…

*three things that make me smile: an exercise in gratitude – feel free to steal this idea with wild abandon and fill your blog with the happy*

First, meeting blogging friends in person. This week has been an especially good week for this since I spent Monday afternoon with Katy the Night Owl, drinking vast quantities of tea and setting the world to rights. And then today we had lunch with Sue, a blog reader who lives in the next county to us, but whom we’ve never met before. It won’t be the last time – again there was lots of tea, plus pies and cakes.

Second, pollinators. Our garden has been full of bees this year – especially little bumblebees. We see hardly any honeybees, although I noticed loads of these on my recent visit to London – clearly city bee-keeping is thriving. The limery, however, seems to be a magnet for hoverflies, which avoid the insectivorous plants and head straight for the flowers:

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hoverfly on a melon flower

Third, a trio of eggs. For the first time in many months, today I have collected three eggs. This means that the lovely young Mags (Light Sussex) has started laying – yay! Now if Anna could just get back to it, we’d be swamped!

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today’s eggs from (l-r) Mags, Tiffany and Aliss

So that’s it for this week. What are you feeling grateful for?

Three Things Thursday: 30 June 2016

Joining with Nerd in the Brain (and others) for Three Things Thursday’. As “Nerd” says…

*three things that make me smile: an exercise in gratitude – feel free to steal this idea with wild abandon and fill your blog with the happy*

First, home-grown fruit and vegetables. In the past week we’ve had herbs, leeks, potatoes, raspberries, peppers and tomatoes, plus our first courgette. There may be rampant weeds and rampaging slugs (it’s been wet recently) but we are harvesting.

Second, sensitive plants. The seeds I sowed that came from The Eden Project germinated well and I’ve now got lots of plants. They need potting up, but before I do that, here they are in action:

And I just want to assure you that I don’t regularly molest my plants like this!

Third, happy hens and lots of eggs. The new girls have settled in well. Oldies and newbies are still choosing to sleep in separate houses, but Aliss is laying in the main house. Mags has not yet started to lay, although she’s grown well and is becoming calmer and more sociable with us. It’s good to see them functioning as a single flock.

So that’s it for this week. What are you feeling grateful for?

Aliss lays an egg

In a week in which the news is full of the horror of another mass shooting, football violence and yet more refugee deaths, not to mention wild claims about the results of Britain remaining in/leaving the EU, it’s good to focus on events at a more personal level (if only to remain sane).

And so, I’m delighted to tell you that one of our new girls, Aliss 2, has laid her first egg today, just 2 weeks after we got her. She’s still quite a small hen, but she managed a 43g egg. For comparison, Tiffany’s egg today weighed 76g.

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Eggs from (L) Tiffany and (R) Aliss 2

You may be wondering about why she’s Aliss 2… well, she is so similar to our original Aliss (late of this garden), that we just knew that we’d end up calling her Aliss anyway. I had thought she might be Two-ey, but the Aliss has stuck. For comparison, this is the first Aliss:

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Aliss the first

And this is our new girl:

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Aliss the second

The first one was a good layer and it looks promising for our newbie.

Do you have good news to share this week?

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

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):

The bluebell girls

Following the sudden demise of Perdy (one of our younger girls), we decided that we needed to boost our laying power and so yesterday I arranged to collect two new point-of-lay ladies from Pentwyn Poultry to join our flock:

The bluebell girls

The bluebell girls

They are a little shy at the moment, but I’m sure that they’ll soon get used to us. Being the new girls, I thought I should name them after a couple of the younger generation of Terry Prattchett’s witches, so they are Tiffany and Annagramma. Just as in the books, Esmeralda has been eying them up and making herself look big and important:

Don't mess with Esme!

Don’t mess with Esme!

Lorna and Aliss, not being responsible for the flock, have been ignoring the new arrivals. We’ll keep old and new separated by the mesh for a while until they get used to each other and since we still have the old wooden chicken house, they can sleep separately too for the time being. Last time we introduced newbies we tried to get them together too soon, but now we know better and we have the space to allow a gradual introduction.

Currently, my only problem is that I can’t tell the newbies apart… I’m sure they will distinguish themselves soon  though. And, since they are 19 weeks old, we should have eggs from them imminently. So I’ll just leave you with a few pictures:

Baskets of eggs

My friend Lizze has a very wise gran – Sylvia. In my absence I thought I would share some of her advice with you

Sometimes life makes you put all your eggs in one basket, but it doesn’t tell you what kind of basket you have to have. Get a rubber one with springs on the bottom.

Some of the outputs

Some of my eggs in a basket!

A new house

For some time now I have been weighing up the pros and cons of buying a new house… one with more space, one that’s easier to clean, one that hasn’t had its roof repaired with an old bath panel…

… for the hens, not me!

Five years ago we were chicken newbies, with no experience. Of course, what you do in these circumstances is search the interweb and learn as much as you can, before launching in, thinking you know what you are doing when, in fact, you are completely unprepared.

At that time, I understood from my research that, if I just wanted a few hens, a hen house with integral run would be ideal… we would be able to keep the chickens in it all the time and move it around the garden to wherever we wanted, allowing us to use the chickens to clear raised beds, mow the lawn and generally keep the pests under control. So, I shopped around and found a coop that was suitable for three or four hens and came complete with a feeder and water dispenser.

The original coop under construction

The original coop under construction

The coop arrived and Mr Snail assembled it with minimal swearing – result. We went off and bought three point-of-lay hens and inserted them into the coop along with the drinker and the feeder. Once all these things were in the outdoor part of the run, there was very little space for poultry manoeuvre, but the hens seemed ok.

It soon became clear, however, that there were issues with our chosen coop. First, the space in it did not allow our hens (supposedly happy outdoor birds) to run around, stretch their wings or even scratch about very much. Second, whilst in theory the coop is portable, it actually turned out to be really difficult to move about – one end is heavy (where the nest boxes are), whilst the other is light and getting a secure grip on it is difficult. In addition, you can’t move it with the hens inside, unless you shut them in the house… and anyway the ramp into the house kept getting  in the way and finally became detached and we had to use hooks to attach it so that it could be removed when we were moving the coop.

And then. in the second year, we started to get red mites and had to use insecticide. Even when we thought we’d solved the problem, they kept coming back. After some investigation, we discovered that the roof had a cavity in it that provided an ideal mite refuge. We removed the original roof and replaced it with the aforementioned old bath panel – unsightly, but blessedly mite-free. Eventually, we decided to leave the door to the run permanently open and we started to use poles and garden netting to fashion a much bigger run for when we need confined hens… much of the time, however, they are free to roam about as the garden is generally chicken-proof (well, most of the time). Finally, the newly constructed pallet-gate means they can enjoy one half of the garden and the vegetables can remain safe in the other.

And so, we have continued to make the best of a bad coop. But now, laying has declined and we may have to increase our flock size a bit, so the original house is not big enough and a replacement may be in order. Thus, I have been researching eco-friendly hen houses that will not harbour mites, will have a long life, do not have a built in run, but do have to possibility of attaching a run (so we can safely leave the hens to their own devices overnight) and will house up to six girls. And the answer, it turns out, is recycled agricultural plastic. It’s not cheap, but it ticks all the boxes, plus it’s made from a waste product. And that’s what I’ve ordered – it’s from a firm that specialises in making animal housing and it is being made to order. It won’t rot, it will be easy to keep clean and pest-free and it comes ready-built, so Mr Snail won’t be forced into any sort of diy activities. It’s going to take up to a couple of weeks to arrive, but I’m hoping it will be the last hen house I ever have to buy.

Hmm… I wish I’d known all this stuff five years ago… and I haven’t even mentioned useless food and water dispensers… maybe another day…

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