Thursday, 25 August 2016

Putting the chickens to work

On Monday a dear friend came to visit. Kim lives in Mid Wales and when I lived there we became very good pals. Kim's work and home commitments mean that she rarely has a chance to get away for a day or two, so it has been a long time since we've seen each other.

She arrived here shortly after noon and I showed her around in the light rain. Luckily the weather improved all the time she was here and by the time she left on Tuesday afternoon it was positively scorching hot. Kim is another of those friends with whom the conversation can have a six month pause, but when we chat again we immediately get back to laughing together.

As with everyone, she was very taken with the ducklings and as she hadn't spent time close up with chickens before, was fascinated by the girls behaviour. She sat with me in the chicken field and fed spinach and kale to the older birds. Little White has such a gentle disposition that it hard not to like her, she is always happy to come for a cuddle (or at least she tolerates me cuddling her!). With still at least a couple more months of growing to do, she is going to be a splendid bird.

Early on Monday morning I organised a space at the back of the piggeries to use for dispatching chickens. This is not a task that I have been looking forward to, but having made the decision and the undertaking to raise our own meat birds there is an inevitable task that needs to be done to provide us with home raised organic meat. I did the deed. It wasn't a very nice process, but I am happy that it was done humanely, kindly and calmly.

As it turns out, a young Cream Legbar cockerel has very little meat on its bones, but he did have some fat, so I am comfortable that the birds are getting a good balance of food out in the field. We had decided that he was going to be dispatched because all of our birds need to serve a purpose, he was supposed to be 'servicing' the girls but they just weren't interested in him. I think it was because although he was potentially a splendid specimen, he only had one wattle and I suspect that is what put the girls off him. He also had a rough technique with the girls and they really objected to his attention. When he did try to tread them, he was so rough that they girls would squeal with pain and run away. It seemed to us that this arrangement was unlikely to produce many fertile eggs, so he has gone and one of the young cockerels can now take his place as the lead male of the flock and we just hope that he will have a better technique!

Last night we talked about the best way to put the youngest chickens to work in the garden. The older girls scratch through their 'circle of love' (the area where we throw weeds, food scraps, wood shavings and straw from their houses and wood chippings) turning it into rich compost for the vegetable garden. We felt it was time for the young ones to pull their weight too. 

Over the weekend I had removed the perennial weeds from a raised bed and lifted the last of the onions that had been growing there and the next task is to improve the soil before a winter crop goes into the bed. So today I have made a make-shift run in that raised bed. 

Pushing bamboo canes around the edges and using a couple of tube arches I created a structure to wrap in chicken wire. Once I was happy that it was secure I put the Four Horsemen into the run together with their water dispenser and they will spend the next few days in there scratching amongst the straw and soil. Each evening I will move them back to their hen house so that they are safe from predators over night.

Well, I've seen some stroppy children in my time, but these young chickens looked for all the world like they'd been slapped in the face by the proverbial wet fish! I gave them some spinach and chard (their favourites) and sprinkled some of their organic chicken feed onto the ground to encourage them to scratch about, but no, they were just not very interested in earning their keep.

Early evening I got them out of the chicken wire raised bed confinement and put them back in the field that they think of as home and no sooner had I done that than they ran off out of the field, squeezing through the flexible chicken fencing to their new favourite place on the smallholding - the shrubbery near the front of the house - and started scratching amongst the bark chippings, flicking them all over the drive!

I marched them back to their pen in the chicken field and locked them in for the evening. I could hear them crying to be let out as I headed back to the house, but none of others are allowed to destroy the shrubbery and neither are they.

After supper we put all the birds to bed, the chickens put themselves of course, but we close the doors to their houses and make them safe for the night and we headed back inside to watch The Great British Bake Off. The start of the new series signals to me that we are coming to the end of summer and starting to transition towards autumn. The fruit and vegetables in the garden are indicating the same thing. I think I have picked the last of the green runner beans and will leave the remaining pods on the plants to ripen and save to use as dried beans or as seeds for next year's plants. The blackberries that grow so well around the perimeter of the smallholding are ripe and I have been picking handfuls every couple of days and even the apples on the trees are starting to look ready to pick. I am now regularly awake and pottering around downstairs well before dawn and yet the weather for the last couple of days has been positively glorious.

Anyway, it's all change week for the younger chickens. The Four Horsemen are now eight weeks old and the Dirty Dozen are four weeks old. This means that the Four will move into the main chicken shed to live with Jack, Diesel, Big Red and Little White until we separate the birds into flocks of their own breed at some point in the future. Then I can deep clean the enclosed hen house and pen ready for the Dozen to move into from their nursery pen in the stable.

So, after we'd watched an hour of television and it was fairly dark outside, we headed out with torches to move the Four Horsemen. Good grief, they still hadn't gone to sleep and while a bit dozey, they certainly weren't in a deep sleep. Mr J was on door opening duty while I lifted the wriggly little Horsemen from their house and carried them to the chicken shed. I popped them onto the floor just inside the door and when they wake up in the morning they will be part of the big girls flock. Or at least, that is the theory. The chances are that there will be quite a bit of squawking from the shed as the sun comes up and the Four will race off, squeeze through the flexible chicken fencing and make a bid for the freedom of the shrubbery. At which point, I will scoop them up and take them over to the raised bed so that they can continue to scratch there, turning the soil and fertilising it, ready for the next crop to be planted in it.

The ducklings have already moved to their outside home, they have been sleeping in their house for a couple of nights and seem to be quite happy going up the (fairly steep) ramp to bed each evening. Once the Dozen are out in the house in the field the stable will be empty again, giving me the chance to empty and clean the chicken's nursery run and close it down until the spring and to prepare the duck nursery run for new arrivals. We have one last batch of duck eggs in the incubator which are due to hatch early next week. I know that it is quite late in the year to be hatching more ducklings, but we wanted to raise a couple more before next spring if we could. My guess is that they will spend longer inside before moving out if the weather get suddenly cool or, if we are lucky and have a mild autumn, they can move outside at four weeks old as the current ducklings have done.

It is now Thursday morning, the sun is just starting to lighten the sky and I am going to head outside and try to curtail any unpleasantness in the chicken shed, but first, as always, it's time to make a cuppa.

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