Saving water in the rain

The rain is falling today

The rain is falling today

Here in west Wales, it’s rather wet… in general and today specifically. According to, the average annual rainfall here in Aberaeron is 981 mm, but the picture is variable:

Rainfall in Wales varies widely, with the highest average annual totals being recorded in the central upland spine from Snowdonia to the Brecon Beacons. Snowdonia is the wettest area with average annual totals exceeding 3000 mm, comparable to those in the English Lake District or the western Highlands of Scotland. In contrast, places along the coast and, particularly, close to the border with England, are drier, receiving less than 1000 mm a year. (The Met Office)

This means that in Wales we have plenty water. But even so, us Snails continue to be careful with our consumption: collecting rainwater, reducing the amount of mains water we use and minimising our water use in general. Why? Since we have so much, why not slosh it about as much as we want?

Rain-diverter on a downpipe and a water butt

Rain-diverter on a downpipe and a water butt

The answer is that all resources come at a cost… not just financial, although our water is metered and we do pay for what we use, but there is also a cost in terms of energy and infrastructure. Water that comes from the mains has been treated and processed. So, if we can collect our own water to use in the garden, for example, we are being a little bit more sustainable. Storing water also slows down its progress through the landscape and helps to avoid drains being overwhelmed during storms. Our towns and cities are full of hard, impermeable surfaces to ensure that water does not accumulate, but this means that storm drains can easily be overwhelmed during heavy rainfall events. By collecting rain water in ponds and water butts and using it to water plants or flush the toilet over a number of days, we slow its movement and help reduce possible flooding. Indeed, lots of the rain water that we capture Chez Snail never makes it into the drains as it’s used by our plants.

We also have an additional reason for collecting rain water: the insectivorous plants like it. They don’t like the chemicals added to ‘processed’ water out of the taps and need something a bit more natural. We only water them with rain water and they seem to be thriving:

Cephalotus follicularis Albany carnivorous Pitcher Plant growing well

Cephalotus follicularis Albany carnivorous Pitcher Plant growing well

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.

Going over old ground

I’ve been blogging for more than 20 months now and I have an expanding readership. In addition, I have an increasing number of posts that I’m certain nobody (least of all me) is ever going to wade through. Though I do say so myself, some of my early posts were quite good and it seems a shame to let them languish deep in the snail shell of obscurity. I have, therefore, decided  that from time-to-time I will revisit some of my old writing and bring it to you with a fresh eye. So here is my first dip into the past…

Back in June 2012, Aberystwyth (a town just up the coast from us) was flooded following a reported 10 inches of rain in the hills above the town. This week the town hit the headlines again, because the promenade has been badly damaged by storms. I lived in Aberystwyth for many years – more than three of those right on the seafront. There were days when we couldn’t use the front door, and sometimes cars parked outside did get pebble-dashed, but we certainly never experienced anything more severe. And, the town was never flooded. But when I was there, the floodplain was taken up by playing fields and allotments, so it didn’t matter if the river burst its banks. These days, the area is covered in houses, shops and the new offices of both the county council and the Welsh Assembly.

Anyway, when the flooding happened in 2012, I wrote the following:

…it is remarkably short-sighted to continue to build on floodplains. First because the risk of flooding is greater there and, second, because these areas have flooded historically, they have wonderfully fertile soil. Surely we should be using this brilliant natural resource to grow things… even if crops get inundated sometimes, people and their homes won’t.

But it’s not just about where we build houses and businesses, the problem with flooding is that it’s really caused by what’s upstream in the river catchment and how quickly water moves through the landscape. If the land is wooded, lots of rain is intercepted on its way down to the ground, so it is slowed in its journey to the surface and may even have the opportunity to evaporate and return to the air. All vegetation intercepts rainfall, but trees with leaves probably do it best because they have a big surface area. Not only that, but trees create deep permeable soils, with their roots penetrating the ground and lots of organic matter from their fallen leaves acting like a sponge. The more wooded the upper catchments of our rivers, the slower the water moves through them and the more buffering there is from flooding. The opposite is equally true – make the ground less permeable and water moves through it quickly, all arriving at the rivers in a very short time and resulting in flooding. So, roads and storm drains and buildings and concrete yards and patios and field drains all contribute to flooding by speeding up the movement of water through the landscape. Grassland is not as good at intercepting water as woodland, and shallow rooted plants are likely to be associated with less permeable soil than deep-rooted ones.

Let's encourage water to soak into the soil

Let’s encourage water to soak into the soil

Whilst the latest flood could not have been avoided no matter what the land use in Ceredigion, it could have been reduced if we had more woodlands (especially in the uplands) and a generally more permeable landscape throughout the river catchments. And many of us can do something about this… if you have a garden, you could make sure that the ground is permeable  – so no more patios and paved driveways, consider gravel and grasscrete. Build up the organic matter in your garden – this will help to hold water and be an effective defence against both flood and drought. Install water butts, so that you catch as much of that precious commodity as you can when it’s plentiful and prevent it literally going down the drain. And, finally plant trees and shrubs to intercept the water, root deep into the soil to allow water to percolate down and provide shelter from sun and wind which will dry out your garden anyway.

As I watch the pictures on the television of more and more flooded areas in the UK, I can’t help wishing that planners would take into account how water moves through the landscape, so we can avoid some of the damage, loss of property and personal distress.


My original post Water, water everywhere can be found here.

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