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):

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:

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