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Meet The Flock

It strikes me that, lately, I have been dwelling too much on the sad side of keeping chickens – death and disease – and not celebrating the joyous side, so today’s post will be relentlessly happy!

The current flock stands at eleven hens and three cockerels. These are our happy girls and boys. The hens are named Betty, Hetty, Polly, Katie, Isabella, Rosie, Tamsin, Primrose, Tulip, Amber & Goldilocks, and the boys are Angel, Charlie & Freddie.

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And Then There Was One

Mabel on the day of her rescue

In early October 2010, we adopted six ex-barn hens through the British Hen Welfare Trust. We lost one, Enid, within 2 weeks – she simply could not adapt to life outside. We lost another, Ethel, after 40 weeks, of a type of cancer (we think). Gracie died just 1 week short of her Henniversary, in September 2011, again of cancer – she had an enormous growth on the tummy. Just before Christmas, we lost Ginger to the same disease.

We went for six months with no problems, and then suddenly Mabel went off her food and started standing around hunched up and rather sleepy. She even took to sleeping standing up in a nest box – very unusual for her – and dozing off under a bush in the middle of the day when normally she would have been into everything. She allowed me to pick her up but her tummy was obviously tender and she didn’t like me holding her under her chest, squealing pitifully if I tried to pick her up in the usual way. I gave her a short course of Tylan and she appeared to improve and started eating again, but it was not to last. Two weeks later I gave her another course of Tylan and when that had no effect took her to the vet. Although the vet could find no unusual tumours or evidence of peritonitis, she did not hold out a lot of hope. Neither did I, as Mabel seemed very docile (very unlike her usual lively self) and I suspected she was

Ginger and the distinctive “yoghurt beak” effect

blind in one eye. I remembered what had happened to Ethel, and I despaired. I erected the hospital box and put it in the hall and made her comfortable in it, with her favourite treat of grapes chopped up and some yoghurt. She didn’t seem very interested in the grapes but she seemed to enjoy the yogurt and lapped it up, resulting in the inevitable “milk moustache” effect (or “yoghurt beak”), which on a chicken is hilarious. She got lots of cuddles and lots of attention, but all she really wanted to do was snooze.

Two days after seeing the vet, we came down to breakfast and found her on her side in the box, still breathing but not, we suspected, for long. We made her comfortable, and after Paul had gone to work, I sat with her stroking her feathers lightly, talking to her and weeping over her. At about 11am, as I was stroking her neck, she stretched it slightly her eyelid flickered and she was gone.

Ginger & Mabel enjoying carrot cake, grapes and banana on their Henniversary, Oct 2011

Mabel had not been the most docile hen. She had quickly become the top hen amongst the rescue flock, and had wielded her beak ruthlessly against the others. She was the fastest to feather up, mainly because she pecked out any new feathers that appeared on the other hens’ backs or tails. Ginger had had a particularly bad time, and retained a scraggy tail for over a year. Mabel’s attitude was so detrimental to the rest of the rescue flock that, after two months in the small hen house we had to move her to the main house, amongst the “big” girls, where she would be the bottom of the pecking order and might learn a little respect! She was a feisty bird, though, and managed to hold her own. Whenever we let all of the hens out together, she immediately gravitated to her old flock and would take up where she had left off. Very little intimidated her, she adapted to her new circumstances and got on with life. I shall remember her as a survivor, who seized her freedom and enjoyed her days in the sun. She lived 21 months after she was rescued, a testament to her staying power.

Now we have just one rescue hen left, Doris, she of the wonky beak. She is still very active, always up to mischief. She has taken to living with the Croads; they are gentle birds that do not peck at her like the hybrids do, and she seems to have taken a fancy to Angel, the cockerel. Perhaps she will get to celebrate her 2-year Henniversary in October!

Doris and her wonky beak

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Rescuing Hens

When I first thought I would like to keep some hens (so many years ago now) I had considered taking in rescue hens. Knowing I was a bit soft around animals, my friend Richard said I would probably find it very distressing to see how poorly feathered and generally unsure of their surroundings they would be, and advised that I started with hens bought from a breeder. I could then take in rescue hens when I was a bit more used to hen keeping. I thought this was a sensible idea, and so we started with three black rocks in 2007. By the time we had been keeping hens for a few years, and had our ups and downs health-wise with one or two of them, I felt better able to cope with problematic chickens, and so I registered my interest with the British Hen Welfare Trust. The Yorkshire collection centre had only just stared rescuing, and so I had to wait a while, but eventually, in late September I got the call that hens would be available the following weekend. I was a bit worried that the date was only a week before our holiday and also so close to the start of the bad weather in our part of Yorkshire, but it was either take them then or wait until next Spring, and I am not reknowned for my patience once I have decided I want something!

On 2nd October 2010, a beautiful sunny and warm Saturday, we drove up to a small village near York, and there we found a shed full of ex-barn hens, rescued from an egg producer in Scotland only a couple of days before, waiting for people to collect them and give them a home.

Our six hens were selected and popped into the cardboard boxes we had brought along, filled with straw for a more comfortable ride. I didn’t really get to see them before the boxes were closed, and they did not get to see us or where we were taking them. They were very subdued, not chattering much, on the hour’s drive home, and when we arrived we carefully carried them into the old pen and opened the boxes. I can truthfully say it was one of the most moving experiences of my life. These poor scrawny little bundles of feathers looked up from their cardboard boxes with wonder and bemusement at the sky and the sun. I carefully lifted each one out of their boxes and put them on the grass, and they looked at the grass wondering what on earth it was for! They all had semi-naked necks, very naked bottoms, huge distended pale combs, and stumpy ragged tails. Almost immediately, one of the hens took an experimentary bite of a blade of grass, and soon the others followed suit. I hoped they were going to like it here!

The first night they found their way into the house but they did not perch, instead they crammed themselves into the two nestboxes; they were so thin, and could easily fit four into the larger nestbox. For several days they were reluctant to come out into the pen, and spent a lot of time just sitting in a nest box or on the floor of the henhouse. I kept a close eye on them and tried to encourage them out onto the grass whenever I could, but one was particularly reluctant and I was worried that she was not eating. The others seemed to be eating well although they were not used to the Ex-Batts Crumb I had bought for them. We were due to fly off on holiday in the early ours of Friday morning, so I had less than a week to get to know them. I tried to handle them and reassure them, but they were understandably rather wary of me, and I don’t feel I really got to know their characters in that week, certainly not enough to be able to assign names to them! Paul’s Mum and Dad were coming to house and chicken sit for us while we were away, so I wrote copious instructions about feeding and watering the hens as they had never done it before; we have wonderful neighbours who have looked after the hens in the past and provided great backup this time too.

We arrived home around 4am the following Saturday and fell straight into bed, so we did not know that one of the rescue hens had died that morning until we got up around midday. Our kind neighbour had come to let the chickens out that morning, not knowing we were in fact home but fast asleep, and had found her dead in the nestbox. By the time we were up and realised what had happened, our neighbour had already disposed of her body, so I never got to say goodbye to the poor little hen nor know exactly what killed her, but I suspect the sudden change of circumstances, unfamiliar food and surroundings, and stress had caused her to stop eating and fade away. I like to think that she had at least one day in the sunshine before she died.

The remaining five hens were eating well and very alert and active. When we let them out of the pen to roam they were understandably reluctant to go too far from the pen gate, and frequently shot back inside, especially if one of the established hens came near. Ginger, however, had a little fire in her, and one day marched straight up to Lily and picked a fight! She also had a go at Betty, the chief chicken, which was pretty brave since Betty was more than twice her size! Their characters gradually revealed themselves as they became more confident.  Ginger is a feisty little one, still scrawny and with a persistently untidy tail and red raw bottom; she was a slightly different shade of brown from the others, burnt umber more than burnt sienna, and always the first to rush over to me if she thought I might be carrying a treat! She had and still has a large distended comb, although it is not now as big as the day we brought her home, and is much pinker; she is bright and active, always jumping up onto something; she is so far the only rescue hen to get the hang of going up (and down) the 9 steep steps to our upper garden, she jumps up onto our garden table if there is the hint that there may be food to be had, and has even jumped up onto our kitchen table and the much higher work surface. She is indomitable, and will try anything, it seems!

Mabel was always going to be the boss of this flock; she was a pale goldy brown and as her feathers developed her back took on pale pencilling on some of the feathers. She has a rather patrician-looking beak, with the flopped-over comb coming right down onto the beak. She would peck at the newly emerging feathers of the other hens, and not surprisingly she feathered up the fastest. In fact by Christmas she was almost completely covered, unlike the others who still looked very scruffy; and since she was still pulling out their feathers and generally harassing them, we decided that we had to separate her from them, to give them a chance to improve too. So Mabel was transferred to the big girl’s house. She was not happy to begin with, as Lily became her Nemesis, chasing her away from the food, and preventing her from going to bed at night. She adapted to the steps up to the pophole remarkably quickly, taking them two at a time. She was last to go to bed each evening, waiting until the others had settled and she could make a dash to the nest box. She often had to share a nest box with one of the other hens, as occasionally the Bluebelles preferred nesting to perching, and one night in the depths of the cold snap, I found her snuggled in one box with both Bluebelles! She continued to thrive, did not let Lily and Dolly get her down, and was always first at my feet in the morning for a handful of sunflower seed treats. She has perfected the standing jump, probably learned from Dolly who was also very good at leaping two feet in the air up to my hand to encourage me to part with more seeds. Mabel, though, would actually grab a portion of my finger or thumb and hang onto it as she descended back to earth! When the two flocks meet free-ranging in the afternoons, she still chases Ginger or Doris and makes a grab for a feather, but she is gradually learning not to do this. She does hang out with her “old” flock members more than with the big girls, even though she has now spent longer living in the big house than with the other rescue hens.

Doris‘s comb has strunk enormously since her first days with us. She has a sweet nature, but seems to be quite happy in her own company, trotting off on her own to investigate the boggy parts of the field for insects and grubs. She has an endearing skew-wiff beek, with the lower part extending a long way past the upper part. She does have some difficulty picking up individual seeds because of this, but she seems to thrive so I don’t think it can be much of a problem to her. She is always the last to go to bed, wanting to extend her time outside as long as possible, and who can blame her!

Gracie‘s comb has also shrunk back to a normal size and she has turned into a lovely hen, slow and gentle. She also has thrived and has become quite a large hen, larger than the others by a long way, but never barging the others out of the way to get to food. She seems to have a caring nature, and when Ethel was very poorly, Gracie would stay with Ethel as she wandered slowly around the garden, and did not let her be on her own or get separated. She also takes the pecks of others in her stride, keeps out of the way of the older girls, and generally shows a passive face to the world. She is also the only one of the four remaining in the old house to try out the perch as a place to sleep, and when the weather was warm has taken to perching at night on her own; perhaps due to her size and the nestbox feeling a bit claustrophobic and warm, she finds the airy perch more comfortable. Gracie has not laid any eggs to my knowledge, although I suspect that she has laid the “lash” we found in the nestbox one day. It looked and felt like a rubber egg, and when cut open seemed to contain lots of smaller eggs.

Ethel was for a long time a real worry to us. She was always a bit slow of movement, hanging back when the more boisterous Ginger and Doris were gobbling seed from my hand. In early February 2011 she became very ill, but I will write at length about this another time. She is another of the hens that did not shrink their comb once they had been released, and it is now a bright red colour slightly flopped over to one side. She is still slow moving and generally placid, and spends a lot of time walking alongside Gracie as they free-range around the garden. She has plumped up a lot since she was ill. She has not laid any eggs, and probably never will now, but that is OK she deserves a happy retirement from the daily grind!

So those are our five rescue hens: Ginger, Mabel, Doris, Gracie and Ethel. The last picture here is of Gracie having a dust bath in the herb border; it looks like she is enjoying it!Gracie dustbathing in the herb border

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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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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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