Happy hens, tasty eggs

When I decided to keep a few hens in my back garden I envisaged them free ranging wherever and whenever they wanted. The reality has been a little different. Their scratching and dust bathing damages grass and plants, their poop gets everywhere, and unless fenced in they will not always stay within the confines of the garden. Over the years I have worked out how to keep both humans and birds happy by restricting their access to certain parts of the garden. By and large this works well for all.

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The hen garden offers free ranging space whatever the weather, but the girls are always happier when let loose on grass

After many months of rain, the ground has finally dried out, the grass is growing, and I am allowing my little flock to free range more widely. Yesterday, with the doors to the house flung open, we had an unexpected visitor.

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Much as I love my hens, they are not allowed indoors. Daenerys is one of four new birds that we purchased about a month ago and who can now run with the rest of the flock. They are very friendly and curious, perhaps a little too happy to explore. Despite having run chicken wire around our entire garden, one of these new girls has managed to make her way into our neighbouring woodland on several occasions recently. I only realised that this was happening when a lovely lady knocked on my door one evening last week to return a feathered friend she had come across on a nearby public footpath.

A mixture of fencing and garden netting should prevent them getting this close to the house, but it appears that this little lady has found a way to circumvent such obstacles. I will need to be a little more alert to their activities as I do not wish this to become a habit.

I currently have twelve hens in my little flock. One of my speckledys is broody so I am having to lift her out of the nest box several times a day to ensure that she eats and drinks. In this warm weather she could quickly become dehydrated, but she does not appreciate my efforts and clucks angrily when I remove her from her non existent eggs. This particular bird goes broody most years and I have asked my son to make me a broody cage in an effort to return her to the flock more quickly.

With the long days and the dry weather the birds can scratch, preen, dustbathe and stretch out in the sun from mid morning, when I collect their eggs, to early evening when I shut them back into their caged runs to ensure that they eat their supper of pellets and thereby lay well the next day. This is an ideal life for a hen and they appear happy and alert, with clean vents, glossy feathers and bright red combs.

We did have one sad day last week when one of my white sussex prolapsed and had to be dispatched. Upsetting though it is to have to do this, I still believe it is kinder to deal quickly with a bird who is obviously distressed and in pain. This was her chatting to a friend just a few weeks ago.

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We are getting a fair number of eggs so I am able to supply a few local friends as well as feeding them to my family. I do enjoy an egg for breakfast and I managed to make a near perfect quiche last week, no mean feat for a generally incompetent cook such as myself.

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Today I took delivery of a new shed so I need to go out and dismantle the old one, which has rotted through in the damp weather we suffered through the winter. I use it to store all my feed and other chicken paraphernalia, so damp is an issue. Like my chicken coops, the new shed is plastic so I am hoping it will prove to be more durable than the wooden one it replaces. Unfortunately it was not available in funky styles or colours. I call my coops the Purple Palace and the Pink Penthouse. The new shed is unlikely to be given a name.

 

Moods

Riding this roller coaster of moods is exhausting. Yesterday I woke up feeling low. By late afternoon I had cheered up sufficiently to pour myself a glass of wine and start my Christmas shopping. An hour or so later I was feeling festive and regretted not decking the halls as my youngest had requested. Yet a short and innocuous enough exchange with my husband whilst preparing dinner brought me close to tears again. I can’t be doing with this. It makes no sense. I retreated under my duvet early last night, I mean really early. I will try to do better today.

First though, an observation. I seem to have lost the ability to talk sense. As can only be expected, my family discuss an eclectic mix of topics. Space travel, chemical reactions, medical issues, the latest innovations in computer technology, and television programmes that I do not watch were all covered this weekend. There was little that I could join in with. I try to follow what is being discussed in the hope that I may learn something, but trying to take part merely shows up my ignorance. It is therefore galling that, on the rare occasions when I should know what I am talking about, I can still spout nonsense and allow myself to appear witless.

We have plenty of areas of mutual interest but they rarely get raised around the dinner table. I seem unable to present my thoughts in a way that generates curiosity. I no longer seem able to contribute anything coherent enough to be worthwhile. It is frustrating for me that I am turning into the foolish old woman that my children see me as.

What happened to the clever young thing that I used to be? Despite attempting to exercise it regularly, my brain appears to have atrophied. It exasperates me that I seem to be contributing to the low opinion my children have of my mental abilities each time I speak.

However, I must learn to live with what I am and seek to improve when I have the opportunity. Today is Day 2 of my countdown to Christmas and I am looking for positives in my day.

Our weather continues to be dry and not too cold so I decided to work outside. This view from the bottom section of my garden, even on a dull December day, is cheering. There are still enough leaves to add colour, but the view over the fields has opened up as the foliage descends.

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It is this descent that I was tidying up. Barrow load after barrow load of leaves were raked and lifted into sacks for disposal. I am sure it must be a great workout. As my husband has taken my little car to work, something that he does fairly regularly to keep it ticking over as I use it so infrequently, I was able to fold down the seats in our MPV and use it to cart rubbish to the recycling centre. Thus our garage is no longer clogged up with an old mattress and the broken door and bed end that have been gracing the front of our house for well over a month have now gone to be turned into…  I do wonder if the myriad of rubbish that is so carefully sorted and transported to the recycling centre actually get recycled.

I enjoy a good clear out though. It has been a tiring but fulfilling day, I am well exercised and my garden looks a lot neater. I will put my hens safely back in their runs and prepare for the return of my children from their long day at school.

Then I just need to make sure that I hold on to this positive mood through the evening. That would make it the good day I am aiming for.

Allowing our new chickens to free range

After ten days of living with us, our four new chickens are well settled into their new home. The little coop and run in which they have been staying are within sight of the our other hens so they can all get used to each other’s presence. I have been spending time with them each day so that they also get used to me. Although they are still wary, they will now take tasty treats from my hand.

One of the main reasons for keeping new birds segregated from an established flock for a period of time is to ensure that they do not bring any diseases with them that could be detrimental to the health of all the hens. Thankfully, my new chooks continue to look and act exactly as I would wish. Typically for young birds that are not yet in lay, they are flighty and active. They are also inquisitive and respond well to gentle attention.

Before I can let them free range in the main garden though, I need to be sure that they will return to their enclosed run when I need to round them up. As with my other birds, I am training them to respond to the promise of a tasty treat.

I keep a plastic pot filled with mixed corn that I shake to attract my hens attention when they are running free. Hens regard mixed corn as I would regard chocolate! They will follow me to ensure that they get their share of what they have learnt I will scatter for their delectation. Sometimes they will jump at the pot to try to get to it first; all of them will get under my feet as I try to proceed towards the run. I find their excitement and anticipation adorable.

When I have all of the birds around me by the run I will throw a few handfuls of corn inside and shut the gate when they have all rushed in to  scratch for their share. This procedure has proven effective in rounding up my flock quickly at any time of the day when I need them to be safely enclosed.

With my new girls I have been shaking the corn pot to get their attention each day and then scattering a handful of corn in their run. They now get very excited when they see me. They associate me with the prospect of a favourite food, which is exactly what I need to happen.

We have just enjoyed a lovely, sunny weekend here in Wiltshire so I decided that late yesterday afternoon would be a good time to allow the new girls to enjoy their first free range. The old girls had to be put away first to ensure that there were no arguments. The two flocks will not be allowed out together until I am happy that I can control any disputes, probably in another couple of weeks. Until then they will have to free range at separate times of the day.

Having secured the old girls in their run, I opened the gate of the new girls run and stood back to watch. Three of them emerged slowly and warily before spotting what looked to be a tasty bush and starting to snack on the leaves. The fourth chook was watching from the run, wandering up and down in an agitated way, but unable to work out how to join her friends. Eventually we opened the egg hatch in the coop and she hopped out of that.

Freedom gained, all the girls explored their new territory while our old girls watched in disbelief that these previously caged interlopers had been granted the freedom of their garden while they remained shut in. We fed the new girls some leaves and even managed to pick a couple of them up for a cuddle. They need to get used to being handled as this will enable me to regularly check that they are maintaining a healthy weight and are free of parasites. At this stage though, it is best to proceed cautiously. I do not wish them to develop fear of human contact from being forced to comply with something that they still find frightening.

I gave the new girls about an hour of freedom during which time they spread their wings, jumping and flapping as chickens do. They pecked and scratched and said hello to the established flock through their bars. When I shook the corn pot they came running but couldn’t all work out where I had thrown their treat. A little shepherding was required before they were safely enclosed. They will soon learn; it was a very successful first free range.

I will go through the same procedure every few days until all the chooks will reliably return to their run. They will then be granted their freedom for an hour or so each day, depending on the time I have to supervise. Yesterdays taster session allowed them only to explore our small chicken garden. They cannot be allowed the pleasure of the main garden until they have shown that they know how to behave.

I love to see my hens scratch and peck freely but have learnt from experience that it is best to take small steps; to proceed gradually. Stressful situations are not good for chickens and not good for me. If I need to go out then I like to leave my hens safe in their fully enclosed runs. Flighty chickens can jump high fences and I do not want any of my girls to find their way into our neighbouring woodland where predators are more likely to find them. If they are to be granted the freedom of our garden then they need to reliably and quickly return to base when I require them to do so.

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Adding new chickens to an established flock

Chicken keeping can be an addictive hobby. When I got my first three birds I did not consider the possibility of adding to the flock. The steep learning curve that I went through on dealing with these feisty and adorable feathered friends made me realise how much pleasure could be derived from having a small flock of chickens running around the garden. By the time we suffered our first fatality I was feeling more knowledgeable and confident about many aspects of chicken keeping and wanted more.

I had learnt that chickens thrive in a flock and that a lone bird could suffer from a lack of friends. Introducing new birds to an established flock can be tricky, but bullying can be minimised if more than one bird is added at a time. The established birds do not then have a focus for their anger at having their territory invaded by interlopers. I decided that the best course of action would be to add two new birds to my remaining two to ensure that I would never have to deal with a lone and lonely hen.

That first attempt at introducing new birds taught me a great deal. As I had one coop and run they all had to sleep together, but this lead to what looked like vicious attacks. Adding new birds also risks passing on diseases as new and old will not have the same resistances. After a failed attempt at putting all the chickens in together at night and hoping they would simply wake up and accept each other, I divided the run with a bamboo criss cross fence and gave the new girls a pet carrier with improvised roosting bars to sleep in at the far end of the run. This arrangement was far from ideal but meant that the birds were safe and could see each other without being able to attack.

Chickens may appear daft but they are capable of breaking through fences when they are determined enough to get to the other side. Why did the chicken cross the road? Because she wanted to. During my regular checks I would find the old girls in the new girls area of the run and the new girls cowering in the old girls area. How these birds squeezed through the small gaps in the barrier I had created perplexed me and I would add more and more bamboo canes to the improvised divide. My attempts to keep them apart were constantly foiled.

After a few days I decided that this wasn’t working but, as no bird had been injured, I removed the barrier and let them run together. The severity of the pecking had subsided and, although the new girls still acted unhappy, they seemed to be coping. Over time they were accepted and their life became peaceful. I had learned that introductions need to be better managed.

Four chickens still didn’t seem like enough so when we were offered a stray hen that one of my daughter’s friends had discovered roosting in the trees in her garden we looked into buying a second coop. Finding just the sort I wanted available second hand in our area made me think that this was all meant to be. Once again I was wary of adding a single bird to the flock so I purchased one more hen. We moved the existing flock to the new, bigger coop and our two new additions went in the old coop. Stray hen didn’t take too kindly to the friend I had provided for her but things settled down quickly enough with no injuries sustained in establishing the pecking order.

We now had enough housing and big enough runs for fourteen hens. As we only had six I was itching to get more birds. We gave the flock a few months of sleeping apart but running together in the garden before we put stray hen and her friend in the big coop and purchased four pullets to put in the small coop. With two separate houses and runs available, introductions became easy and something we could now do annually with ease.

Hens start laying eggs at around five months old. Those bred to be commercial egg layers, the little brown hybrid hens, should then lay well for around a year. Although they can continue to lay for a further two years after this, their eggs may not be as strong shelled and their laying can be less predictable. Commercial establishments replace their entire flock after eighteen months as they do not wish to feed any hens that are not laying good eggs.

Pure bred hens are not kept for commercial egg production. These birds have a longer life expectancy and will lay well for longer, but go off lay through the winter months and have a tendency to go broody in the spring. In order to keep the lines pure, breeders will keep a close eye on the flock and cull any birds with defects. They will also ensure that birds are kept in separate enclosures so that matings can be managed. If new birds are to be added then they will be introduced as chicks.

Small, domestic flocks are therefore the only ones where birds of varying breeds and ages run together. I have been told that the varying ages and colours are a factor in bullying issues. If I wish to maintain harmony then I should entirely replace all my birds rather than adding just a few at a time and allowing the established birds to remain when they stop laying. I should also keep just one breed so that all birds in the flock look the same.

My experience has shown me that this is good advice but still I do not follow it. I like having lots of hens and we are very fond of our birds. I will only dispatch one if she gets ill and I cannot make her better. I currently have several hens eating my expensive feed and producing no eggs; they can be recognised by their shrunken comb. A laying head has a large, bright red comb. This turns pinkish and becomes just a little ridge on the head when a hen goes off lay.

I like little brown hybrid hens as I have found them the easiest to deal with. If I had my way then that is all we would keep but the rest of my family prefer variety. Thus we have brown, grey, black and speckled birds running around our garden. The variety does look very pretty but each acts differently and we do have occasional issues with broodiness and bullying. Giving the birds enough space minimises most issues as boredom and overcrowding can exacerbate problems.

Having put all our existing birds together in the big coop recently, we purchased four new pullets yesterday. At around seventeen weeks old they look very sweet and seemed to settle in well to their new home. I will be spending a lot of time with the flock over the coming weeks, ensuring that all remains well. As we drove to the farm that supplies us I reminded my husband and children that I wanted four little brown hens this time. We came home with two light sussex and two partridge leghorns. My daughter has named them after the angels from Supernatural and they are beautiful.

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Gabriel, Castiel, Balthazar and Lucifer settle into their new home

War!

My neighbour and I are waging war. Not on each other I am glad to say, but on a most unwelcome invader of our peaceful and private outdoor spaces. Our gardens have become a favoured hunting ground for rats.

Their presence is not a surprise, but their current proximity to our houses needs to be discouraged. I live next to a wood, maintain numerous compost bins at the bottom of the garden, feed wild birds from a well stocked table and have several areas of decking which I have been told offer attractive nesting places for such beasts who may safely hide in the debris that gathers underneath. All of these features though are in the part of the garden furthest from the house. I can live side by side with nature but prefer to keep a respectful distance. I have no wish for the rodents to become so prolific that there is a risk of them entering my home.

I first spotted our current infestation a few days ago. On previous occasions, visits have only been noticeable at dusk. This recent sighting was in broad daylight and the protagonist allowed me to get within a few yards before scurrying away. This lack of fear suggested a youngster; parents and siblings were likely nearby. Today, as I was watching my chickens scratch and peck in the garden, I spotted three of the rodents in the chicken run. This was unacceptable. My expensive chicken pellets will not become easy pickings for disease carrying creatures that I have no wish to welcome.

Despite it being their free range time, I rounded up my little flock and confined them to their run. The hens were not impressed with this turn of events, but the rats will not dare try to steal food from under the beaks of these descendants of the dinosaurs. With the chickens safely enclosed I set up traps in the rat runs that I had observed and hope for a quick kill. I am generally a peace loving person but these interlopers must be vanquished before they become a serious problem.

Both my neighbour and I have placed baited boxes in an attempt to poison the unwelcome visitors. In the long run this is the most effective way of dealing with an infestation, but it does take time. As I have observed so many apparently fearless creatures it is likely that there are many more around. It is likely that a few established pairs have bred and that the increased numbers are now seeking out new territory. They must be culled or those numbers, and the issues that go with them, will only increase.

Nature will normally maintain the hunters and the hunted at supportable levels but man’s intervention has upset the balance. Numbers of rats, squirrels and foxes have been artificially increased due to the extra food that has been made available around housing. Thus I will accept a few mice living in the log pile at the bottom of the garden where they may be picked off by the circling buzzards, but not a family of rats in my chicken coops by the house. I have heard ghastly tales of rats eating live chicken’s legs as they roost.

The cold spring has delayed the natural breeding season meaning that numbers have increased at a time when the daylight hours are long. This is an issue as it makes it more difficult to remove my chicken’s food overnight, something that would not normally be necessary. I do not wish to leave my warm bed at 4.30am in order to put out the breakfast that the hens will expect when they leave their roost just before dawn. Until this current rat issue is successfully resolved though, my feathered friends will have to go hungry until their sleepy protector has had her rest.

I wonder what it is about rats that makes them so unpleasant to so many people. Is it the speed at which they scurry around, the pointy nose and tail or the stories we are brought up with in which the rat is to be feared and driven out? There are many who will find the fearsome fox (an insatiable chicken killer) or the grey squirrel (rats with bushy tails) cute, but few will wish to save the life of a wild rat. Personally, I have little love to offer any of these creatures.

I do not wish any wild animal to become too prolific around my home. I fully support maintaining unmanaged areas with linking corridors to allow our native wildlife to breed and thrive in natural surroundings. I do not, however, wish to encourage unnatural proliferation, and I do not wish to share my home with any wild animals. This is my little patch of garden and I wish to be able to enjoy it safely with my children and my chickens. The rats must go.

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Chickens in the garden, eggs in the kitchen: Part 5

The little flock of hybrid hens that I keep in my back garden are hardy enough to cope with whatever conditions the British weather throws at them. With their personal duvets fluffed up they will sleep cuddled together for warmth on the cold, winter nights. In the warmth of summer they will spread out on their perches and raise their wings slightly to allow air to flow and cool their bodies. However, as with any pets (or people of course), hens can and do get sick.

Hens are stoic creatures and will often hide their illnesses well. As part of the daily routine required to take care of them I will watch each bird as she goes about her business to make sure that all seems well. Hens are active and inquisitive creatures so should be bright and alert. They should have sleek feathers, upright heads and tails, clear eyes and smooth legs. Any change in their demeanour signals a potential problem that requires further investigation.

Minor issues that are easily dealt with can become major problems if left untreated so it is important to take action as soon as anything untoward is spotted. We accept a duty of care when we choose to keep living creatures and their well being, safety and comfort are in our hands. My aim is for my birds to thrive in a pleasant and stress free environment. Hens do not like change so I will try to treat any illnesses that they develop myself in their familiar surroundings. Sometimes a bird will need to be isolated from the flock but I try to minimise this as reintroductions can result in injuries. An established flock is liable to attack an unfamiliar bird.

I am going to go through a number of illnesses and issues that I have had to deal with in this post. If you are of a squeamish disposition then please read no further.

1) Sniffles

Just like humans, hens can catch a cold. I have no idea if that is the correct term for it, but symptoms present in much the same way. The hen will sniffle and sneeze, become more lethargic than usual and show less interest in scratching with the flock. She may look hunched with her head and tail down or rest in the coop during the day. Her eyes may not look as clear as they should. When I spot this sort of behaviour I will add a couple of spoonfuls of poultry spice to their feed and a squirt of apple cider vinegar to their water. These are like vitamin supplements for hens and offer a general pick me up. The entire flock will benefit and therefore be able to fight off any infection that could be passed around. The hen should look better within a few days.

2) Worms

A hen can suffer from a number of internal issues which can be spotted by keeping an eye on their poo. A keeper soon becomes familiar with what is normal and can take steps to treat problems quickly when anything unusual appears in the droppings. As I allow my flock to free range but have kept their runs in the same part of the garden for years (each run can sit on one of two areas available) I need to be vigilant about the risk of intestinal worms. I have had to deal with this once.

The best course of treatment is to mix a powder called flubenvet in with the feed and ensure that the birds eat nothing else for seven to ten days. After this period of time I move the runs to their alternative position, dig over the ground and sprinkle it with a disinfectant called Stalosan F. Even if I do not notice any problems I will move the runs and clean the ground several times a year as a precaution. If left untreated worms will kill a hen.

The worms that I have spotted in the birds poo have been small but noticeable. Other types of worms can afflict hens but can be harder to spot. If my birds look ill, show no other signs of a particular illness and do not recover in a few days then I will consider worming as a precautionary measure. I would not do this more than twice a year.

3) Scaly Leg Mite

A number of my birds have developed scaly leg mite which presents itself as raised scales on the legs when the scales should be close and smooth. The problem is caused by a mite which burrows into the leg, under the scales, causing discomfort and pain. If left untreated this can lame the bird and could thus, ultimately, result in death.

There are many proprietary products available to treat this condition but I use nappy rash cream and petroleum jelly. Applied weekly for around four weeks this quickly soothes the discomfort and kills the mites. The legs are unlikely to look fully recovered until the scales are replaced, normally when the bird moults, but the suffering hen’s gait should improve quickly. Mites can move from bird to bird so the whole flock needs to be carefully checked and all affected birds treated.

4) Blocked Crop

If a hen eats too much long grass or other solid matter then she can suffer a blocked crop. This presents itself as a swollen chest that, in the worst cases, can swing from side to side. A suffering hen will appear to struggle to swallow and may open and close their beak a lot as if gasping for air. If the blocked crop becomes infected then a smelly, greenish brown liquid may come out of their mouth when she leans forward to drink. As all food and water needs to pass through the crop this blockage can be a serious issue and measures need to be taken to try to clear it.

Hens are lactose intolerant so it is not usually a good idea to feed them dairy products. However, live yoghurt can help with digestive issues and this is what I have fed a hen to try to clear a crop. Prior to feeding I have gently massaged the blockage and tilted the hen forward to pour out the accumulated liquid (this is yukky!). The yoghurt is then fed and nature left to take it’s course. I have lost one hen to this problem and successfully treated another. The surviving hen has laid me no further eggs.

5) Calcium Deficiency

Producing eggs and regrowing feathers requires a lot of calcium and I have had two birds who have suffered from severe deficiencies. This has caused them to lose the use of their legs and I have found them collapsed on their sides in the run. Treatment was to isolate them to ensure no bullying and to provide food with added limestone flour and cod liver oil. The food and water offered had to be placed on the ground within reach as the bird could not move. Poo was cleaned away regularly and after about twelve hours the bird could be placed on their feet and hold their body weight. They were then returned to the flock and the general feed treated with limestone flour and cod liver oil for a couple of days. Both birds made full recoveries.

6) Prolapse

Laying all those delicious eggs puts a lot of strain on the hens insides and I have had several birds suffer prolapses. I always try to treat this but have only had one survivor. A prolapse results in blood, which is irresistible to hens, so the suffering bird must be isolated quickly. An attempt can be made to gently push the ejected mass back into the bird (wear disposable gloves to guard against infection). However, if too much damage has been caused or if it all comes out again then the kindest treatment is to dispatch the bird. This should only be done by someone who is confident and capable with the procedure as no bird should be made to suffer.

7) Avoiding Infestations

The plastic chicken coops that I use are not as prone to harbour red mite as wooden houses, but both these little pests and the white lice that can live on a bird must still be watched out for. As well as causing discomfort a major infestation can kill. If I spot anything on a bird or in the coop that I believe may be a risk (e.g. black or white powder like material that is not shed skin) then I will clean out and disinfect the coops. I will then sprinkle a proprietary powder in the nesting material, under my birds wings and around their necks and vents. I have done this as a precaution a couple of times and have, so far, avoided infestations.

8) The Unknown Killer

Sometimes, however vigilant we have been, a bird just dies. It is rare for there to have been no sign of illness, but a hen that has been looking under the weather will generally recover more often than succumb. This week one of my elderly hens started to look a little less alert than is normal. Being an old lady in my flock she was less active than the youngsters already but she had been noticeably stiffer in her movements and less interested in her friends in recent days. Yesterday she went into the nest box (she has not been laying eggs for some time) and tucked her head under her wing. She did not appear to be in pain and had other no visible problems. She showed no interest in food which is never a good sign in a hen. When I closed the coop last night she was in the same position. This morning she was dead.

Losing a pet is always sad. I comfort myself with knowing that my hens live a good life with plenty of food, shelter and space. Their presence in our garden enriches our lives with a great deal more than just eggs. Dealing with their deaths is a necessary part of hen keeping but it is still hard. Today is a sad day as we remember the little chicken that we named Cracker. I wonder if the rest of the flock are aware that she has gone.

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Home

The place where I live has always been very important to me. I like the fact that my mum and dad are still in the house where I was born and raised; being able to return to the original family home is comforting. Growing up I remember only one serious attempt to move house. My mother wished to relocate the family to a more salubrious part of the city but, in the end, my father saw no need for the move and we stayed put. Their house, with it’s gardens front and back, requires upkeep that must challenge my elderly and increasingly frail parents, but they no longer talk of moving. They bought the house when it was new so no other family has ever lived there. Perhaps they too are happy to live amongst the many happy memories that the house holds.

From my mid teens I wanted my independence and looked forward to the day when I would have a home of my own. I had short spells at university and when I first went out to work of renting a room in a shared house, but this always felt transient. As soon as I felt secure in my employment I wished to purchase a place that I could call home. I loved the first little flat that I bought, especially the feeling that it was mine.

When my husband and I got engaged to be married we spent a long time looking for a house that we could buy together. We sold my flat and his house and rented a place for a short time, living out of suitcases as most of our belongings were in storage. Although we searched for a suitable property in several towns and cities I did not like the idea of being overlooked. Our eventual choice of property was as much to do with it’s relative privacy and feeling of open space as about the building. We bought a plot and watched the house being built. I especially liked the idea that no other family would have lived there. It was ours and ours alone. Over the years that we have lived here, everything that has been done to it has been done by us. It holds so many memories of our early married life, the arrival of our children and their subsequent growth and development. It is a good place to live and I cannot imagine leaving it.

My husband’s parents have made quite a number of house moves over the course of their married lives as family circumstances and jobs have changed. They now live in a town a few miles from us which they moved to when they retired. We had a delicious lunch with them yesterday and they were talking about a potential, future move as they consider downsizing. I wonder will I be able to be as sensible when my husband and I no longer require the space that our house affords.

Perhaps surprisingly for someone who values their home so highly I am not particularly house proud. I wish my home to be welcoming and comfortable but rarely manage to keep it as clean and tidy as I would like. Unlike many of my friends, I do not concern myself over tired paint or marked furnishings. Most of the decorating that has been done in the twenty years that we have lived here has been as a result of changing the use of a room. We have extended the house several times and new walls demand fresh plaster and paint. When my husband installed his home entertainment system the wires were embedded in the walls resulting in a need to redecorate the room. The only space that has been changed just for the look is my daughter’s bedroom. Our bedroom still lacks curtains several years after it received it’s first change of wall paint since we moved in.

Although I do my best to keep the house looking presentable, I am not concerned with it being on trend. I select what appeals to me at the time but am very aware that I will probably live with that look for a decade or more during which time fashions will change. I am always impressed when I visit a friend who has decorated a room with accessories that bring out key features and colours in matching hues. As we rarely replace a serviceable item our rooms evolve over time to suit practicality as much as presentation.

Our house is on the edge of a village that sits on a hill so the views from our garden over the farmed fields of rural Wiltshire are fabulous. To one side of our house we have a woodland that once formed part of a King’s hunting forest. It is the location of the house as much as the building that makes it so appealing. I am well aware, however, that it feels like home because of the memories that it has absorbed over the years and the people with whom I share it. Both could be relocated if necessary.

My children do not like the idea of us ever moving from this house. My older two are getting to an age when they are looking forward to moving out and on with their lives, but they have made it clear that they want to come back to this house. I find it interesting that they seem to feel as I did.

Whilst I may recognise that, in time, my husband and I will outgrow our need for a property of this size, I hope that this will not be for many years to come. When I am trying to get this house in order I will look back wistfully on the couple of hours it used to take me to get my first little flat pristine. A small property is so easy to maintain. However, on a sunny summer’s day when I can sit in our garden with a glass of chilled white wine and look out over the valley below our house; when I can watch my family enjoy the space we call ours; I realise how truly blessed I am to live in a place that suits us so well. Home may be a great deal more than a house, but to me this house is a part of what has shaped my family. These bricks and mortar may not be essential, but they have enabled me to enjoy security, constancy and contentment which I value. When my little birds fly the nest they will know that they have a familiar and welcome home to which they may return.

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‘He is happiest, be he king or peasant, who finds peace in his home.’

Chickens in the garden, eggs in the kitchen: Part 4

I keep my little flock of back garden hens in funky coloured, plastic coops. For the first, smaller hen house I consulted my children and we agreed on the colour purple. It has a very pleasing, rounded shape that reminded me of an egg. We called it The Purple Palace. Our second, larger coop is pink which we thought sat well alongside purple. It was picked up second hand so we didn’t really choose the colour. It is raised off the ground allowing the hens to forage and shelter underneath. We call it The Pink Penthouse. I opted for plastic over the more traditional wood for ease of cleaning. Both coops can be quickly taken to bits, power hosed and reassembled when required. Cleaning the coops is never going to be a job to look forward to so making it as easy as possible helps.

Both coops are cleverly designed with integral perches, nest boxes, hatches, removable poop trays and externally operated doors. Our hens have always seemed very content in them, although from time to time we will find a bird determined to sleep in the nest box rather than perch. As this is not good for their feet, legs and feather condition it is to be discouraged. We bought the coops with attached wire runs which provide safe enclosures when we are not around to allow the birds to free range. We have plastic food and water containers that match the coop colours and these attach to the sides of the runs. I have cut and stripped suitable branches and run these above chicken head height in the runs to give the hens somewhere to perch in the day. The roofs of the wire runs have a rather untidy looking collection of shower curtains, camping ground mats and sun shades attached to help protect the hens from the elements.

There are many hen keepers who dislike these plastic hen houses, prefering the look and build of a traditional, wooden coop. I have been very pleased with plastic. One of the issues that chicken keepers must be aware of is the possibility of parasites infesting the hen house. These tiny creatures can make a bird’s life miserable, causing itchiness and discomfort whilst feeding on their blood. If left untreated these tiny creatures can eventually kill a hen. The most common parasite is the red mite which will burrow into the wood of a coop and be extremely hard to eradicate. Mites cannot burrow into the solid structure of a plastic house and power hosing then disinfecting the crevices that do exist will take care of any that try.

I learnt a great deal about keeping chickens from reading widely on the subject; on the internet, from my growing collection of books and from a specialist magazine I subscribed to. I also become quite active on a couple of on line discussion forums and after a couple of years of keeping chickens myself felt confident enough to start giving advice to the many new domestic poultry keepers who were joining the hobby. My enthusiasm for our plastic hen houses resulted in me volunteering to work at home and garden shows for the company that sold them. Although I only managed to do this for a few months before family commitments precluded me from continuing I did enjoy the experience,

Working the shows introduced me to a wide variety of people. There were many who already kept chickens and all had their own firmly held beliefs about how best to treat their birds. The company that I represented was more interested in the new, urban chicken keeper looking to keep just a few hens in a small garden. These people welcomed my advice and experience and I made many sales. Days spent at the shows were long and tiring but I enjoyed the expenses paid travel and the non stop chicken talk. I also learnt about keeping rabbits, guinea pigs and bees as the company sold housing for these creatures. The sort of chicken keepers we signed up wanted pets to cherish. Those who were critical of our set up were generally more interested in keeping utility birds – good egg layers that can be fattened up for meat at the end of their laying lives.

I am not a vegetarian and will eat chicken so have looked into raising birds for meat. Given the way broiler chickens are raised commercially I know that I could give a meat bird a much better quality of life prior to dispatch. It is perhaps a project for the future though. While we continue to choose our cute little pullets in small numbers, give them names and cuddle them daily it is hard to consider ending their lives in order to eat them. The old ladies of our flock can continue to look forward to a peaceful retirement for now. It may not make sense financially, but what pet does?

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Chickens in the garden, eggs in the kitchen: Part 3

One of the more obvious advantages of keeping a small flock of chickens in the garden is the constant supply of freshly laid eggs. I will never tire of the pleasure of going to the hen coops and opening the nest boxes to check for these treasures. We got our first egg from our first chicken within a few days of them moving into our garden. I haven’t had to buy an egg since. When our hens lay more eggs than we can use I have friends who will buy them from us which provides a welcome contribution towards feed costs. The number of eggs laid by the flock depends on many things:

  • the age of each hen;
  • her breed;
  • general health issues;
  • the number of hours of daylight in which she may feed;
  • the ambient temperature;
  • whether she was spooked by a scary aeroplane flying overhead or a sudden noise.

I learnt early never to go into the chicken garden with an umbrella. Better to get wet than to frighten my poor birds with this huge, flying object.

When a hen lays an egg she goes to a familiar place where she feels safe and comfortable. She will move the bedding around with her beak, throwing a little over her shoulder to the right and to the left as she squirms down into a comfy position in the nest that she has made. Having sorted herself out she will wait a little while before rising up slightly and laying the egg that she has been growing in her body for the last twenty-four to twenty-six hours. Some hens, when they lay the egg, will immediately leave the nest box. Others will settle down in an attempt to warm the chick that may be inside. They will check it from time to time, gently turning it with their beak. Once you observe a hen laying an egg you will never again take it for granted. Each egg is a little miracle, produced with such care by these affectionate, funny and loyal birds.

A hen will lay an egg whether or not she runs with a cockerel. Keeping a cockerel will help to maintain order in the flock, minimising the risk of bullying, and will also allow breeding. As I have no wish to raise chicks at this stage I keep only hens. My little flock is made up of different types of hybrid hens of different ages. This is not an ideal set-up. It is recommended that a flock should be of the same age and the same type of bird to minimise the risk of bullying. Pecking can be a serious issue as, if blood is drawn, the birds can become cannibalistic. Thankfully things have never got that bad amongst my birds.

A pullet will come into lay from around twenty to twenty-four weeks of age. It will take a few weeks for her to settle down into regular egg laying during which time eggs will vary in size and some may be soft shelled. A good egg layer will soon be providing an egg nearly every day. Laying hens have large, bright red combs and wattles and should be fully feathered, glossy and sleek. Almost all of their energy goes into producing that delicious, daily egg so they carry little fat. They should be alert and bright eyed, happily running with the flock in search of tasty treats to eat.

Hybrid hens should continue to lay eggs regularly until they are around three years old. As they come to the end of their laying lives the eggs may become larger with weaker shells. When they have laid their lifetime supply of eggs their combs and wattles will turn a pale pink and shrink back in size. These old ladies of the flock will continue to demand the respect of their juniors with a sharp peck if they are not allowed to feed when they wish. They will move more stiffly and face feathers will look paler. Hens do not grow grey and arthritic but that is what comes to mind when I watch my elderly hens as they move around the garden.

There are times in a laying hen’s life when she may take a short break from egg production. It is natural for a hen to moult periodically. This can appear quite dramatic with bald patches appearing and dropped feathers floating around the garden in large numbers. The hens can look worryingly ‘oven ready’ between dropping their old feathers and regrowing their sleek, new, personal duvet. The energy required to produce the replacement feathers can take all of a hens energy leaving none available to produce an egg.

Some types of chicken are also prone to broodiness. When this happens the hen will remain sitting in the nestbox with all the eggs she can find warming under her. She will turn them periodically and leave them only once a day to fill up on food and water, and to rid herself of one enormous, very smelly, broody poo. It takes around twenty-one days for a fertilized egg to develop a chick and hatch. A broody hen will sit on eggs for that length of time. As I do not wish to raise chicks I try to discourage broodiness by removing eggs regularly and lifting the hen out of the nestbox. She will always try to go straight back. If a determined broody is shut out of the nestbox then she will settle herself down as close as possible to where she thinks the eggs are. For the twenty-one days that she displays this behaviour she will lay no eggs.

I am always looking at where I am going next in my hen keeping adventure. When my current birds reach the end of their lives I am considering replacing them all at once with one type of bird. I will stick with hybrids as they lay more eggs per year than pure breeds. Pure breeds are now aimed more at keepers who wish to show birds or who wish to watch pretty little things run around their garden. I find my birds quite pretty enough, and I want them to keep laying me lots of yummy eggs.

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Chickens in the garden, eggs in the kitchen: Part 2

The hands on experience gained from keeping a small flock of hens in my back garden has taught me much about what is required of the domestic poultry keeper. It is not for those who wish to keep a well manicured garden. Hens scratch the ground for food, and clean themselves of parasites by rolling around vigorously in loose soil (dustbathing). Neither of these activities is conducive to a tidy garden. They like to eat; grass, flowers, shrubs, fruit, vegetables; if it grows they are likely to find it tasty. If a hen finds a tasty plant then that is the end of the plant. Garden netting is a wonderful thing but hens are impressive in their ability to get through it when the reward on the other side looks edible.

In the five years that I have kept hens my ambitions to grow my own vegetables have necessarily diminished. When we first got our birds I allowed them to free range wherever they wanted to go in our garden. I loved the idea of hens pottering around; I had not anticipated that they would find the house as interesting as the garden. The first hot, summers day when I came downstairs to find hen poo on the floor of our family room and hens making their way through the front hall was the last time that I left doors open without suitable barricades. Having allowed the square of lawn nearest to our house to become pot holed with dustbaths in the early years I have now fenced it off as a no hen zone. I still grow beans in buckets along the house walls in the hen free area but have given up trying to harvest the raspberries that grow beyond. The hens are drawn to those tasty red fruits long before I can get to them. Our apples grow beyond their reach but they enjoy the windfalls.

I have mentioned hen poo. Of the many things that I had not expected when I first decided to keep hens, the most significant is probably the amount of poo that they produce. The volume of droppings is impressive for such small creatures. To start with I tried to lift and dispose of it all on a daily basis. As the number of birds we kept increased this became quite a chore. The decision to keep them off the square of lawn nearest to the house helped as this was an area much used by my young children and their friends so needed to be kept poo free. The chickens now have a dedicated patch of garden where their coops and runs sit. They free range on the wilder, sloped areas of garden beyond the house. I brush off the paths and decks but the rest of their poo is left as fertilizer. By making chicken care less of a chore I can ensure that they remain welcome in our garden.

Adapting the garden to suit the chickens and adapting our own behaviour to accommodate their habits has helped to keep chicken keeping a pleasure. Each family member has a pair of garden shoes by the back door. This ensures that stepping in something nasty is not an issue. The chicken garden has been relaid to allow the runs to be moved periodically, thus resting the ground that takes the most wear. Paving slabs laid around the run edges ensure that nothing can dig into the run so our birds are safe from predators when enclosed. The borders of our garden are secured with chicken wire that overlaps the ground to keep the birds from straying into our neighbouring woodland. They do still escape periodically. Our neighbours know that we are the chicken keepers and will alert us when they spot feathered visitors sampling their plants. Thankfully this is a rare occurrence.

The benefits of keeping hens more than make up for the damage they cause. I cannot imagine a garden bereft of these fabulous little bundles of feathered character. They are so funny and charming. I walk out of my back door and they flock to greet me. I go around the garden and they follow me hopefully. They flap and argue and sunbathe; get under my feet and cluck loudly for food. They are wonderful creatures.

When our garden looks less than pristine I have this valid excuse for it’s wildness. The chopped wood left in piles; the leaf mulch that is never quite cleared; the hedge borders that could always do with a trim; the playhouse that is rotting but under which the hens love to dustbathe; all provide ideal areas for bugs to breed and chickens to scratch. If our garden is untidy but a haven for our feathered friends then I see no reason to change the way we keep it. Anyway, that is my excuse and I am sticking to it!

A free range hen in a garden.