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 from 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!
Whenever we were digging in the vegetable beds, they would be under our feet courting death as the spades rained down on the soil. They cleaned up all the maggots and snail eggs we unearthed, and even developed a passion for snails crushed under my wellington boot, but they would not touch slugs no matter how tiny the slugs we unearthed were.
We loved them from the first moment. Each was a very different character. Betty was quite bold but was not keen on cuddles. She would sidle up to me if she thought I had her favourite treats, but would not let me pick her up, or if I did manage to she struggled and flapped until I released her. Betty laid (and continues to lay) smallish pale beige eggs. Hetty was more amenable than Betty, and suffered being cuddled; she became a little plump from all of the treats she wheedled out of me. Hetty’s eggs were large elongated objects. Letty was nervy and flitted away if I came too near; she was the first to become broody, shortly after we went on holiday leaving the hens in the care of a neighbour. A few weeks after we returned, she went broody again, after having been startled by something. Her eggs were wonderful, huge brown things, very distinctive in size and shape.
The little flock was great, we loved having the eggs and even sold the odd half dozen to neighbours and workmates. We got into a routine of opening them up in the mornings before work, topping up their feed and water, and collecting any early eggs; then shutting them up at night; and at weekends, letting them into the garden to destroy the vegetable beds and flower border. They were voracious worm gobblers, although Betty got most of them; she was becoming the head of the flock, and several times I caught her pecking Hetty’s comb drawing blood. I was concerned about this behaviour, as they had always been friends and equals before.
In early June 2008, we went on holiday for two weeks, and all the time were away I dreamed of more hens. We had built the house to accommodate six hens; three more would be wonderful, but the run would need extending. When we returned we noticed that the hens were acting oddly, Betty being even more of a bully towards Hetty (Letty was having another spell of broodiness so was not affected). I really wanted some more hens, and had set my heart on Cream Legbars, but the poultry breeder did not have any, so I took a look at what they had and fell in love with the Bluebelles, stunning pale grey birds with darker grey markings. I bought two of them, Polly and Molly, and one Warren, Dolly. It was sunny and hot when I brought them home on 4th July; I had let the black rocks out of the run into the garden, and I put the new girls into the run so that they could explore their new living arrangements. The “old” girls were very vocal in their dislike of the new interlopers, and an argument soon ensued. Getting them into bed that night was very difficult and the two sets of hens did not settle together for months. I later read that we had done completely the wrong thing, and should not have let them see each other before merging them after dark. We would do better next time.
Dolly, the Warren, was very friendly. She would sidle up to me and I could just reach down and pick her up for a cuddle. She would do the same to visitors as well! She seemed to know no fear, and was very speedy on her feet, darting out of the way of Betty’s beak and getting to the treats before everyone else. She was a real character. Polly and Molly (almost indistinguishable for many months) were a different proposition. Nervous and flighty, they would not suffer me to come near them, and it took a long time to get them to eat from my hand. They did not get on with Dolly at all and poor Dolly quickly became the bottom of the pecking order.
July continued hot and sunny. The hens’ house was just outside our kitchen door and under our bedroom windows, and they made their feelings known if I did not get up early to let them out at the weekend. So I would get up early, let them out into their run and then go back to bed for another hour or so. I don’t know what made me change the routine on Sunday 27th July; perhaps I was still asleep and didn’t fully appreciate the danger; that morning, I let them out into the run and then left the door of the run open so that they could roam. It was before seven o’clock, and I went back to bed and to sleep. I remember hearing a cacophony later but was too drowsy to take it in. We eventually got up and I went downstairs to start making breakfast. The two Bluebelles were standing on the drystone wall between our field and our neighbour’s; I could not see any other hens from the window. I went outside to try to get them back into our field, and there was Hetty cowering under a bush looking wide-eyed and terrified, and Dolly wandering in our neighbour’s garden. Betty was nowhere to be seen. None of the hens were keen to move from their places. I walked around the bushes and there was Letty lying still in a sunny spot in the open. I ran to get Paul, speechless with the horror of the scene, and wept in his arms.
Paul dug a grave under the hawthorn trees and we laid Letty to rest there, marked by a cairn of stones.
We later deduced that Letty had been sunning herself in a favourite spot and a hawk had attacked and killed her where she lay, there was a pile of feathers next to her, as though the hawk had been plucking her and had been disturbed. We were surprised that a hawk would attack a chicken (we had never seen Hen Harriers in our skies) but Letty was the smallest of the three black rocks. I was distraught for days afterwards at my carelessness, and was reluctant to let the chooks out. Hetty also was distraught, she had lost her sister and friend, and had doubtless seen it happen – I could see the distress in her eyes. For months afterwards, Hetty would be the last into the house at night, and she would stand at the gate looking for Letty and calling for her. It was so sad to watch her as she finally gave up and went into the house to sleep.