Monthly Archives: April 2011

Our Life with Chickens: Part 2

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 MetChickens try (and fail) to use ramp!posts. 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 stairs are a successthe 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 toHappily perching in the new house 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!

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Lily Joins the Flock

Having lost Letty, our little flock was down to five hens. I did not want to wait too long to get another hen, as I thought we could integrate a sixth hen better than last time and wanted to replenish the flock before winter set in. On a gloriously sunny Saturday in early September 2008, we went to the Penistone Show, an annual agricultural show with amazing tents full of poultry, rabbits, country crafts, horse riding competitions, sheep pig goat and cattle judging, and so on. We had spent the whole day at the show, and were about to go home, when I noticed that Storrs Poultry had a stand, with equipment and hens for sale. We had bought all of our hens from Storrs, and knew their birds were of excellent quality. In one small pen there were half a dozen Warrens. Most of the birds were fairly subdued, having had a long day in the pen, but one was climbing over the others searching for a way out; she seemed feisty and I wanted her! She had a beautiful ruff of pale cream feathers making her stand out from the other plainer brown hens. We had not intended to come home with anything other than some pots of local honey and a bundle of leaflets; instead we acquired a hen! The only box they had for transporting her was rather large and it was all I could do to carry it back to the car, as she was constantly moving around in the box scratching at the floor of the box as though trying to escape. On the way home, I announced that she was called Lily – I don’t know why, I just liked the name (and the flower) and it seemed appropriate. We arrived home and left Lily in the box with water and feed, shut in the garage until night fall. I was determined that she would be integrated into the flock more successfully than Dolly Polly and Molly. Lily shortly after her arrival

After dark, we took her out of the box and carried her to the hen house, placing her in one of the nest boxes. She seemed calm and sleepy, and the other hens noticed nothing. The next morning I got up early, and let them out of the house; they were a bit narky and the after-dark introduction trick had not really worked as well as I had hoped, but Lily was pretty nimble on her feet and managed to avoid most of the beaks aimed at her. She kept herself to herself much of the time, but when we let the flock out to roam the garden, she seemed to stick with the others and enjoyed scratching.

She had been with us a couple of weeks when I began to notice that she was not really eating; she pecked and scratched but did not actually eat. She also seemed slower than when she had first come to us, and when she thought she was unobserved would stand hunched up looking miserable; she had been such a feisty hen at the Show, but now she seemed subdued and fed-up. I was at a loss to know what to do; I picked her up and felt her crop and it was empty, so too was her stomach. It looked like she had not eaten for days, and I could not tempt her with treats even when she was away from the others. I had always put down two or three bowls of food in the run so that the shyer hens would get something, but this did not appear to be working for Lily. I called Richard for advice, and he kindly came over after work to take a look at her. She was still sleeping in the nestbox, well away from the others, so it was relatively easy to pick her up and bring her into the house for examination. He thought that she had a bit of an over-bite beakwise, and we gently filed the tip down just a little to see if that made any difference. He also advised worming her and forcing some food into her beak as she may have “forgotten” how to eat. The only worming treatment I had was Verm-X pellets, so we forced a few of those into her beak and made sure she swallowed them. There was little else we could do, but observe and re-treat if necessary, so we put her back out in the nestbox.

The next morning I woke with some trepidation and went to let the hens out. Lily ran out of the house and immediately started cramming as much food into her beak as she could! The others stood and watched in some bemusement as the little hen made up for two weeks of not eating. After that there was no stopping her, and although I watched her carefully for some weeks afterwards, she always had a well-filled crop, and the sad look in her eyes had disappeared. I have since heard of other instances where, taken out of her usual environment a hen can forget how to eat, so Lily was not an unusual case.

So now we had a nicely balanced flock, two black, two grey, and two brown. Laying continued well, although it tailed off a little over the winter.

The following Spring, Lily again gave me cause for concern. When she thought I was not looking, she would stand around hunched up, sometimes on one leg; if she saw me watching her she would pretend to peck at the ground, but I was not fooled. She sometimes stood apart from the rest of the flock, but it was interesting to see that they did not abandon her nor did they peck or chase her as her lowly place in the pecking order befitted, but seemed to actually be supporting her in a chickeny sort of way. They grazed and scratched within a few feet of her, never letting her stand for long on her own, as though they realised she was too weak to keep up with them. I had to do something, so I took her indoors, examined her, investigated her symptoms in the Chicken Health book, and decided to keep her indoors for a few days. She obviously had a stomach upset, so ground her food up in the blender and prepared a drench of very diluted molasses for her to drink. I also constructed a temporary hut from a cardboard box, cut a “pophole” in the side and filled it with bedding material; I set this down in the porch and Lily was put into her new temporary home. She stayed there for three days, having worming treatment and a little food. She gradually regained her strength and her appetite, and once she was fully recovered I put her back out with the others.

Touch wood, she has not had any other problems, and has been a seemingly happy member of the flock since. When we built the new chicken house, we made sure there was a seconLily after her moultd perch so that she could get away from the pecking at night if she wanted to, and she certainly used it, except when it was very cold and she found the need to snuggle up no matter that she was pecked. When she moulted in the Winter of 2010, she lost her pale ruff of feathers, and developed a very interesting colour: dark gingery head and neck, changing suddenly to pale buff for her wings and the rest of her body. She is a striking looking hen! She is no longer the bottom of the pecking order either; she now has a lowlier hen to bully, but that is another story!

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The Orchard

I’m not holding my breath for a huge crop of apples, but at least we have made a start. In 2009 we planted four trees: an eating apple (Winston), a dual purpose (Howgate Wonder – good for Yorkshire), a crab apple (John Downie) and a plum (Marjorie’s Seedling). The first summer, we had four crab apples and plenty of blossom on the others just no fruit. The second summer, very little blossom after a poor Spring and only one crab apple. In truth, I am a little disheartened. I know we live on a windy hillside in one of the cooler parts of the country, but I chose the varieties carefully, read extensively on apples and plums and ordered from very reputable nurseries, then planted them in the most sheltered south-facing part of the garden. Perhaps we were just unlucky with the weather last year that destroyed the blossom; perhaps it was too wet/dry at critical times; perhaps there were too few bees to pollinate the meagre blossom that survived the spring winds. This year, I have my fingers crossed as the Spring has been benign and the blossom buds plentiful.

But I am not giving up yet. We have just planted four more apple trees. In recognition of my OH’s desire for the amber nectar, we have purchased four cider apple trees. Yorkshire is not reknowned for its cider-making, but we are determined to give it a go. For the last year, we have been brewing our own cider, but not from scratch. Instead, we have been using cheap apple juice to produce TurboCider. This is a ridiculously easy thing to do. If you google TurboCider you will find lots of recipes and video demonstrations. The recipe we like best is this one.

You need:
A demijohn, cork and airtrap – available from Wilkinsons and lots of internet brewing sites
Siphon – to get it out of the demijohn when it is ready
A small sachet of champagne wine yeast (about a teaspoon)
Four-and-a-half litres of pure apple juice – from a supermarket (don’t get the sort with sugar or sulphates)

For the best results, you need to sanitise all equipment first, using metabisulphite, also available from brewing websites.

Once the equipment is ready, pour three litres of juice into the demijohn, add the sachet of yeast, give the demijohn a good shake to mix the yeast into the liquid, then put in the cork and airtrap and fill the airtrap with clean water. In only a couple of hours you will see the yeast begin to work. It is not necessary to put it in a very warm place – we leave ours in a fairly cool room. Leave the demijohn for 36 hours for the yeast to bubble up and subside, then add the remaining one-and-a-half litres of juice. The yeast will bubble up again, sometimes even through the airtrap, but after a day or two it will subside. Leave in the demijohn for two or three weeks until the yeast has dropped to the bottom and the cider is clear, then siphon off into sanitised bottles. You will get approximately 6 wine bottles full from one demijohn. You can leave the bottles to mature, or drink immediately – it tastes pretty good either way. And it is ridiculously cheap. Ignoring the cost of equipment, which is an investment, the yeast costs £1 a sachet, and the juice as little as 42pence per litre (we buy it in bulk from Costco), so the resulting cider costs about 60pence per litre. And you have the joy of having made something for yourself.

One day, we may have the satisfaction of pressing our own fruit and brewing in the time-honoured slow and steady way, but for now, TurboCider is a good substitute.

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Our Life with Chickens: Part 1

It was a difficult decision to make, taking on a coop full of hens. Neither of us had cared for pets since we were children, both of us suffer from asthma, both of us work full time. On the plus side, we have a large field for them to scratch in, and I had had a lot of contact with birds in the past, even a Silkie cockerel that my Mum and Dad took in when the local school needed to find the chick a home during the school holidays.

I worked at the time with Richard, who had been keeping hens off and on all his life. He loaned me magazines on poultry, showed me pictures of his small flock, and extolled the virtues of having hens of your own at almost every conversation. Paul and I discussed it at length, and then, in late August 2007, we made up our minds, went to B & Q and bought plywood, and spent August Bank Holiday weekend making a 4ft by 3ft house and an enclosed run. After work, during the following week, I called in at our local agricultural merchants and bought feed, drinkers and feeders, and at work I arranged with Richard how and what we were going to buy. Richard said he would choose some good birds from a well-established local poultry breeder for us, and on the first Sunday in September he brought over three lovely point of lay Black Rocks. I immediately named them Hetty, Betty and Letty. Hetty was quite a well built chicken, with a good pink comb, and obviously already in lay as less than two hours after they arrived I found an egg in the nestbox. Letty was the smallest of the three with a beautiful ruff of golden feathers. Betty, well we were not sure Betty was actually female, so I thought if I called her Betty we could change it easily to Bertie should she start doodling. Betty had almost no comb, pale eyes and did not lay. Our little flock was complete. I discovered that evening, though, that they needed to be shown where they were to sleep, as despite having been in and out of the house all day they just stood around looking confused when dusk fell. I flickered a torch at the pophole until they finally got the message. I had to do this each night when I got home Betty's first day with usfrom work for several days, but this was not a problem since I spent my time – from 5pm when I got home until dusk – with the flock, sitting on a folding chair next to their pen, and passing them sunflower seeds and handfuls of fresh grass through the mesh. I watched them avidly; if I was not outside with them I watched them through the window. Their activities were endlessly fascinating. Within a couple of days they were eating seeds from my hand. An egg arrived every couple of days laid, we suspected, by Hetty. We discovered that they liked grapes with a passion, and Betty would climb over the others to get more than her fair share. By the end of their first week with us, I found a small speckled egg in the nestbox, quite unlike Hetty’s previous offerings. The next day a larger speckled egg arrived; we were now convinced that Letty had started laying.

At the end of their first week, we let them out into the field and watched as they got to know the land. I reported in my diary that Betty appeared to be the lowest in the pecking order. They branched out into our neighbour’s field and were not very co-operative when I tried to herd them back. After that I left them to roam. They seem to enjoy the field as there were lots of bugs in the short grass left over from the last flock of sheep.

After 15 days we were getting two eggs nearly every day; Letty was definitely the new layer, and she took her time each day to produce a good sized brown egg, and let everyone know after that she had finished! Our first omelette was fantastic!

In early November I went away for a week for a conference and while I was away Betty suddenly produced a tiny egg; hooray, Betty was a girl after all! Continue reading

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