Where Did The Summer Go?!

Well.  It’s been ages since I wrote a post and I do feel bad about it, honestly I do.  I’ve kept thinking about it and meaning to do it but somehow … you know how it is.  Sometimes life just takes over and before you know where you are, despite all your good intentions, you simply fall behind with the things you really want to do.  My intention with this post is to bring you up to date with what I’ve been doing over the summer – just an outline or I’d be here all day and you’d lose the will to live.  Future posts can go into it all in much more detail.  Here we go:

At Hartington Wakes with Mr P. A great day out.
This year’s apple crop – absolutely delicious!

The Allotment

It’s been a funny old year, hasn’t it, at least weather wise?  I don’t know what the hell’s going on but we had the most god-awful winter which went on forever, had no spring at all but skipped straight to summer and, no sooner had I started to think that was endless too, we then launched straight into full on autumn.  One minute we’d got 30 degrees C, and the next I was getting out my scarves and gloves, while some bloody no-life-numpty started bleating on about Christmas and isn’t it great that it’s only 20 weeks away or some such bollocks.  Well, no.  Frankly, it isn’t and it’s way too soon to be thinking about that.  And I’m getting sidetracked already!  The prolonged dry spell, with no mains water on site, affected the broad beans particularly badly; growth was stunted, resulting in a poor crop.  The new potatoes, likewise, were ‘all tops and no bottoms’ – the potatoes themselves were a reasonable size but there were too few of them.  I had better luck with the runner beans until a recent high wind ripped them out of the ground, leaving a right old mess.  The high points were the perpetual spinach – the plant that keeps on giving – the apples which are so much better than last year, and the plums which have been absolutely amazing; plentiful, juicy, sweet, and delicious.

Some of this year’s fabulous plums – I scoffed them shamelessly!
Supper!
Canes just make your allotment look so much better!

Preserves

I had to do something with all those plums, so we’ve got plum and cinnamon jam (sounds strange but delicious), and a plum and apple chutney which could well be Blow-Your-Bum-Off chutney, as I went a bit mad with the spices – we’ll see in about another four weeks’ time when it’s ready to eat.  Runner beans, gooseberries, and raspberries are in the freezer, along with stewed apple in various guises.

More Chickens!

Just over a month ago, I became the proud and slightly frightened owner of four rescue hens.  Liberated from a commercial barn environment, these girls had never seen grass or daylight, looked rather scruffy,   and were surprisingly (and rather alarmingly) feisty.  After being quarantined for two weeks, they were released to be with my existing flock who didn’t stand a chance.  Poor Hilda, Evadne, Ada, and Cissy were jumped on, pecked at and generally bullied into submission but this only lasted two days, after I threatened the new girls with the soup pot or being taken back where they’d come from.  In a bizarre display of chicken-ness, they are now all happily sharing a coop – I hadn’t intended this, and had spent ages renovating the wooden chicken coop for the new girls.  There’s gratitude for you!

Poor Hilda – fancy having that stuck up your no-no!

Chicken Nursing

Damn.  My first poorly chicken, poor old Hilda had the remains of a soft-shelled egg poking out of her bottom, with a soft-shelled egg stuck behind that.  Much TLC was required but she recovered really well and is now fine and dandy, and laying again.  I’m happy to talk more about this in another post if you think it’s of interest and don’t mind me talking about chickens’ bums and poo.

Work-Life Balance

Aha, now this is a definite positive!  As of the 1st October, I became a part-timer.  This is something I’d been considering for some time, talking to my (very supportive) boss, working out finances, worrying about the effect on my pension, blah blah blah.  In the end, I decided to just do it.  I had what turned out to be a relatively minor health scare earlier this year and, at the end of the day, it’s no use having a pension if I drop dead before I get to collect it.  I need to be happy now, instead of putting it off and saying ‘Oh well, I’ll do such and such, and be happy when I retire’ – I could be dead next week so I’ll take the gamble that I’ll have something better than cold baked beans to live on when I retire.  Tomorrow will be my first day off, and the first day of my new life.  I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

Cake competition at Hartington Wakes. I could eat this and die happy.

What Next?

That’s sort of up to you!  I’ve decided to let you choose what I write about next.  Do you want to hear more about the allotment, the chickens or is there something else I’ve not covered which you think would be interesting or useful to read about? Please let me know – I love hearing from you!

Chickenopolis: Phase 2!

The girls now have free range of the piece of land behind the house and they love it.

A while ago, I talked about how we went about getting our chickens and how we’d been given a hen house by a very kind farming neighbour.  Well, the chicken bug has well and truly bitten and we’re now thinking (well, I am!) of getting a few more.  Just three or four and then that would be it.  Honestly!  I was initially thinking of going for pure breeds, perhaps one of those which are particularly rare and/or local, such as the Derbyshire Redcap or the Marsh Daisy.  However, I then saw something on Facebook about ex-battery hens and felt compelled to rehome some of those instead.  After having a totally horrendous life confined to a cage the size of a sheet of A4 paper, they deserve to see daylight and feel grass under their feet.  Besides, most of them are ‘disposed of’ at around 17 months old and have plenty of life, and eggs, left in them.

This means that my current coop isn’t big enough to accommodate both my flock as it stands and any newcomers.  On top of that, you can’t just introduce new hens into an existing flock; the incoming birds need to be quarantined to avoid them possibly bringing in an infection or disease, and to prevent them being bullied by the current flock members.  This, of course, all means just one thing. A new hen house.

Chickenopolis! The wooden coop will be moved out of this enclosure and renovated.

Choosing a new hen house is a big deal.  It needs to be practical; big enough, easy to clean, red mite resistant, attractive and comfortable for the girls, and so on.  Because everyone I know has told me horror stories of major red mite infestations which caused them to give up on chicken keeping, I was perhaps a tad paranoid about this and made it my mission to find a suitable, affordable, plastic coop.  Plastic is, apparently, less attractive to red mite than wood but plastic coops tend to be less attractive to me.  Eglu is a practical brand but I don’t find them at all attractive and they’re expensive.  There are chicken arks made from recycled plastic but, again, they’re just not attractive in my opinion.  I did locate one plastic coop which combined all the practical benefits I wanted but with a traditional look.  However, this came at a price.  Almost £600 to be precise!  This was way beyond my budget.  Eventually, after a couple of weeks of researching I found something which seemed to fit the bill; a coop made of recycled plastic and wood fibre with a relatively traditional appearance, at a more affordable £180.00.  This is, of course, still a chunk of money but with a bit of luck it should last years without rotting.

The front of the coop with the nest box to the left.
The rear of the new coop.

There was a bit of a delay in delivery but eventually it arrived in one large, flat box with over 40 pieces which needed fitting together.  No tools were required to do this though an extra pair of hands would have been nice.  Unfortunately, Mr P chose this moment to go and have a nap, leaving me to it.  It actually went together without too much trouble, apart from the nest box which I thought should have been done at an earlier stage in construction (instructions aren’t always well thought through, are they?).

So, what do I and, more importantly, the girls, think of this new hen house?  Well, the girls seem to quite like it!  They refused to go in it the first night so the following night I put them in it but let them go in the old house the next morning to lay their eggs.  After that, we closed off the old house and they’ve been using the new one ever since, with no trouble at all.  After that first night, they went in it on their own and laid in the nest box straight away.  As for me, well I think this chicken house is in need of a redesign.  The roof doesn’t lift off for easy cleaning as you might expect of any hen house.  To access the inside you have to unscrew the bolts at the sides of the roof and slide out a couple of the roof panels.  I now don’t bother putting the bolts back in as it’s a pain.  The roof to the nest box does lift up though …   The roosting bars are too narrow, at about 1″ wide and are positioned so low that in winter, if you’re deep littering, they will soon be useless.  I’m putting in a homemade roost bar instead.

The roof is sectional and can be pulled out for cleaning.
The left-hand roosting bar and the nest box. This is too narrow for a roost.

This house is easily big enough for four to six hens (my four girls free range so only sleep and lay eggs in theirs) but there’s only one nest box which isn’t big enough to divide in two – -luckily, my girls don’t seem to mind sharing!  Having said all that, if you can live with the deficiencies or make some alterations, it’s probably worth the money.  It’s miles cheaper than other plastic houses, is easy to put together (I did it on my own in about an hour and a half but, as I said, it’d be quicker with a bit of help), and I’m hoping it will help avoid the dreaded red mite.  It’s made from recycled materials which appeals to me too.

The nest box – the girls will insist on sleeping in it!

The plan now is to renovate the old wooden coop for the incoming girls until I’m in a position to afford another new, plastic coop.  But that’s something I’ll cover in a future post!

 

Do you keep chickens, what sort of coop do you prefer?As always, please do contact me and share your thoughts on this.  You’ll need to sign up as a user in order for your comments to appear under the post.  I’d be delighted to hear from you.

 

 

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.