New Year, New Home – our plans for the garden

Crikey, we’re half way through January 2015 already – how did that happen?? It seems like only last week we arrived here, but it’s been over six months now since we moved, in the height of summer.

The house

It’s going to be an exciting year for us, and hopefully plenty of opportunities to showcase new skills and techniques here on the blog, too! Those of you who read here regularly will know that we were forced by the HS2 rail project to move from our lovely little cottage near Banbury. We decided to bite the bullet and make a big move – the move to the South West that Hubby and I had always told ourselves we would make ‘one day’, when the right opportunity arose. I have to say I’d always suspected the ‘right time’ might well have ended up being be 20 or 30 years from now, when we were thinking about retirement, so while it was a scary move, and stretches us financially, I’m delighted that we find ourselves here in Cornwall now, while we’re still young (well, relatively, hah!) and fit and able to work and build a life here and contribute to our local community. Even if it means we’re skint working-age folk rather than comparatively well-off retirees!

After an initial 6 months doing temporary contract work to keep our heads above water, I’ve started a new, permanent job for the new year, closer to home and with saner hours (occasional days off!) which will hopefully allow me to draw breath from time to time and spend a little more time making, doing and writing too!

So, as today is one such day, I thought I’d share a little about the projects we have coming up here at our beautiful new home in the course of the next year.

In the garden –

We’re amazingly lucky to have five acres of land with our new home, and in due course we hope to slowly build it up into a productive smallholding. For the time being we’re renting the pasture land to our neighbours for their sheep to graze, while we concentrate our time, effort, and resources around the house and gardens.

Dave dog on the paddock

Yes – gardens. I never thought I’d have gardens in the plural (well, if you ignore a scrap of front driveway!) but we have two, three if you count the old sheep fold where we’ve planted the orchard trees that we dug up and brought with us from our last home.

South gardenTo the south of the house, sloping away gently, we have a triangular garden with Cornish hedges on both sides which is going to be our ‘pretty’ garden. It has gorgeous views over Bodmin Moor and will be perfect for relaxing in on summer evenings if we ever get any time to rest!

The fish pondHubby has dug a pond here for our fish, who are settling in nicely, but otherwise this patch of land is likely to have to take a back seat for a while while we concentrate on more productive projects! With a bit of time and attention (ten years or so should do it!) I have high hopes for it being an even more beautiful place to be.

To the west side, we have an almost square, level garden with the house to one side and Cornish hedges to the other three sides, which essentially makes it a walled garden and the most protected growing space we have. This is an important factor as we’re nearly 900ft up on the edge of Bodmin Moor, and the winter weather and winds here can be a bit ferocious!

First raised bedsThis is going to be our kitchen garden, and as you can see the work has already started, the hens are settling in nicely, and the first three raised beds are planted with winter veggies.

We’re going to build a shed and a small seedling greenhouse here and add some more growing space as we go along. The soil is quite stony as we’re on granite and slate bedrock, but seems good and fertile so with a bit of luck and lots of patience and stone picking this should make for a lovely productive working garden. As long as we can keep the rabbits & mice at bay…

We plan to build a polytunnel outside the gardens to the side of the pasture paddock, to allow us to grow more tender plants like chillies, tomatoes, peppers and maybe even melons, and take even greater advantage of Cornwall’s lovely mild climate (well, by and large – it’s blummin’ chilly today!) and long growing season. The hens might even enjoy hanging out there in future winters, in the dry and out of the wind.

The hens nicely settledThe hens are doing OK now, after a disaster back in November when a stoat broke into the run and slaughtered three of the five girls we’d brought with us from Banbury. Of course, it killed my favourite, Midge, and I was completely heartbroken over the whole thing. We managed to find four new pullets to make up the numbers and all of them seem to be getting on really well now.

We’ve had far less trouble than on any previous hen introductions so we’re obviously getting the hang of this process. The new girls all have their own characters and temperaments and seem very chilled out around Dave dog, which is lovely.

There’s so much to do, but it’s so exciting! I’ve got some chillies in the heated window sill propagator (and rapidly realising I need a much bigger one!) and the first have germinated during the past few days. It won’t be long before every window sill in the house is full to bursting with seedlings – at least they’re nice thick walls, over two feet of solid granite for the most part, so I have plenty of ledge space.

Green shoots!

We missed out completely on last year’s growing season, which was torture. So even though we really should probably be focusing our time and efforts in other places, I refuse to let another whole growing year go by the wayside – it’s so very exciting to have seeds in compost again and to be seeing the very first green shoots of what should hopefully be our first great productive Cornish growing season!

Recycled cold frameIt’s a very conscious decision to concentrate our time and expenditure on the productive aspects of the gardens first – after all, the kitchen garden will go some way to feeding us. Landscaping and decorative planting, no matter how attractive, doesn’t help keep the larder stocked or reduce our food bills. We’re very much doing this on a budget, too – our rather lovely pair of cold frames are made from the glass out of the shower cubicle we had to replace when we got here.

Over the next few blog posts I’ll share with you some of our plans for the house – especially the kitchen – and for our outbuildings. Buckle up – it’s going to be a busy year!

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Easily Hooked – oops, I seem to have taken up crochet!

We had so much to do in the garden this weekend, but the weather hasn’t been friendly!  At least we managed to get the turf cleared from the unpromising rectangle of old ridge & furrow grass which is to be my experimental cut flower patch – watch this space for more (and photos!) in due course.  The greenhouse seedlings continue to thrive, though I’m struggling to believe the tomato seedlings are ever going to grow up big and strong enough to fruit! This time of year in the garden is always a mix of hope and doubt, without much to show yet for our efforts!

Stormy spring beech tree

But it’s raining, and there’s nothing to be done outside for the time being!

I hate to have my hands unoccupied (stop giggling there in the back!) so I suppose it was only a matter of time before I gave in and took up crochet.  Many years ago (half a lifetime, really!) I learned to knit, got good enough at it to make myself a jumper, and mastered some fiddly cable work, but it never really grabbed me.  I’ve always been impressed by the flexibility of crochet work, the variety of shapes and textures which crochet seemed to be able to achieve compared to two-needle yarn craft.  And then, about three weeks ago, by chance, I stumbled over the first part of a learn-to-crochet part-work magazine, complete with a 3.5mm hook, two balls of yarn, and a guide to basic stitches. All for 99p.

Well, I couldn’t resist. I started tinkering with a few stitches and patterns from the starter pack.  I did a bit of playing and made a little round basket out of some jute garden twine, just to see if I could.  It’s the simplest thing, with just a circle of double crochet stitches for the base, made without turning, and sides the same, but turned between rows, picking up only the front loop of the  V to add a horizontal stripe.

Jute basket bottom    Jute Basket inside    Jute basket detail with twine

It makes a lovely coaster for the bottle-cut vase I made a few weeks ago, using the bottle cutting jig I made last year.  Better still, it was surprisingly easy to make, despite the less than promising choice of yarn!

Jute basket with bottle vase

So that was it, really, I was hooked.  Obviously a single hook and a big ball of garden twine wasn’t going to get me very far, so I scurried off to the internet for a few supplies (oops!) – a couple of books for inspiration, a lucky-dip selection of yarns, and of course a set of different sized hooks.  I was good to go!

What do you make first but a scarf? Of course!

Crochet scarfI’m really happy with my first effort, the pattern is from Sue Whiting’s ‘The Crochet Bible’, which has served me really well as a crochet primer so far!  For a complete novice it was a nice simple project which gave a pleasingly complex-looking result, and came together over the course of just over a week.  I used a heather-coloured yarn I got in my mystery-pack, and I’m thrilled with the result.  The photo doesn’t quite do it justice, it’s not as blue as that!

Dave kindly offered to model it for you all, so you can see it a bit more clearly. (He continues to do very well, thank you for asking!)

Dave the dog

Of course, I couldn’t stop at just the one project.  The current one is straight out of my own head, a crochet string-bag for the summer – I think it would be great for a day at the beach.  I’ve used two of the colours of yarn in my lucky-dip pack that I think I’d struggle to wear – an orange that can only be described as ‘health & safety high-viz’ and a bright sunny lemon yellow.  I’m after a relaxed, cool, hippy-ethnic look, and I think we’re headed in the right direction – more photos, and instructions, once it’s finished, but here’s a sneak-peek of the work in progress..!

String bag - work in progress

Finally, some sad news this weekend from my hens – Gertie, my white hen, and the final member of my original hybrid quartet, went the way of all things on Saturday.  So RIP, dear Gertie.  All good things come to an end…  There’s always been a white hen in my hen-house.  I feel rather bereft.

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Brilliant Bangers – in praise of the full English breakfast

Those of you who come here regularly will know this isn’t the sort of food blog (if it’s even a food blog, really?) where I regularly post photos of my meals.  This time, though, I’m making an exception.

This was my Sunday breakfast –

Full English breakfast

What’s so special about that, you might wonder?  Well, everything on that plate was made here, by us.  I’m not going to claim to have grown the mushrooms or the tomato, or churned the butter, but the bacon was home-cured and smoked, the bread was my own sourdough, the eggs were laid in the garden by our hens, and, most excitingly for me, the sausages were made here, in my very own kitchen.  Even the ketchup is homemade.

This blog started with bacon, over a year ago, and curing and smoking have been among the recurring themes as the months have gone by.  The trouble with sausages is that they’re so often so disappointing, so much less than they ought to be, a disposal route for otherwise less than tempting ingredients and fillers.  Of course, the more lovely the rest of your breakfast – the fresher and richer your eggs, the tastier your home-cured bacon – the more obvious the deficiencies of your bangers become.

The Porkert PP88I’ve wanted to make sausages for a very long time – so long, in fact, that we received a sausage press (the rather wonderful chromed cast-iron, sparsely named Czech ‘Porkert PP88’) as a wedding gift over six years ago.  I regret that, until last weekend, it hadn’t yet managed to have an outing!  I finally decided that enough was enough, and ordered some sausage skins from Weschenfelder, which arrived very promptly last week.  A trip to our friendly local farm shop butcher provided us with 1kg of minced pork shoulder, and we were ready to rock!

Sausage mixTo the kilo of minced pork, we added a bit short of the recommended 200g of breadcrumbs (I didn’t have enough – they were a mix anyway of shop-bought breadcrumbs I had in the cupboard, and a couple of slices of dried and crushed homemade sourdough), 200ml of water (this, along with the breadcrumb, is essential for getting the mix to a consistency where it will pass through the sausage press), a teaspoon of salt and a half a teaspoon of crushed black pepper.

Soaking sausage casingsThe sausage skins were already soaking in warm water – we had bought the ready spooled sheep’s casing as Hubby’s preference runs to smaller bangers.  Sausage skins are not pleasant smelling things!  So, don’t sniff them, would be my advice.  A lot of the odour disappears once they’ve been soaked, so I’d recommend trying not to think about it too much in the meantime!

Ours probably hadn’t been soaked for as long as they ought to, since when I loaded the first length, they were very tricky to feed onto the nozzle of the sausage stuffer – I put it down to inexperience, but the second length, which had had about half an hour longer to soak, went on much more easily.  As they can soak for 12 hours or so without harm, get started with the soaking early!

Feed your skins onto the nozzleOK, so there’s no polite way of saying this – there’s something unavoidably prepucial about sausage skins!  Feed your skins onto the nozzle of the sausage stuffer (ours were quite a snug fit on the 20mm nozzle), leaving a couple of inches, untied, dangling free from the tip.  And try not to contemplate the resemblance to condoms too closely!

Don’t overfill your sausage stuffing press, especially if it’s manually powered like ours!  Add a couple of hand-fulls to the barrel and start to push down steadily.  We discovered around this time that we didn’t have the mechanical advantage at counter height to operate the lever usefully, and moved the whole sausage pressing rig down onto the kitchen floor. Really, we should have had mounting bolts to allow us to seat the press firmly in position, but we had to make do without.  Something to add to my ‘fantasy kitchen’ wish-list, I guess!

Filling sausagesPut a nice shallow tray (a baking sheet is ideal) under the sausage press to catch the sausages as they’re filled.  Once you get the sausage meat flowing, you want to kind of let it fill the casing and pull it off the nozzle itself as it goes.  This is definitely a two man job with any kind of manual press, I’m afraid!  Don’t pull the skin away from the nozzle unless it seems to be getting stuck, but equally don’t let the skin be over-filled, as you’re going to need a bit of ‘freedom’ when you come to twist and link the sausages.

The skins will split in places – you might have weakened them when you were incompetently loading them! – but don’t worry, it’s not a disaster. Carry on until you run out of sausage meat, or skins!

Linked sausagesNow it’s time to link your sausages.  I looked at various diagrams and instructions in books and on the web, but in the end I just fiddled with them until they did what I wanted – one of these days I’ll try to take photos but it never made much sense to me at the time!  Still, by the end of the process I had two strings of traditionally linked sausages.  The first  – on the left – are noticeably ‘scrappier’ than the second, but I’m really thrilled with all of them.

It’s advised to hang them to dry for a while – the cabinet doors were useful here – and then let them rest overnight before eating them.  We refrigerated one breakfast’s worth and put the rest in the freezer.

They’re great sausages.  They cooked well under the grill, but I’ll admit the first mouthful was almost underwhelming, I worried they were bland but then realised that they were, by any commercial standard, just seriously ‘under-seasonned’ compared to what my taste-buds were expecting.  I have to say I’m now rather worried about how much salt must be in shop-bought bangers!  But on the second bite, the lovely sweet pork flavour came through beautifully.  I’m looking forward to experimenting with some herbs, spices, and other flavours in future batches – we intentionally kept this batch quite plain as a ‘baseline’!

Finished sausages

So, homemade sausages – the last part of the Holy Trinity of the great Full English breakfast of sausage, bacon and eggs.  Go on, try it!  And no doubt, there will be more sausage making posts in the future!

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Clucking Mayhem – introductions, is the worst over?

Five weeks ago, I drove a 200 mile round trip to bring home three new hens to add to my little backyard flock. Introducing new hens is always a difficult process, they can be remarkably opinionated creatures and don’t enjoy having new housemates!  The ‘pecking order’ is a very real, and sometimes rather violent thing.  For the sake of both my new and existing hens, I wanted to achieve as gentle and stress-free an introduction process as I possibly could, and made arrangements to take my time about it.  You can catch up with the story so far, from coming home, first introductions, and settling in together.

Reasonably settled?

The weekend before last, once the hens were reasonably settled living together, but sleeping mostly apart, I took the second henhouse out of the run, leaving a dodge-board for the small girls to get out of sight behind if necessary.  There was a bit of stress around bedtime the first couple of nights, but the girls are now all bedding down comfortably side by side on the perches, and during the day, apart from the odd scuffle, are mixing, feeding, preening and generally getting on with happy relaxed henny-things!  Egg production is down, but then it’s well into autumn and more dark than light these days so that’s hardly surprising.

Flora continues to wear her bit – her behaviour is the last remaining problem, it’s not really her fault, I suppose, but things would be really nice and settled without her disturbing influence on the flock.  I think – though it might be wishful thinking – that the frequency and savagery of her attempted attacks on the other girls are reducing a little.  With a bit of luck, in another month or so, the headgear can come off.  In the meantime it seems to be causing her very little difficulty, she’s eating well and laying better than anyone else at the moment, giving an egg almost every day.

Midge is growing up fast, with more comb and wattle than she had when she first arrived, and a hunger to match the growth rate.  I’d love to think we’d get some eggs from her soon, though I suppose it may not be until spring.

With a bit of luck – though I hate to put it in black and white and jinx it! – things are settling nicely now.  I had in mind that things would take about a month to bed down and we’re pretty much on that target.  I really hope the girls can get on with enjoying their seasonal treats (the Halloween pumpkins are going down rather well just now!) and lay me lots of nice tasty eggs for a long time to come!

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More Clucking Mayhem – the poultry palaver continues

Just over a week after we mixed the two groups of hens, it’s gone time for an update on progress!  Well, I still have six hens (hey, you’ve got to look on the bright side).

They’re all living together in the run during the day, though the three new girls have still been choosing to bunk in the temporary hen-house at night.  Tonight, for the first time, though, Agnes is asleep with the original trio in the ‘big house’, leaving only Doris and Midge in the temporary accommodation.  Doris is still using the temporary housing to lay, whereas Agnes has been laying in the main coop for a few days now.  The pecking order that established on that first morning out in the garden still appears to be in force, with the strange Agnes > Mabel > Flora > Agnes loop surviving for now.

Flora with Mabel

Speaking of Flora, she’s still wearing her bumper bit.  Flora has turned out to be the real problem – I suspect without her presence in the flock everyone would be living essentially in harmony by now.  Gertie and Mabel, the two other members of the ‘original’ trio are happy to be side-by-side with the new girls and only scuffle with them very occasionally.  Flora has a bad temper, a bad attitude, and seems to spend her life spoiling for a fight.  It doesn’t help that she’s also unusually stupid, even by chicken standards.  Thick and bad tempered, what a winning combination!  Until she’s spending less time trying to thrash poor Doris and Midge into submission, the muzzle is going to have to stay on.

In terms of the effect the bit is having on Flora, it’s less marked than I’d anticipated.  She can eat and drink from the normal feeders and drinkers (we made sure of this before taking the additional open drinker out of the enclosure) and goes to bed every night with a bulging crop.  She seems to be able to graze to at least an extent, and remains (sadly!) able to bully the other hens, though less so than if she could pull feathers too!  The only obvious consequence is in her ability to preen herself.

I suppose it stands to reason that a device primarily designed to stop hens pulling feathers out of other hens would also impair their ability to closely comb their own.  Flora is looking really quite tatty, but it’s something she’s going to have to live with for now.  Despite her muzzle, she still has the girls terrified, chases them to cower behind the hen house, and if they don’t get away fast enough she’ll leap on their backs while they cower and try to pull neck feathers.  I don’t doubt that given the opportunity she’d be doing them real damage, there’s a genuine ferocity to her attacks and I don’t know how long it’s going to take for that to settle down.  Soon, I hope, for her sake as well as everyone else’s!

The next bridge to cross is removing the temporary coop so that all six girls are bunking together.  They could do with the space back in the extension run, and the nights are getting colder, the open-doored temporary house is no place for any of the girls to be sleeping on a cold winter’s night.  We’ve had our first frost here now, so it won’t be long before they’ll really want to be tucked up warm at night!

Still, only just two and a half weeks after I brought the three new girls home in a carrier, overall things are going pretty well.  After the experience of introductions last time, I’d reckoned it would take a month to get things settled and so far I think we’re pretty much on target for that, with a bit of luck.  How long Flora is going to have to be muzzled, though, I don’t want to guess at this point!

Stay tuned for more, folks, from the ongoing poultry palaver!

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Clucking Mayhem – chicken introductions, poultry politics and a bit on the side

I’m blogging from the garden right now, because I’m on hen watch. For the last four hours, my three new hens, and three existing birds, have been free ranging together.  After just over a week of living in adjoining but separate runs, I’m hoping this is the next stage in getting them to co-exist happily as a group of six.

Gertie and Midge

Mixing groups of hens is difficult.  Yes, they look sweet and innocent, don’t they?  But hens’ social structures are complex, and established and enforced by drawing blood (or worse!) if necessary.  That pecking order you’ve heard thrown about as a metaphor?  Well, it’s real.  And nasty.  It’s at times like this that you don’t get to forget than hens really are little dinosaurs at heart.  Genuine pint-sized feathery little T-Rexes.  Next time you get to spend some time watching hens, have a look in their faintly-reptilian eyes and tell me it isn’t so!

Home advantage is a big thing, so I expect the new girls to come off worse, and end up at the bottom of the new pecking order.  It’s more complicated than it might be, though, because Agnes and Doris are adult hens – the same age as Flora from the original trio.  To be honest, I was expecting the whole thing to degenerate into an explosion of swearing and flying feathers as soon as the six were out together.  It didn’t, much to my surprise!

My existing three, as far as I can tell, are ranked with Gertie (the white hen) at the top of the pile, Mabel the Isa Brown in the middle, and speckeldy-grey Flora at the bottom of the stack.  Flora was introduced to the flock last year, and got a bit of a nasty kicking in the process, mostly from Mabel who seemed to declare herself ‘enforcer’.  She still gets the sharp end of Mabel and Gertie’s short temper sometimes, particularly when there’s a tasty morsel or two they don’t want to share.

Midge and DorisThe new girls have established with Agnes, the Welsummer (and biggest of the bunch) at the top, Doris the small but adult Legbar in the middle, and Midge, the New Hampshire Red pullet at the bottom.  Agnes flexes her muscles, on occasion, though things have settled nicely.  Midge and Doris are pretty much inseparable, but Doris does occasionally remind Midge who’s in charge.

What’s really interesting to me at the moment is that Gertie and Agnes seem to have settled on what can only be described as an armed truce.  Neither has taken beak or claw to the other (well, if you ingnore Gertie pitching Agnes out of her favorite dust bath – Gertie is *very* protective of her dust bath), and they’ve been very much in each others strike range without hackles up or much in the way of posturing.  Agnes seems to have yielded subtly – she will give over to Gertie, but only just as much as necessary.  I don’t know what Gertie’s secret is, she just seems to exude natural authority!  It gets odder still.  Agnes seems to have established above Mabel (who runs for cover when she sees Agnes coming) but below Flora (who has a similar effect on the otherwise unflappable Agnes).  No doubt this is going to take some sorting out down the line, since I’m not sure pecking orders permit loops!

Flora is a fascinating character.  I suspect it’s the same cycle of abuse that’s described in humans.  She was the hen who reacted most violently to the arrival of the newcomers last week – lunging at them through the bars and even drawing blood on Agnes’ comb on the first day.  She’s declared herself ‘enforcer’ this time around, and thrown herself into the role with gusto, lunging straight at Agnes the first opportunity she got, landing on her back and really viciously pulling out neck feathers.  I’m not surprised Agnes is afraid of her!

Flora's bitThere’s a substantive difference between Flora’s attacks and those of the other bids.  The other hens will peck, will grab and pull feathers, even fly at each other feet first, but generally speaking, just enough to make their point.  Flora’s attacks are really aggressive, no-holds barred, with malice aforethought.  It became clear over the first half hour or so that if left to her own devices, Flora was going to injure one or more of the new birds, possibly seriously, so we decided to catch her and fit her with a bumper bit.

Bumper bit & pliersThis is a little plastic device which sits with a pair of prongs in the nostrils (a bit like the earpieces of a stethoscope), and has a flat bar across the mouth between the top and bottom beak and a ‘bumper’ type bar which wraps outside the mouth around the front of the beak.  By stopping the upper and lower beak coming together normally, it’s designed to prevent feather and skin pulling, and the ‘roll-bar’ in front of the point of the beak should stop her using this as a sharp weapon!

Flora wearing her bitIt’s the first time I’ve used a bit and it wasn’t a decision I made lightly.  While Flora can drink, and eat with the bit in, it does restrict her choices.  She can munch down on pellets and corn just as well as always, but grazing and preening are more difficult. Immediately after it was fitted, she was obviously aware of it and rather unhappy, she rubbed her beak on the floor and scratched at it with her feet.  But she’s settled with it now, and is foraging around the garden normally.

It hasn’t entirely disarmed her (or improved her temper!) – she’s still throwing her weight around – but the damage she’s able to inflict has been greatly reduced, as has the general level of anxiety amongst the other bids.  I’m hoping we can restrict the use of the bit to the shortest period of time we can – ideally a few days to a week or so – though we’ll have to see how the rest of the politics settle down.

Doris and Midge are going to be at the bottom of the new pecking order, but apart from the initial attacks from Flora, and the odd ‘establishment peck’ from the other hens, seem to have been mostly left alone for now.  I’ll be watching these two with particular concern when we house the girls this evening, as they may well get a rougher time when they haven’t got so many options for getting out of the way.

All the hens have been in and out of the open, now combined houses-and-runs.  Gertie seems particularly entranced by the new contraption-house!  We have two feeding stations and three drinkers in place at the moment to reduce unpleasantries associated with competition for resources.  The second house will be staying for now, as an option for any hens who don’t fancy running the gauntlet of the main coop!

Agnes enjoys a dust bath

Over all, mostly so far I’m startled by how well things have gone today.  It’s been a huge improvement on the last set of introductions – but then I learned a lot from that experience! I don’t for a minute believe that things will continue to go this smoothly, but it’s a really nice place to be starting from!

Stay tuned, folks, as the ‘clucking mayhem’ continues!

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Getting Clucky – welcome the new hens!

Three of my hens!I’ve kept hens for about three years now.  Until this week I still had three of my original four hybrid hens, but sadly on Monday Spot, my beautiful Rhode Rock (the black hen in this trio), passed away.  This was sad in itself, but also left me with three hens, one of whom (Gertie) hasn’t laid for some time, and the other two (Mabel, and younger hen Flora who came into the flock as a pullet last year) are moulting and won’t lay me anything for a few weeks at best – at worst they won’t think about it again until the days start to lengthen again.

Since my first four pullets came into lay, I haven’t bought a single box of commercial eggs (admittedly hen-keeping neighbours and colleagues have provided the occasional half dozen when my needs have exceeded my supply!).  So, I had an egg supply problem, and one that I didn’t want to solve by going back to retail eggs.  We thought about this for a while, and decided it was time to bring in a few more hens.

This wasn’t a decision we made lightly – last year, after losing Hazel, the first of my four original girls, we introduced two new pullets to our flock. The process was hugely stressful – hens can be vicious creatures, and it’s when when they turn nasty that you really see them for the tiny little feathered dinosaurs they are!  Flora and Daisy eventually settled well, but the introduction process was ghastly (and at times, brutal).  Sadly, we then lost Daisy tragically young last Christmas.

Dave welcomes the new girlsOn Thursday, I drove a 200 mile round trip to see a chicken supplier, Chris at Poultry Park in Newent, who I knew from our previous life in Gloucestershire.  I came home with three traditional breed birds – two hens, a Cream Legbar (Legbars lay blue eggs) and a Welsummer, both a year old and ‘retired’ breeding birds, and an 18 week old New Hampshire Red pullet.  Dave, our collie, was immediately intrigued by the new arrivals, and came very sweetly to say hello!

The new girlsThe new girls have moved into a run extension at the bottom of the old girls’ run.  The idea is to allow them some time to get used to the sight, sound, and smell of each other before introducing them to the same living space.  I tried the ‘short, sharp shock’ introduction approach last time, and wished I hadn’t, so it’s slowly-slowly this time.

The existing trio of hens were not impressed by the arrival of the new three girls, and Thursday afternoon was a chorus of sometimes angry chickeny-shouting in the garden.

First 'contraption' temporary hen-houseTheir first night, the new hens roosted in a ‘contraption’ of a henhouse we put together from an old cardboard box, a hedgerow stick, and a tarpaulin.  Necessity is the mother of invention, or so they say!  Anyway, the New Hampshire pullet (now called Midge) didn’t appreciate our efforts and decided to sleep out on the roof rather than inside the house with the other two!

Egg of brightest blueOn her very first afternoon with us, the Cream Legbar (now named Dorris) laid us an egg.  This egg.  A *blue* egg.  I’ve *always* coveted a hen that lays blue eggs.

If only it were all that simple, of course.  There’s a lot to do, yet, before the new girls can be settled in nicely with the existing trio.

New, improved 'contraption 2'On Friday evening, I got home to find my lovely husband half-way through building a new contraption out of the remains of an old laminate-chipboard office desk. I would have taken photographs, but it was getting late and we had to get the job done!  The new house is a huge improvement, much more robust and seems appreciated by all three girls, who are happily sleeping and (in the case of the adult hens) laying eggs inside it.

The three new girls are new to each other, too, of course – and with two of them being adult hens, there’s been some politics to work out.  Agnes, the Welsummer, is the biggest of the batch, and has decided to assert her authority.  This was all getting a bit nasty on Friday and by Saturday Dorris and Midge were looking a bit cowed, hiding away in the house with Agnes strutting about outside, or worse, guarding the pop-hole to the henhouse.

We resorted to applying some anti-peck spray to the neck and shoulder feathers of the two smaller hens.  They’ve also had several spells of free ranging time this weekend, and whether it’s that, or the slight re-arrangements we’ve also made to the space and the feeding arrangements, or just time passing, relationships seem a bit better and less stressed. By this evening with everyone was out in the run, eating and drinking and scratching around together and only occasional outbreaks of pecking-order politics.  Gertie, Mabel and Flora seem less on edge and more settled back in their normal daily routine, too. They’re even giving the odd egg!

Egg skelter

All seems relatively settled for now, and with Agnes also laying some gorgeous chocolate-brown eggs, after three years of hen keeping, finally, I’ve got the egg basket (well, egg-skelter) of my long-held dreams.  Yes, I know they all taste the same, but aren’t they beautiful?

I expect the next few weeks to involve more than their usual share of stresses and difficult moments – never a dull moment with pets and livestock!  I’ll keep you posted!

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