Saturday, 2 July 2016

Keeping a lid on it

Last night saw a burst of unexpected activity on our smallholding. We were both up early yesterday which meant that by late afternoon I was exhausted and fell asleep on the sofa. At half past seven in the evening Mr J woke me apologetically, but we needed to spring into action.
Blithering rather than springing (and apparently rather grumpily) I joined Mr J outside to help with a problem. It's been surprisingly windy for the last couple of days and the tarpaulin covering the shed had blown off. The shed had half of its roof on it and we'd already laid the floor on joists and fitted out the inside in preparation for the chickens moving into it, but it was still missing one half of the roof. Obviously we didn't want the newly refurbished inside of the shed to get soaked in the rain, so we either needed to get the temporary cover back on to it or the other half of the roof.
Mr J had reconstructed the roof panel as it was rotten in places and I had fixed some roofing felt onto it ready for it to be put onto the shed. However, it was just too heavy for us to lift on our own, so we've been waiting until someone could help us lift it. We thought it would be just as easy to get the new roof panel on than to put the tarpaulin back on, so Mr J called on one of our neighbours to help us. As luck would have it, it turned out to be much easier to put this panel on than the first one and, with a little wobbling around on a step ladder, we fixed the final sheet of roofing felt over the apex of the roof.
We are using hazel poles as roosting bars, partly because we have them and partly because it seems nicer to perch on a round tree branch than on the square edges of a planed two by one batten. Mr J and I fixed two by four battens to the inside of the shed walls and then bracing pieces each side of the hazel poles to stop them from moving around as the birds climb on them.
As it's a weekend of change for the birds, I thought last night was as good a time as any to relocate the chicken into their new accommodation and to put Big Red and Little White in with the rest of the flock. The only issue with this idea is that the cockerel is not in the least bit impressed with the youngest members of his flock, but he had put himself to bed in a separate house (which we have transferred him to every night since he arrived). There is a certain irony that he should finally get the hang of going to bed in his own house two evenings before he moves home.

Anyway, once we had put wood shavings onto the floor of the shed, we transferred the girls, one by one, into their new super-deluxe chicken shed. They had been in their old henhouse about half an hour and whilst not yet deeply asleep, they were fairly dozy. This seemed ideal as they were awake enough to take hold of the hazel pole perches, but not so awake that they were terribly aware of being disturbed. That is until Diesel woke up. She's a feisty old girl and was even more grumpy about being woken than I had been. Absolutely refusing to perch, she and Jack sulked in a dark corner on the floor, but the Cream Legbars had a brief look around their new house and apparently it met with their approval as, within a few minutes, they were cuddling together on the top perch. The birds had been pretty squashed in their house, it was designed for up to six large birds and while the Legbars were small it wasn't a problem for them to be together in it, but now that they are almost fully grown it was starting to get too cramped. Right now, there is almost too much space in the shed for them, but as our flock increases, the perches will fill up.
When I woke this morning I was worried that Big Red and Little White may have been hurt by the others, but I needn't have worried, all the birds were still asleep when I went to let them out of the shed and I'm not sure that the older girls had even noticed that the younger ones had joined them in the shed.
At five this morning the garden looked wonderful, the sun was starting to reach the paddock and the air smelled fresh and clean, there was almost no breeze blowing and life felt pretty marvellous. The view across the neighbouring smallholdings and farms towards the Second Severn Crossing is delightful and especially lovely in this golden early morning light. As the sun highlights the bridge, it takes on an magical appearance and it's moments like this that remind me just how lucky we are to live here. 
The area near the chicken shed that I fenced off last month is now looking good. The chickens had prepared the ground nicely by scratching over the compost heaps, which I  have since moved and used the compost in the vegetable beds. I planted seed potatoes into the area and then mulched with straw. The potatoes went into the ground very late, but I am hoping that I will get a crop from them in early autumn. Even if the potatoes are small, they can still be useful to us.
In the kitchen garden, the purple kale and January King cabbages are coming along nicely, but the courgettes and butternut squash seem to be struggling. I have fed them and they picked up a little, but not nearly as much as I'd like.
The newer beds are still being planted up and establishing, I have covered some of the pathways with cardboard and mulched with the shredded Leylandii that has been stored since we trimmed the hedge in the front garden a few weeks ago. I've planted the bed next to the courgettes with purple sprouting broccoli, perpetual spinach, sunflowers and rainbow carrots. In the bed next to that (on the left with the green modules on it), I am in the process of planting Cavolo Nero kale, rainbow chard and leeks. Mr J and I are not very keen on kale, but the chickens love it and the hope is to grow lots of greens that will supplement the chickens diet in the winter when there are less clovers, dandelions and other plants that they are enjoying in their field at the moment.
Last month, I harvested our first lettuce and rather pulling it up, I cut it leaving the base and a few leaves. Within days it had started sprouting new leaves and now they have grown large enough to harvest them too. I will definitely continue to do this with the other lettuce in the bed, as it gives me another crop of lettuce on well established roots rather than successional sowing.
In the greenhouse, the tomatoes are growing well, every plant is producing tomatoes from each cluster of flowers and I'm pleased to see that they are of an even shape. The first ones are just starting to ripen and are now orangey-red and full of promise.
I picked a few strawberries, mange tout and young broad bean pods as I walked around the garden this morning and I'm looking forward to eating them for lunch.

Readers who follow me on Twitter, will already know that the last few days have been tiring and rather dramatic on the smallholding. The latest batch of chicks were due to hatch on 28th June and were still trying to hatch on the night of the 30th. I have been putting together a vlog of the chicks hatching and as soon as it's ready I will put it onto my YouTube channel. If you follow me on Twitter or subscribe to the YouTube channel, you will know as soon as it is available.

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Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Hatching day UPDATED

Yesterday was day 21 of the eggs being in the incubator, so it was hatching day. It's amazing that new life can grow in just 21 days inside eggs, they really are very clever things. Despite having promised myself that I wouldn't sit by the incubator for the better part of the day and that I'd just get on with tasks and ignore the incubator, I didn't manage to get through the day without returning time and again to the snug, where we have the incubator to see how the hatching was progressing.

As a reminder, we have 16 eggs in the incubator, although we started with twenty-six eggs, ten of them were not fertile (9 of the Australorp and one Jersey Giant), so we are hoping for three Australorps, eleven Jersey Giants and two hybrids. The two hybrid eggs from our smallholding were laid by Diesel (fertilised by the bantam cockerel that is with us at the moment).

By early evening, one little chick had hatched, it was one of the hybrids and although it's very small, it's feisty and loud which I am taking as a good sign. I stayed up rather later than I normal in the hope that I would see another chick (or more).

I was in that place where 'expectation meets reality' and having to accept that I can't make those little eggs pop open by sheer willpower or by being hopeful. I can't understand why the others didn't hatch yesterday, but perhaps the incubator was a little cooler than it was for the last hatching (which we did in a different incubator) or perhaps because the eggs were put into the incubator later in the day than the first batch. Who knows, but I did go to bed feeling rather despondent.

This morning the first chick is still alive and looking strong and, to my delight, three more eggs have pipped. I can see the small holes in the eggshells made by chicks getting ready to hatch. So it seems that today I will be in and out of the house again, checking for developments in the incubator. Typically, as I am writing my blog I can hear that there is movement in the incubator! The second chick has hatched, it's one of the White Jersey Giant eggs, which is delightful as it means that Little White will have a companion.
By mid afternoon today (Wednesday) a third chick had hatched, it's very tired having spent the better part of the day trying to release itself from the shell. And now I will have to wait to see whether any of the other eggs that have pipped will hatch a chick. I've been advised that hatching can be any time up to thirty-six hours after pipping, so I won't give up on the eggs left in the incubator just yet. I find it disappointing to have hatched only three so far from sixteen eggs and can't help but wonder if I've done something wrong. I will update this post again if more chicks hatch.
The next task for us is to make sure that everything is ready for the chicks to be moved into the brooder area once they are dry and fluffy. So Mr J and I have turned on the brooder which will keep them warm and put a small dish of chick food and grit and also a water dispenser filled with water, apple cider vinegar with garlic and honey. This mixture should provide some energy, help their gut health and promote their well-being.
There are changes afoot with the small flock outside. The cockerel that we have at the moment will being going to his new home on Sunday evening. He is obviously fertile as we have just hatched one of his chicks and I am sure that he will enjoy living with Helen on her smallholding and looking after her girls. We gave that small cockerel a home as we wanted to have some fertile eggs while we were waiting for the Cream Legbar cockerel that we have been promised by a well-respected Cream Legbar breeder. The new laddie is now ready to come to us and we will be collecting him at the weekend. The timing is perfect as we can keep the new boy in quarantine for a couple of days before he joins the girls in the field by which time the current cockerel will have left.
I've just checked the incubator one more time and we still have just the three chicks but on the plus side, they all look strong and healthy.

It was somewhat of a surprise to come downstairs at 5am today to find another chick just pushing the last of it's shell off and looking big, strong and healthy. This is an Australorp chick, the only one to hatch and I am delighted that at least we have one now. It is the largest of the chicks that have hatched and certainly seems very robust. Within an hour of hatching it was up and running about in the incubator, steady on its feet and cheep-cheeping merrily.
Later in the day I spotted that another egg was trying to hatch but having difficulties breaking the shell. A while later and it was in trouble, so I looked online for information and sought advice from friends on social media (who have kept chickens) and then tried to help the little bird. It's now been several hours since we helped it and although it seems to be out of the shell, much of the membrane is still stuck to its feathers and it is desperately weak. I suspect that it is just a matter of time before the struggle to live becomes too much. Part of me wants to put it out of any misery it may be in, but the other half says to give the little fella (or gal) a chance to fight for survival. It's very hard to know what it is the best thing to do in this situation. So for now, we are going to leave it to rest and keep our fingers crossed that it will survive. I'll update again when I have more news about the fifth little chick.