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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.