Chickens: A Love Affair Begins!

I was in two minds whether to write about dogs or chickens this week but I have better chicken pictures than I do dogs.  That might not be a very good reason to choose to write about chickens but I don’t care!

The girls’ first day! See how small and pale their wattles and combs are?

 

I’d always rather fancied having a few chickens as part of The Dream, and I knew someone who kept a few in her back garden, so I was at least aware that you didn’t necessarily need acres of space for them.  When I moved in with Mr P, and there was a patch of land at the back of the house which was completely covered in weeds, it was practically begging to be occupied by a flock of feathery friends.  This bit of land – I can’t tell you how big it is because I’m hopeless at visualizing measurements and distances.  It’s no use telling me to drive a couple of hundred yards before turning left because it means nothing to me; but I can park like a pro!   Mr P says it’s about 600 sq.yds.  But he also said we needed 100 metres of chicken wire to fence it off; we’re now trying to sell the excess 50 metres.  Anyway, yes, we thought this bit of land must come with the cottage we rent – turns out we were wrong but that’s a story for another time.  The next-door neighbours had tried to buy or rent the patch behind them but without success.  Neither were they allowed to do anything to it, which seems rather harsh and not terribly sensible, especially as in summer the weeds sent out their seed all over the place, including into all the neighbours’ gardens.  It seemed like the obvious place to put chickens, as the garden at the front of the cottage would soon have been churned up by them.

The girls’ first home – compact and bijou but it has all they need.

 

Chickens don’t need a great deal to be happy.  They need fresh water, a properly balanced feed, a secure coop, and space to move about.  Obviously, the first thing was to get a coop sorted out before getting the chickens themselves.  You might remember that I discussed the importance of making friends in an earlier post, and this was really important when it came to getting both the coop and the hens.  It was a farming contractor friend and his son who offered us a coop they weren’t using, and also offered to get the chickens for us.  Basically, all I needed to do was let him know when we were ready, what kind of chickens we wanted, and he’d order the girls for us when he was ordering chickens for himself.

I’d bought a book on chickens and had been reading about them for some time which helped me to decide to go for hybrids rather than pure breeds.  I’m slightly obsessed with doing the research first, which might be a method of procrastination … Anyhow, the pure breeds look beautiful but the hybrids are supposed to be more robust and better layers.  On the advice of our contractor friend, we opted to have four girls since any fewer would be more likely to squabble and peck at each other – that’s where the term ‘hen-pecked’ comes from.  Apparently it can turn really quite nasty, so we decided on two brown, one white, and one black; I now know the brown ones are Warrens which are the kind you find in a battery situation, and the others are a White Leghorn hybrid and a Black Rock hybrid.

This book has been really useful – I recommend it.

The girls needed picking up from the farming contractor’s yard and he opened the door of the chicken shed and said “just catch the ones you want” – er, right!!!  The nearest I’d been to a chicken was shoving one in the oven on a Sunday.  He took pity on me in the end and just caught four of the right colours, put them in a cardboard box, and off I went, over the road with it.  I was so relieved when I got them to our place without dropping them, I can tell you!  They were duly installed in their little house, where I shut them in for a few hours – this is so they realize that this is ‘home’ and it’s safe.  Later I was able to let them out to scratch about on the little patch we’d originally fenced off for them.  The next day I went and let them out but just minutes later I was absolutely horrified to realize one had managed to fly over the fencing and had done a runner.  Because Mr P hadn’t been home when I’d collected the girls, I hadn’t been able to clip their wings.  After a few minutes of heart-in-mouth we managed to retrieve the naughty girl and, with Mr P holding them, I managed to clip their wings.  This doesn’t hurt them – you just trim the flight feathers on one wing – it’s like you cutting your nails.

I had wanted to name the girls after famous feminists – Betty (Friedan), Germaine (Greer) … you get the idea.  But Mr P vetoed that (though since I am the one who does all the chicken-related work, I don’t know why I let him get away with that one!) so in the end we went with Evadne Hinge, Hilda Bracket, Cissy, and Ada.  I think you need to be a certain age and definitely British to understand that!

As a chicken-novice a major eye-opener was chicken poo.  You’ll probably be relieved to hear I don’t have any pictures!  Chickens poo – a lot.  Their poos are enormous and you wonder how on earth something that size could come out of such a small bird.  I had a major panic when I noticed that some of their poos were a bit runny and brown whereas their ‘normal’ poos were brownish and topped with white (the white is chicken-pee).  After a frantic search on the internet, googling ‘runny chicken poo’, it turned out these runnier ones are ‘cecal’ poos and are totally normal.  I hadn’t realized either that chickens poo, wee, and lay eggs out of the same opening.  In case you’re about to go off eggs for life, I should add that when they lay an egg the opening for poo closes off so the eggs come out clean.  Actually, they also come out with wet coating of anti-bacterial stuff which dries within about a minute.  This is why you shouldn’t wash eggs as they don’t stay fresh for as long without the coating on them. But we didn’t have any eggs yet …

The girls were only young when we got them, roughly 18 weeks old.  This is called ‘point-of-lay’ and just means that they’re starting to mature and should be starting to lay within a few weeks.  At first, their combs and wattles are pale pink and quite small but, as they mature these get redder and larger.

The girls inspect their new home.

I was checking every day to see if they’d started laying and after a few weeks of nothing, was starting to wonder if I was doing something wrong.  They had a safe house, plenty of food and water, and access to outside space to do their chickeny thing, and I spent time with them every day, picking them up to check they were healthy.  Ok, that’s a bit of an excuse really – they’re actually really endearing and you just want to pick them up for a bit of a cuddle.  They’re surprisingly light – they’re not table birds and there’s just no meat on them so they’re really very skinny underneath their feathers – but they feel lovely to hold; their feathers are really soft and nice to touch.  Eventually, after a month or so, they did start to lay of course and I can’t tell you how exciting it was to discover the first egg, or how wonderful it feels to pick up a fresh egg, still warm from the hen’s body.

Our very first egg!

It’s still lovely now, months later.  In future posts, I’ll definitely be talking about chickens again, including how we coped over the appalling winter we’ve just had, and our plans to have just a few more …

I’d love to hear from you, whether you have questions about the girls, have some advice for me, or just want a chat.

The Allotment: In the Beginning …

I can recommend this book!

In the beginning, there was a woman who had always wanted an allotment but was thwarted at every turn in her attempt to get one.  Great word, ‘thwarted’, don’t you think?  Anyway, this woman had tried council run allotments, privately run allotments, had literally knocked on doors and asked “Please, can I have an allotment?” but all to no avail.  Eventually, discouraged by this and by frightening stories of waiting lists years long, she gave up and told herself it just wasn’t to be.  Then, one day, just as things seemed hopeless, she moved to a Peak District village and, almost overnight, everything changed …

Ok, this isn’t really a fairy story though things really did change in what sometimes seems like a miraculous way.  Basically, about 15 months ago I moved to Youlgreave, which is a really lovely village of about 1000 people.  It has a thriving community, there’s lots going on, there’s a Post Office, a vegetarian bakery ( https://www.peakfeast.co.uk/ ) a village shop with a cafe, and best of all so far as Mr P is concerned THREE pubs!  Yes, that’s right, a village of 1000 people with three pubs – fabulous!  Of these, The Farmyard ( http://www.farmyardinn.co.uk/ ) was our favourite as it does really good food (I can recommend the beef shortrib) and has a great atmosphere.  But I digress.  I moved there because Mr P and I wanted to see more of each other but weren’t ready to live together yet.  A few months later we did move in together but at the time I really thought I’d be in Youlgreave for at least a year to 18 months and I wanted to feel settled there.

Youlgreave (or Youlgrave) in the spring sunshine. Last year obviously!

Mr P may have been impressed by the pubs but, for me, the exciting thing was that there were allotments.  More than one lot of allotments in fact!  I immediately put my name down for one in what I thought was vain hope rather than in anticipation of success.  Anyone who has ever tried to get an allotment knows that it can be a terrible waiting game and is often a case of ‘dead man’s shoes’.  To say I was amazed to get a letter offering me a plot just a few weeks later would be an understatement.  I got back straight away to say I was interested, and arranged to meet the Parish Clerk at the allotment site.

At this point, for anyone reading this who doesn’t know anything about allotments, I’ll give you a potted history.  An allotment is a small plot of land, traditionally measured in ‘poles’.  Most plots are 10 poles in size which equates to around 2,700 sq.ft, and generally laid out as a rectangle of 33 x 82 ft.  This is pretty generous and can be a bit much for a lot of us so many are divided up into half or even quarter plots which means people can stay on top of them and more of us get to enjoy them.  These plots of land can be used to grow fruit, vegetables, and sometimes flowers, depending on the rules of each particular allotment site.  During the 18th century people were increasingly prevented from accessing what had been common land by the Enclosure Acts, thereby being denied the ability to grow their own food and graze their animals.  More and more land was closed off from ordinary people who became understandably peeved about this.  Eventually, the unrest made posh people nervous so councils began allotting pieces of land to those in need.  In 1906 this was enacted into a law which decreed that ‘allotments’ must be set aside for the poor in both the countryside and the towns.  Things really took off during the two world wars.  People had to be fed and the WWII ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign had people digging up their gardens, while allotments numbered a staggering 1.5 million – that’s a lot of veg!

Image result for dig for victory Things tailed off somewhat once things picked up in the 1960s when people had more money and food was cheaper but, more recently, allotments have experienced something of a renaissance, hence the waiting lists which, in some areas, can be years long.  However, that doesn’t mean things are looking rosy;  allotments are under the ever-present threat of development, and there are fewer sites than previously.  But there is a clause in the law which states that if enough people (understood to be six or more) submit a written request for an allotment, the council must provide them.  Whether this actually happens I don’t know – it might help if people wanting allotments could band together and keep track of how many people have asked for them so that they can pursue the matter with the council if they don’t get a satisfactory outcome.

Anyway, to get back to the matter in hand, I trogged up to the allotment site to view what I understood was a half-plot. It’s actually 58 x 38 ft.  I hoped to find a patch of land in relatively reasonable shape, perhaps even with a shed.  What I was faced with was, to say the least, rather daunting.  A shed had stood there once but had been dismantled and been left to the weather, while annual and perennial weeds stood almost waist high in places so that it was nigh on impossible to see where the beds were.  But oh my … that view!

The view from my allotment shed. Beat that if you can!

Situated on a south-facing slope, these allotments have a 360 degree view; behind us are fields of sheep and lambs, ahead is the view across the dale, while in the far left distance are the moors, with wooded areas to the right.  On a gloomy day it’s lovely and relaxing, but on a sunny day it’s near-tear inducingly beautiful.

 

 

Where the hell do you start?!

Also in its favour was the fact that, buried under the weeds, were things I would have planted myself; a handful of immature fruit trees which might produce in future, blackcurrant and gooseberry bushes, and both summer and autumn fruiting raspberries.  So I said yes, paid the princely sum of £12 for a year’s rent and the plot was mine!  All I had to do now was clear the plot of weeds, get the soil in shape, buy a shed, organize a rainwater collection system, plan the plot, learn how to grow things …!

The main bed covered with black plastic held down by pallets begged from a building site.

Unsure where to start with all this, I decided the best plan of attack was to just start by strimming down the weeds so that I could see where the beds were and stand a chance of being able to clear them.  Right from the beginning I knew I didn’t want to use chemicals, so there were no weedkillers, and I resisted advice from some quarters to rotavate the beds; if you’ve got perennial weeds, a rotavator just chops the roots into little bits, each of which can become a new plant – yikes!  In the end, I dug up as many of the weeds as I could and covered the beds with thick black plastic.  I bought this from B&Q and it’s the stuff builders use as a damp-proof membrane under concrete floors so it’s really thick.  This is important for blocking the light out so the weeds can’t grow.  At this point, I then left most of the beds covered like this for months while I concentrated on finding a shed.

In my next post about the allotment I’ll be talking about the shed, how important it is to me, and dealing with the difficulties of a site with no running water or electricity.

I’d love to hear to hear from you with feedback, comments, and will do my best to answer any questions.  If you have experience of growing your own produce, I’d really like to hear about it – I have so much to learn!  So please do use the form below to get in touch.