Forget Tasmania, where is the snail of happiness?

I’m pleased to announce that Tasmania, at least the one that I was talking about in my last post, has been found. It is safe and well in my sister’s living room! Yes, the jig-map of my childhood is still being enjoyed by members of my family… we are all squirrels!

However, you may have been wondering where the snail of happiness has been for more than a week now. You have, perhaps, spotted one of my little minions here, and I got a mention here, but as for me there has been silence. I know, I didn’t warn you, but I thought that I was going to have time to blog and it turned out that I didn’t.

Last weekend we had a garden party to celebrate my dad’s life. The sun shone (mostly), we had lovely pictures of dad around the place to encourage people to share their memories of him and there was lots of tea and cake. In fact the only sort of cake he really liked was fruit cake, but we made up for that with a lovely spread including scones, lemon drizzle cake, Victoria sponge, coffee and walnut cake, sticky toffee cake and fallen chocolate truffle cake to name a few. What do you think?

Our cake table

Our cake table

And then I went to spend a few days at Chestnuts Farm… a rather interesting set up comprising a number of separate parcels of rented land with sheep, goats, poultry, a horse, a pony, vegetables and a hay field. I got a real picture of the challenges faced by tenant farmers who have no security because their tenancies are only for, perhaps, three years. How do you make plans for the land you work, when you don’t know whether you will still be on it in five years time? Without longer tenancies, there is little incentive for such farmers to invest in permanent buildings, expensive fencing and planting trees, or anything else that they may not be able to get a proper return on. Since small-scale producers play a valuable part in food-growing in the UK, it seems important to give them security if they do not own their own land.

Would you brave that beak to steal my identity?

A young Perdy

During my visit, I particularly enjoyed seeing the poultry; my favourites being the bantams. However, in my absence, one of our girls, Perdy, went into a very rapid decline and died before my return. She stopped laying about six months ago, but appeared quite healthy up until the final couple of days. Now we have to decide whether we want any replacements… if there was somebody local with bantams I would be sorely tempted!

The other loss this week was the mealworm farm… the colony was, I thought, safe and sound in the greenhouse. However, a bird found its way in and has consumed not only the adult beetles that were thriving, but much of the oats and bran that they were feeding on. I’m annoyed that I hadn’t kept their container covered, but I really never expected the wild birds to venture into the greenhouse. I think the culprit was a juvenile robin. I have ordered a fresh supply of mealworms and will start again, bearing in mind the need to ensure better protection!

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

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!

What’s up, dock?

I am trying to establish a useful ground flora in the fruit cage, including aromatic herbs and flowers that attract pollinators. I have several mints, lemon balm, comfrey, strawberries (supposedly a good weed-suppressor), thyme, rosemary, chives and oregano.

Unfortunately, I also have ryegrass, nettles and docks… I don’t mind the first of these too much , but I could do without the other two. I try to garden without chemicals, so wouldn’t normally use any weedkiller and, anyway, it’s not an option in the fruit cage. Whilst nettles are good for a range of insects, they are no good for my bare arms and legs, so I am cutting these back regularly and putting the wilted tops on the compost heap since they are a good compost activator.

Chickens find freshly-cut docks highly entertaining.

Chickens find freshly-cut docks highly entertaining*.

The trouble with docks is that they are vigorous and seed very freely. If you dig them up, it’s likely that you will leave pieces of root in the ground, from which they will resprout. In addition, if you dig them up, you leave a bare patch of soil that is an ideal seed bed for new docks, or other unwanted species. I am, therefore, trying to eradicate the docks slowly. This year, I let them grow until they produced flowers and thus used up lots of resources, then yesterday I cut them back to the ground. I removed all the cuttings from the ground and spread them out on the concrete path for the chickens to enjoy.

In theory, now the hens have lost interest, I could now compost this material, but I’m cautious in case any of the seeds have already formed – I don’t want to be propagating even more docks. So, I’m going to dry out the material and them we will use it as fuel for our Kelly kettle… a good use of a ‘waste’ product from the garden.

-oOo-

* Please note, Perdy has not lost her head in the dock-related excitement, she’s just looking over her shoulder.

Confidential waste

Yesterday’s post elicited a comment from Nanacathy that the only thing she burns in the garden is confidential waste. I responded that I have friend who shreds his, then puts it on the compost heap and then pees on it. He considers that if anyone wants to reconstruct his bank statements and steal his identity after that they are welcome.

Would you brave that beak to steal my identity?

Would you brave that beak to steal my identity?

Similarly, we shred anything that is confidential or has our address on it. But we then use it as chicken bedding. This is a two-fold deterrent: first there’s all the chicken poo covering it, but before you get to that you would have to brave Perdy, who is likely to give you a severe pecking, just in case you are edible. After that use it goes into the compost bin. Alternatively, at the right time of year, shredded paper gets put into the bottom of the bean trench along with uncomposted kitchen waste… thus allowing in situ composting to generate heat and give the beans a good start. In addition, this approach provides nutrients and increases the water-holding capacity of the soil… all that carbon in the paper is too good to waste.

So, I’m wondering… do you have ways of turning your confidential waste into a resource and preventing identity theft at the same time?

Searching high and low

One of the interesting features of WordPress is that, as an author, you can see the searches that people use to get to your blog. It’s a somewhat diverting activity and I have spent some time today examining the search engine terms that have brought people to investigate The Snail of Happiness.

I can certainly understand why you, dear reader, would arrive here as a result of searching for ‘knitted snail’ or even ‘chickens not eating slugs’, but I’m less sure of why you would be directed here as a result of typing in ‘homel things made by waste indian’ or ‘animals beginning with m’ (have I mentioned any animals beginning with m? oh, yes, there’s that post about a mouse eating my bean seeds). Or indeed that, having seen the Snail of Happiness blog in your list of search results for ‘sticky earthworm’, for example, why you would visit… although if that’s how you got here in the first place, then ‘welcome’ and apologies that the worms are rather more woolly than sticky.

I can only assume that the person who search for ‘food during rain in nitt’ arrived because there are mentions of  food, rain and Agnes Nitt (aka Perdita, a Terry Pratchett character that my chicken Perdy is named after) in various places. But, once again, if it’s you – welcome, and I’m glad you stayed!

Anyway, one way or another, folks are arriving. So, as a public service, I thought that I would try to address a selection of the questions and issues you have been seeking responses to…

can you drink worm wee tea?

Do you REALLY REALLY want to? Have you smelled it? Admittedly the dogs seem ridiculously interested in the stuff, but they eat dog food, so clearly have no taste!

gardening without mouse

Go for it! I always try to garden without mouse. I suspect the Beatrix Potter might have a different answer, though.

how does hugh fearnley whiitingstall stop slugs?

Actually, I don’t know the answer to this. I suggest that you ask Hugh – he seems like a nice chap, although I don’t know him either.

how much tomato can a slug eat?

How big is your slug? I’m guessing that if it’s one of those banana slugs, you’ll have to provide it with a really big tomato.

good explanation for cakes

Cakes are an essential part of the diet – they ensure happiness. Do not believe people who say they are bad for you.

i am a little earthworm

Congratulations, I am a Snail of Happiness.

can i keep chickens in a fruit cage?

Yes, but only if you don’t want any fruit.

growing snails in spare bedroom

I’m not sure whether you want to grow them in your spare bedroom… in which case I suggest a vivarium rather than having them free range… or whether you have them growing in your spare bedroom and want to get rid of them… in which case I have found chickens to be very effective (although they may make a bit of a mess).

amigurumi for happiness

Well, they make me happy… and if you make them with the ‘happiness yarn’ that someone else was searching for I don’t see how you can go wrong.

how to keep a pampered snail?

Is your snail pre-pampered? If so, it’s probably best to keep doing what you’ve been doing. If you are looking for new ways to pamper your snail, perhaps you could get together with the person who wants/has them in his spare bedroom and work something out between you.

And one final one, that has me stumped, perhaps other readers can help out:

the best potato you will ever see in your life because you probably won’t see very many potatoes because you have potatoes monia which means that you are afraid of potatoes which kind of cancelled this google search out because you have a retarded fear of potatoes………..freak

-oOo-

Honestly, these are all genuine search engine terms that people used to get to this blog… !

Jurassic chicken

Throughout the film Jurassic Park there are allusions to the fact that dinosaurs are more like birds than reptiles. I think that we have one of their descendents in the garden. Yesterday Aliss was found excavating the root parsley, having somehow got in to the vegetable enclosure. She was removed, the netting examined for gaps, and any sources of weakness dealt with.

Juvenile delinquent chicken

Ten minutes later she was back in there. Additional barriers were added at the points we thought she might be entering.

Five minutes later she was back in there, having flapped over the barriers.

Netting was placed over the top of the target area.

Ten minutes later, she was in there again. Busily excavating.

The netting was rearranged – corners were tucked in, gaps were blocked, canes were used to secure edges of mesh. We watched what she would do.

She began by examining the place she had entered previously – stretching up, trying to poke her head through the mesh. She then moved on round the enclosure. There is a scene in Jurassic Park where Muldoon, the game warden, explains that the raptors

never attack the same place twice. They were testing the fence for weaknesses, systematically. They remember.

And so did Aliss… working her way round the perimeter of the entire area – testing for weaknesses. It took her quite a while, but eventually she returned to her starting point, having been unable to gain access anywhere. And at this point she gave up and went away to investigate another part of the garden.

We should be careful of when we give names. Black Aliss is living up to hers, just as Esmeralda has turned out to be top chicken. I wonder if Perdy will start singing opera next!

-oOOo-

And a slight aside – today is the first day we have had four eggs, one from each chicken. A couple of weeks ago there was a day when we had four eggs, one each from two chickens and two from one chicken, but that’s another story…

Peace in our thyme

Please excuse the pun, in fact our thyme expired over the winter and I haven’t got round to replacing it yet. This short post is, however, about peace.

Bathing together… well, three of them anyway

Last night, for the first time, all four hens chose to sleep together in the old hen-house. The previous night Perdy had joined the oldies, but Aliss had remained resolutely alone in the palatial new house. But last night when I went out to close the doors on them at 9:30 they were all together. Aliss was sitting just inside the door and I had to tuck a few tail feathers in, but they had all chosen to remain together. So, we now seem to have a single flock once more.

I can’t help feeling that giving them plenty of space in which to interact has made life much easier than had we tried to confine them all together in a small space.

-oOo-

For those of you visiting for the first time because of the lovely nomination from Metan, they are named after Terry Pratchett’s witches:

Esme: Mistress Esmeralda Weatherwax aka Granny Weatherwax
Aliss: Black Aliss (she’s a black rock chicken, you see)
Perdy: Perdita X Dream aka Agnes Nitt
Gytha: Mrs Gytha Ogg, aka Nanny Ogg (alas no more – the chicken not the original!)

and finally Lorna… the rogue non-Pratchett chicken, named by Mr Snail-of-Happiness: he’s banned from naming any more until I run out of witches, and we’ve got to get to Anagrama before that happens

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