I have never considered myself to have “an addictive personality”. I don’t smoke, drink only a little wine to enhance and complement food, and think gambling is a mugs game. But when it comes to chickens, well yes I think I am addicted or at least obsessed. Six lovely friendly remarkable hens was just not enough, I wanted more, and so I hatched my plans.
Our six ladies had really outgrown their house and we wanted to give them something larger, with a bigger secure pen. The first task was to get the pen built, and the local firm who had worked for us before were engaged to build it, 15 metres square, of 6foot high welded mesh buried 18inches into the ground. This would give us a (hopefully) fox-proof environment where we coud leave the hens while we were out at work; they would still be let out to enjoy the rest of the land when we were at home. The site we selected was sheltered by large hawthorn trees on the western side, protected in winter from the prevailing winds, and providing excellent sunshade and dustbathing facilities during the summer.
A bigger house and pen would also allow us to expand the flock, and we spent a lot of time driving to coop builders and comparing the build quality of the offerings. It looked like we would have to spend £600 at least to get the size we wanted, and even then each one we saw had one or more features we did not like. In the end we decided to build our own, and we would use high quality materials and build in all of the features we wanted. We designed the house on the back of an envelope and started on Easter Saturday 2010, visiting a small timber merchant in Huddersfield and carefully selecting wood and fixings. By the end of the Easter holiday weekend we had completed the floor of the house, 8ft by 4ft. We spent at least one day every weekend working on the project; sometimes taking a trip to buy more wood or fixings, sometimes not being able to work on it at all. It took over half the garage and the cars lived outside for weeks as there was no room for them.
The plan was to finish the house and move the flock into it, then clean and renovate the old house and fill the smaller house with rescue hens. They would recover their feathers and build their confidence, and eventually would join the “old” girls in the larger house. The summer wore on and we were no closer to finishing the new house; I kept watching the British Hen Welfare Trust release dates for Yorkshire, but there were none available, and even if there were hens to be had we didn’t have the room ready. Eventually, at the beginning of August, we finally erected the new house, fixing it to the ground with Metposts. The house looks great; being on 18 inch legs, there is room underneath for the chickens to shelter, dustbathe, etc. We first built a ramp, covered in chicken wire, but they still found it too steep and slippery, and we had to rethink. With some spare wood, we constructed a small staircase; this was much better! They had to be encouraged up the stairs with grapes, but at least they made it to the top!
The ladies were very interested, and kept going in and out of the pophole, and chattering excitedly; but when it came to bedtime, they trooped back to the old house! We tried again the next day, but again they preferred their familiar surroundings. So we had to take matters into our own hands. That night we let them go to bed as normal in the old house, ate our tea, then went outside with torches and opened up the old house by removing the roof. There they all were on the perch, very calm considering we had just put them in a very vulnerable position. Paul led the way with the torch and I carried them one by one to the new house. They were a little intrigued but hopped up onto the perch and settled down very quickly. So far so good. The next morning I got up early and went to let them out. At first they were confused by the steps, and hesitated over each one. It took a long time for all six hens to descend from the giddy heights down the steps, but only Polly bottled it completely; she took only two steps and then flew off the staircase! Nevertheless, they seemed to manage OK, and used the nestboxes during the day, so did not find the steps too difficult for that. However, come dusk, they were all waiting at the gate to be let back to the old house! I had to show them with a torch the way to their roost, helping each one to climb the steps again. This went on for a couple of days, and then finally it clicked and they were happy to go to bed themselves. Success!
They loved the new run, the hawthorn trees had always been a favourite spot before we built it so we knew that it was a good place have it. The soil underneath the trees was dry and fine, so perfect for dustbathing, and when in leaf perfect shelter for rain or sun. Now we had to organise some rescue hens before autumn set in, as the cold winds on our hill would not be good for semi-naked hens!