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.

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):

Tiffany and Annagramma do some exploring

New hens are always nervous, so it’s best to give them time to get used to their surroundings and the folks who feed them. Most of the time Tiffany and Annagramma are remaining in a relatively small run with their own house. I don’t want to risk proper free-ranging yet as they are rather flighty and would be difficult to catch, but today I gave them a chance to move about a bit more in safety by putting them in the fruit cage. As it turned out, they enjoyed some fresh grass, but didn’t explore further than a few feet away from the gate… which made them very easy to catch when I wanted to return them to their usual run. Here they are, being regarded by the oldies:

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:

The magic hen house

The new hen house arrived about an hour before I set off on my travels last Thursday. This allowed just enough time for me to help Mr Snail get it unpackaged and round the back of the house. The only construction required was attaching the laying boxes, sliding two doors into place, slotting in the perches and attaching the mesh run. Of course, the old run had to be dismantled and the old house moved out of the way. Mr Snail said he would do all this whilst I was away so that it would be fully installed by the time I returned home. And, thus, on Friday morning I was able to see a picture of the house in situ via Facebook and by Friday evening Mr Snail was able to report that the run was attached. There was a slight issue with attaching the drinker and feeder, but snipping a couple of pieces of wire allowed these to be attached and removed the need for a stand to support them.

The girls spent their first night in the new house last Thursday – sleeping on the floor rather than on the perches, but that is their choice and not a problem – there is plenty of space. The house is lovely – there is a big door at the back to allow easy cleaning, two perches, an adjustable vent and two nest boxes. The pop-hole at the other end from the big door opens into a run with another pop-hole in the solid end of this through which they can exit into the garden. The run is about a metre long, so I wouldn’t want them to be confined in there all the time, but it will provide a secure space for them should we wish to leave them safely overnight at times when our neighbours are not available to put them to bed.

The house is made of recycled agricultural plastic (old silage wrap, feed buckets, silage clamp covers, dumpy bags, fertiliser bags etc), so uses a resource that would otherwise simply be dumped. Hopefully we will never have to replace it because it won’t rot and should any component break, the company who made it will be able to make a new one: each house is built to order anyway.

Rare as hen's teeth: a Lorna egg

Rare as hen’s teeth: a Lorna egg

In addition, the people who made it appear to have added some sort of magic ingredient because yesterday, Mr Snail discovered Lorna sitting on one of the nest boxes, and when she stood up she revealed an egg. Her eggs are very distinctive and cannot be confused with eggs from any of the others. This is amazing, because the last time she laid an egg was June 2013. Having not produced anything for a year and being one of our oldest girls, we assumed that she had just run out, but clearly we were wrong. And just to prove that it wan’t a fluke – she has laid another one today! It was a very expensive way to get more eggs from her!

My theory is that because the new house is black inside and has no window, her laying has been triggered by her experiencing a very distinct difference between day and night. The only other possible explanation I can think of  is that I have recently started giving the girls a little of my homemade apple scrap vinegar in their water and it must be better than the commercial stuff, but I can’t believe that would trigger such a major effect. Either way, we’re happy and clearly Lorna is too!

Companionship

This post marks the half-way stage of NaBloPoMo. So far I have written 6603 words (excluding these), posted 46 photographs and received one award – not bad for half a month! In contrast, Mr Snail-of-happiness, who is taking part in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) has written more than 20, 000 words, but, hey, it’s not a competition! What has been good about living with someone who is also participating in a writing challenge is the support this brings – have you completed your target for the day? If not there’s sympathy and encouragement and if you have, there’s celebration. In addition, the fact that the challenges are different means that there really is no competition, which is good for me because I’m not competitive by nature.

There are two dog beds but Max and Sam choose to sleep together in my office

There are two dog beds but Max and Sam choose to sleep together in my office

Having another person around is important to me, and represents the smallest unit of ‘community’. Mr S-o-h is not my only  companion when writing, however… often in my office I am joined by a dog or two; and they enjoy the company of each other as well. Interestingly, Sam (that’s her in the foreground) was something of a problem dog when we first got her and we were recommended to get her a friend to help calm her down. Max is a very relaxed dog, with a laid-back attitude and his arrival certainly changed Sam’s life – he has taught her to be house-trained, to eat properly and not to be scared of fireworks. As with many relationships, however, it’s not simply one-way: she encourages him to play and cleans his ears, and when we have to leave them in the house, they don’t get upset because they have each other for company. Dogs (like humans) are pack animals and social interaction with other members of their species is really good for them.

All snuggled up in the laying box!

All snuggled up in the laying box!

And they are not the only sociable creatures we have around the place. Despite having a ‘pecking order’, chickens also seem to enjoy each other’s company. I have mentioned Esme snuggling up with the others during her moult, but even now her feathers are growing back, the snuggling continues.

I think in life we all appreciate some companionship – whether a cup of coffee with a friend, a nice comment on a blog or a phone call from a loved one. By opening ourselves up to others, whilst accepting some risk, we give ourselves the opportunity for amazing relationships and experiences and we start to build communities. So, go one, do something sociable today and strengthen the community you live within!

Prickly Chickly

I posted last week about Esme’s sudden loss of feathers and over the week the reason it happened so quickly has become clear – the new ones were just below the surface ready to burst forth! She has been reluctant to be handled during her moult, but I managed to catch her yesterday afternoon and hold her whilst Mr Snail of happiness took a few photographs.

New neck feathers

New neck feathers

The new feathers are very prickly at the moment, resembling porcupine quills, but are coming through in great abundance. It’s interesting to see the colour contrast too – her old feathers are quite brown and faded, but the new ones are beautiful black and white. She is still losing some of her old ones, though not at the same rate as last week. It is possible that she will have a complete new set within the next few weeks.

Back and tail area

Back and tail area

One she’s finished growing her new feathers it will be interesting to see how long it takes for her to start laying again. In the past she has always laid over the winter, but as she ages (she’s nearly four years old now) we expect her laying to decline. The two youngsters, Aliss and Perdy*, are less than two years old and are still laying every day or two. Lorna, the same age as Esme, as only ever laid intermittently, but we keep her because she does other jobs in the garden and is our top slug-hunter!

New wings

New wings

One of the joys of keeping backyard hens is to see these natural cycles taking place. We do not provide our girls with extra light or heat during the winter, so their bodies follow the seasons. This means that we are bound to get fewer eggs in the winter, but we don’t mind that, as eating seasonally is an important aspect of understanding the food on our plates.

-oOo-

* In case you’re wondering, Esme, Perdy and Aliss are named after some of Terry Pratchett’s witches – we used to have a Gytha too.

Oven-ready Esme?

A very fluffy nest!

A very fluffy nest!

I opened the laying box the other morning to be greeted by a veritable feather bed. I was hoping for an egg or two, but I found what appeared to be half a chicken… and the sight of a slightly balding bottom disappearing out of the pop hole. The colour was a give-away… these feathers clearly belong to a speckledy hen, of which we have two. A quick check revealed one very smart Perdy and one very tatty Esme… ruffling her feathers, apart from dislodging a few more, revealed quite an expanse of completely bald skin. In addition, her tail now consists of a random assemblage of feathers pointing in odd directions. She’s also much more anti-social than usual and quite reluctant to be photographed in her disheveled state. This is the best I could manage:

Oh dear, what a mess!

Oh dear, what a mess!

And since then, she’s only got worse. What a silly time to be losing all your feathers – over the past week we have had storms, gale force winds and lashing rain. It seems like the ideal time to have already grown a brand new coat of feathers, just like Lorna the Calder Ranger (yes, she’s the Lorna Ranger), who moulted some weeks ago in September and is now looking very dapper:

Lorna showing off her shiny new feathers

Lorna showing off her shiny new feathers and black-tipped tail

Hens: broody and balding

Left: small white caterpillar. Right: large white caterpillar

Left and centre: small white caterpillars. Right: large white caterpillar

I don’t seem to write about the chickens much these days, even though they are still an important part of our garden and supply us with valuable home-produced food. Over the summer  I have discovered that although they won’t eat caterpillars of the large white butterfly (Pieris brassicae), they are rather partial to those of the small white (Pieris rapae). Since the adults of these two butterfly species look so similar, you would expect the same from the caterpillars, but as larvae they are totally different. Small whites lay individual eggs that hatch into juicy green caterpillars, whilst large whites lay clusters of eggs that hatch into black and yellow hairy caterpillars that are gregarious. The chickens have the right idea – the hairy large white caterpillars accumulate poisonous oils in their bodies whilst the small whites do  not.

Lorna looking a bit the worse for wear

Lorna looking a bit the worse for wear

Anyway, at the moment two of our ladies are doing what chickens typically do:

First, Lorna is moulting – there are feathers strewn around the garden, and she is looking rather scruffy. I’m always surprised that chickens tend to moult in the autumn – you would think they would do it in the summer, when the bald patches don’t matter. But, no, they wait until the temperature drops and then lose their feathers. Usually chickens only do a partial moult, but Lorna seems to be going the whole hog, meaning that she will grow new wing feathers and we will have to keep an eye on her ability to fly once more.

Aliss: she always gets very red when she is broody

Aliss: she always gets very flushed when she’s broody

And then there is Aliss, who is broody for the fourth time this year. She is our best layer when she’s laying, but the broodiness tends to disrupt laying for a couple of weeks. Currently I am being kind to her and simply putting her in the fruit cage every day so she doesn’t upset the others and she can’t sneak into the laying boxes, but if she doesn’t improve tomorrow, she will be in the dog crate so that she can’t make a nest and get overheated. I don’t resort to plunging them in cool water as some people do to bring their temperature down, but I’m beginning to be tempted! Actually, I really like the fact that they are able exhibit this sort of natural behaviour, it makes me feel that they are real animals rather than just egg-laying machines. I just wish they would remember to eat when they are broody!

It’s a jungle out there

In our garden we have four chickens: Lorna, Esme, Perdy and Black Aliss. After various battles, they are now confined, most of the time, to one section of the garden. They a have a run where they can be further confined, but they are not shut in there much because, frankly, it’s boring for them.

Perdy, Esme and Black Aliss

Perdy, Esme and Black Aliss

I often see backyard chickens in a dirt run and feel sorry for them. The reason being that, despite their limited flight ability, domestic chickens are birds of the jungle, not of the mud wallow. They are descended from the Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) which, according to the Smithsonian:

browses on the forest floor for insects, seeds and fruit, and flies up to nest in the trees at night.

Now I appreciate that we have come a long way since the Red Junglefowl: domestication appears to have taken place 7-10, 000 years ago, and there may have been genetic contributions from three other closely related species. However, chickens do still, generally, prefer to sleep up on a perch (like being on a tree branch) and scratch around for grubs and insects, so they have deep-seated instincts. I can’t help feeling, therefore, that we should provide them with an appropriate habitat in which to live, and that a bare patch of mud or an area of open grass does not do this. In addition, a small enclosed area is likely to build up a rampant population of parasites, leading, for example, to repeated worm infestation.

Esme emerging from the 'woodland' laying box

Esme emerging from the ‘woodland’ laying box

Our hens have open areas where they can scratch about or have a dust bath, access to the area around the compost bins, where there are often insects to hunt, intermittent access to the fruit cage, with its herbs and grasses (they are excluded when there is fruit to be had!) and an area under the willow hedge, where leaves accumulate and invertebrates live. They also visit the rest of the garden to turn soil and do the weeding! Recently they have been spending a lot of time under the trees and we decided that it might be a location where they would like to lay. With this in mind, we placed a plastic laying box (actually it’s an old covered cat litter tray that we were given) inside the hedge and this is now Esme’s preferred laying spot. Of course, this is not a safe location to spend the night, so they all happily troop into the run and then their house to roost, safe and sound and inaccessible to foxes or other predators.

Animal welfare is something that anyone keeping livestock should take seriously, both because it’s ethically right and because you get better production if you have healthy happy animals. So, if you do have backyard chooks, give them some shade and an area under the trees where they can get back to their roots and release their inner junglefowl!
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