Friday, 3 March 2017

Attacked by the rooster

I love having the chickens and ducks, I really do, but there are some aspects to chicken keeping that I'd happily do without. This is the first spring that we have kept poultry and so I am learning daily about their behaviour and it's fascinating. It seems that as the days get longer and lighter, the boys get more, well, everything. They are growing again, into tall, broad fine cockerels, they are 'paying attention' more and more to the girls and they are getting decidedly feisty, actually it's more like aggressive, with each other.

The boys that only a fortnight ago would come up to me for a cuddle are now unrecognisable, gone are the sweet natured youngsters, they have been replaced by proud, strutting adults with one thing on their mind - and nothing nor nobody had better get in their way!

Today I learnt to give the boys a little more respect and a wider berth. The Australorp boy that lives with the two girls and Dieselette (also a girl but not an Australorp) has been getting increasingly feisty over the last week and I have sensibly taken to using a poultry panel as a guard to put a little distance between me and him whenever I go into their enclosure. The poultry panel is a wooden frame about 3 feet by 2 feet and is covered with chicken wire. It means that he can see me and I him, but by holding it between us, we have a polite distance in which we can manoeuvre.

Well this evening, he caught me off guard. I had the poultry panel with me and had been using it to give us our own space and then just as I turned away to leave their enclosure he tackled me. 

Actually what he did was to peck the back of my leg. Hard. Hard enough to make me yelp! He really went for me.

But he hadn't finished with his assault, two more hard pecks on my calves and as I moved the panel between us, just for good measure he threw a couple more pecks at my hand.

Cockerel 5, Liz 0.

What's a girl to do? I am not going to have a go back at him, he is just defending his territory and protecting his girls, which is what I want him to do. Just not against me. I don't know if he finds the poultry panel threatening, but I am still going to use it when I have to go into that enclosure. Naturally I am now a little wary of going into the Australorp field, but I will still have to enter it at least twice a day, to open and close their house, but also to collect any eggs. Perhaps this is what made him so cross today, I have been into that part of the field several times today, to see if the girls had laid as I wanted to add a couple of Australorp eggs into the incubator.

Hey ho, whatever the reason for his aggressive behaviour, I have learnt my lesson and I won't be turning my back on him again any time soon. When I came back into the house and washed the five little bleeding wounds and felt thoroughly sorry for myself. I also felt somewhat foolish for having let my attention slip at just the wrong time.

I will monitor how he behaves over the next couple of months. I can't keep a bird that is going to have a go at me whenever I am nearby and I certainly don't want to breed from a bird that has a bad temperament. However, I suspect that today's grumpiness is due to a surge in hormones and being disturbed several times and that over the next couple of months his hormones will level out and die down and he will once again become a pleasant member of the flock.

Sadly if he doesn't settle down again by mid summer, he will have a date with a pot. There is no room on this smallholding for birds that aren't safe to be around us.

It's all change tomorrow in the chicken field. Squeaky, the Cream Legbar cockerel is going to a new home (in Aberdeenshire) where he will have lots of girls around him to woo. 

Big Red will be dispatched, we have two of his offspring and I have just set several eggs into the incubator that may well be his offspring too. It will be a sad day and I have mixed emotions about dispatching Big Red, but the bottom line is that we have more cockerels than we need and I would rather keep a rare breed boy than a mixed breed one and we only have so many spaces in which we can keep 'spare' cockerels.

So the mixed flock will be attended to by another Australorp boy and I can only hope that he doesn't get feisty with me too. This other boy has been living in the chicken palace with the Jersey Giants, but Big White (formerly known as Little White) has made it clear that he doesn't want another chap in his space and to prevent any fighting between the boys I have separated them and the Australorp boy will go into the mixed flock field tomorrow.

The other change that has happened is that this evening, after the birds had gone to sleep we moved the two young Jersey Giants into the chicken palace so that they can live with the rest of the Jersey Giant flock. They should have been moved weeks ago, but the lockdown messed up our plans and only now are they going to the space where they should be. I will keep a close watch over them tomorrow that they aren't being picked on too much by the other Jersey Giants and no doubt in a few weeks they will be fully integrated into the flock.

Thinking ahead, I am not sure how Big White is going to like his flock being increased by quite such a large number when we move the youngest chicks into his care in seven weeks time. There are ten little Jersey Giants in the nursery pen and assuming we haven't sold many of them by then, he will certainly have a boost to his flock.

I will be glad when the hormonal rush of spring subsides and the chicken fields can once again settle down into a gentle rhythm.
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Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Chickens out, spring in

After all the excitement of the last week, a relative calm has descended upon our smallholding. The house is no longer filled with the cheeping and peeping of many little chicks and the cats have once again taken to lounging around in 'relax mode' rather than twitching at every sound of a small bird moving around their small cage behind a shut door.

I have moved the miracle chick together with the other eighteen chicks to the newly reinforced nursery pen in the chicken condo and today is the day that birds are allowed back out into their fields. 

The empty chicken fields have been a slightly sad sight for the last three months while the birds were in lockdown and now that I have completed the required self-assessment form (find info about it here), checked the bio-security measures that we have in place and checked the fields for signs of contamination, the birds are allowed out onto the grass again. We have to keep the ducks and chickens separated, but that's fine, we had done this months ago due to an overly amorous drake (Frederick) and there is now a 35 feet separation zone between the chickens and ducks.

We took the opportunity to use the time the fields were empty to have a think about how best to use the space and we have started to build a walkway from the chicken palace to one area of the field that the Jersey Giants will be using. This will keep the birds safe and also separated from each other because we don't want the breeds mixing unless we've decided that is what we want. 

The Australorps have their own house in one section of the field. The run that I made has been their only access to grass until today and I have now positioned the run so that the chickens can access the run but also their area of the field. Their food and water will be kept under the run, which is covered, so that wild bird poop can't get into their food or water. 

All the other birds will continue to be fed inside their indoor spaces. The mixed flock have a hanging feeder with a lid that is wild bird proof and kept under their covered walkway and the Jersey Giants had one inside the chicken palace, but they were so rough with the feeder that they tore the hanging toggle dispenser out of it, so today I will be making a new one with a smaller hole in the base, so that although it will dispense food more slowly, the toggle won't be able to to be pulled from the base. You can watch how I made the hanging feeder here 

Tomorrow heralds the start of spring and the beginning of the new growing season, I have done some preparation of the annual vegetable garden, but there is quite a lot left to do. We are still enjoying the harvests of last year's sowings, leeks, parsnips, red cabbage, swede and purple sprouting brocolli are still abundant in the garden and we still have food in the freezer and pantry that I preserved last summer and autumn. 

I put a planting plan down onto paper (and online here) which is a rough guide to what I will sow where, but it is not set in stone and I anticipate having to be flexible because some crops may not be out of the ground in time to plant whatever crop I had hoped to put in the space. But a few of the beds are now cleared and ready for seeds or young plants to go into them and it's all starting to look rather promising.

As I type the sun has come out and is beckoning activity, but it would be foolish to put seeds into the soil today. It has been freezing for the last few nights and a hoar frost this morning gave a hint of just how chilly the ground actually is. I think the average temperature outside needs to rise a good few degrees before I would want to put seeds into the ground. 

I can, however, continue to plant seeds in trays to go into the greenhouse. Last year the kitchen table, windowsills and work surfaces in the boot room were packed with seed trays, but this year we have Monty and Tabitha living with us and offering them what they would interpret as neatly laid out litter trays may not be such a smart move. Tabitha in particular is not terribly fond of going outside to empty her bladder when it is very cold, windy or rainy. We've kept a litter tray on the floor of the boot room since the cats arrived with us in December and I suspect that in the cooler months of each year, we may have to resign ourselves to a litter tray for her use.

Anyway, back to thoughts about the annual vegetable garden. There are tasks that I can continue to do outside like creating the last of five raised beds, laying down pathways and covering them with wood chippings, clearing away abandoned 'stuff' that I meant to put away at the tail end of last year, but didn't because other, more pressing, tasks needed our attention. I plan to move the Swiss chard plants and everlasting spinach into the food forest and then sow fresh seeds for them in the annual garden. I want to keep the older plants as they are useful duck and chicken food, but they don't need to be taking up growing space in the annual garden. 

It still feels a privilege to have so much space in which to grow food and having learnt a little about the soil (or lack thereof), the way the light moves around the garden, the natural flow of water through the area and the prevailing winds, I feel that this year the garden may well be even more productive. Mr J and I enjoyed trying different food crops and have been happy to admit that some things may have grown well, but that doesn't mean we actually like the taste of them. And there is little point in growing masses of something that we don't want to eat!

Except for kales, cabbages and squashes, I will be growing plenty of these this year, tucked into corners and empty spaces, into gaps between other crops and the old circles of love (the straw circles we put down for the chickens to scratch in). These kales, cabbages and squash will be used to feed the birds next autumn and winter. We will cover them late in the year to protect them from wild bird poop and then they will be suitable for feeding to our chickens and ducks during next winter's lockdown should that occur. And if it doesn't, well our birds will still eat well during the coolest months. Winter squashes will keep well for months in cool dry conditions, so I plan to store them in crates in the barn and then they should be available for both poultry and human consumption throughout the winter.

All this talk of food is making me hungry and it's not really a meal time as yet, so I guess I'll just have to make do with a cuppa!
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I also post vlogs daily (almost). You can find my YouTube channel here.
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