Into the coop

Just over a year after coming home, one of the rescue ladies from the battery farm died, so this has necessitated more birds for the hen house.

I went back to  Hens4Pets to get two hybrid birds, a Magpie (black) and an Amber (white).  When they asked what I was looking for, I just said “not brown.” It’s good to have birds you can easily disambiguate.

They’ve been with me a couple of weeks now, settling in. The pecking order is very clear and the old ex battery Attila the Hen is not letting the new birds eat from the feeders, just the corn on the ground. This is when I’m standing there, anyway. Given that all of the food is going, the new birds must be able to manage to eat some of it when Attila is not looking.

The new ladies in the coop reminded me of some common chicken behaviour that the battery birds have never learnt to do. They dig through the ground. They fly up to the perches. They dust-bathe. Attila just doesn’t do those things. I’d forgotten that was odd.

On the whole the ex-battery hens have not been great. They haven’t laid well. The eggs they have provided have had extremely thin shells. Towards the end I’d resorted to paying for eggs and chicken feed, and that’s not how it’s supposed to work.

Attila is not laying, but the new black chicken is very consistent and provides a tiny egg every day.

2018-08-29 11.40.41

(eating leftover pomegranate from pudding club.)

Look how overgrown the coop is now compared to when it was built five years ago!

New chicken palace constructed


Garden and chicken problems

Some issues in my garden – advice please!

For starters, something else is living in the chicken run apart from the chickens.

There’s this huge great tunnel:

Tunnel in chicken run

Easily big enough to get two fists in. Some other critter is coming in and presumably stealing the chicken food.

Whatever it is it has not harmed the chickens and doesn’t take the eggs.

Both P and I think we have seen it, but only ever fleetingly before it backs away. I’ve been out on evenings when someone else’s cat is sitting on the outside of the chicken pen staring intently down the hole. But I just missed whatever it was. My impression of what I saw the one time I caught sight of it, was that it was cute, and red faced and looked almost like a teddy bear. All I saw was its head poking out of the hole before it vanished. P’s abiding impression was more grey in colour, but again he thought cute.

Obviously the most likely culprit is a rat. But neither of us thought we saw that. And it is a huge great hole for a rat!

Our thoughts after that turned to stoaty, weaselly, minky things. But how likely are they in an urban garden? And wouldn’t they have gone for the chickens.

Could the squirrels – which are very interested in chicken feed – be able to tunnel underground like that?

Obviously I should dig the hole over and probably I should put some chicken wire down on the ground too. But thus far I have just not got around to it.

The other problem is a strange discolouration on the leaves of a big variety of different plants.

Plant discolouration

Plant discolouration

Plant discolouration

Plant discolouration

It’s on a shrub in a pot on the decking.

It’s on the elder.

It’s on a sweet smelling yellow leaved shrub I feared that careless gardeners had killed by hacking to the ground despite being told not to, but which has behaved as if we had pollarded it and sprung back.

I am concerned that the same thing is happening to so many plants. Is it a bug? Is it a disease? If I leave it will it go away!?

Welcoming Bertha to the hen house

We had a death a month or two again – Houdini the chicken looked a little peaky in the afternoon, but she’d looked peaky before and rallied so we left her to it and went out to see Jason Donovan in Priscilla The Musical On Tour. By the time we came home, Houdini was dead, and in full rigor, under the feed bowls.

Going from two chickens to one answered a few questions in a slightly surprising way. We had assumed it had been Persephone laying the shell-less eggs, and that it had been Houdini who like to shout from the rooftops at 5am dawn. It had been the other way around.

We have postponed finding another celly for Persephone for the months since just because when you read about how hard it can be to introduce new birds to a flock, it seems awfully offputting. We had half-baked plans in our head of fencing off half the run, buying additional food bowls, keeping two chickens apart, maybe even using the cat transporting box as a temporary roost… but talking it through with our chicken supplier out by IKEA this afternoon made it all seem a little simpler. “Just chuck her in and see how she gets on,” was the advice. “There will be ten minutes of squawking and feathers and then it will be fine.”

The chicken lady was concerned our existing bird would try and injure our new one, but our concern, on seeing the birds for sale, was that they were enormous and it would be Persephone who would suffer.

It’s her size that gave Bertha her name: as the chicken lady hoiked her out of the pen and trimmed her wing, she said, “Come here, Big Bertha!” And that’s the name we’re going with.

Bertha arrives

We drove her home, chucked her in the pen, watched for half an hour and there wasn’t too much aggro. Persephone ducked and froze for a while and allowed herself to be pecked before flying up to a perch and sitting out of the way and bokking.

Bertha arrives

Then she jumped down and gave chase for a few minutes before it was Bertha’s time for the solitude of the perch. It’s quite hard to take pictures of a white chicken against the dark of the bark, she just ends up overexposed and ghostly. Chickens generally don’t stay still long enough for good photos anyway.

Bertha arrives

After a few minutes a sort of peace descended, broken by Bertha’s reaction to the cats in the garden. Persephone is used to them by now, but Bertha got into a complete flap and the cat ran past the hen house as fast as it could. (Not our cat – a neighbour’s cat comes up through a gap in the fence and spends most of its afternoons sunbathing in a corner.)

We heard chicken calls for a while after we got back into the house but now it’s after dark. Have the hens managed to roost together without another battle? Better go and check.

The chickens have names!

For a long old while the chickens were called quite simply black chicken and brown chicken.

This has been disturbing a surprising number of our friends and colleagues who think that the chickens should have names. Some friends suggested Coffee and Marmalade, which I thought were great names, but didn’t really stick.

Now Black Chicken has definitely become named Houdini, because she keeps escaping and we don’t know how. (This is a bit of a problem, because once she breaches the fence she can’t get back in again. Which means she doesn’t always have access to water and sometimes if we are late to shut them up for the night, she tries to roost outside the hen house, a very bad idea in our fox-strewn neighbourhood.)

Which left Brown Chicken. A coffee break discussion at school led to her being called Persephone, a name which works for convenience, but I doubt has ever been uttered in her earshot.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the chickens have different names at P’s workplace to at mine.

Looking after them is easy most of the time. Mucking out is a 5-10 minute job twice a week; a more comprehensive clean of the house is needed every month or so, and even that is at most a half hour job.

On a daily basis we top up the feed and water and feed them treats: leafy greens, weeds, corn or bird seed. We let them out into a fenced run if we are around in daylight, which is most days.

P started off hardline: we are only getting chickens if you do all the work. Now, since he is most often home in the daylight, thanks to a crazy early start at work, it is him who does most of the feeding and watering and handling, leaving me the mucking out.

It will get trickier as the weather gets colder. I am a little anxious about what to do when the water starts freezing, especially when I am often out of the house the 12 hours of daylight, putting in regular 10 hour days at school and still not getting enough done.

If it gets properly cold they will have to be shut into the hen house at night and let out in the morning, adding another few minutes to the morning routine when time is always tight. And of course, on the days when time is tight anyway because the car needs defrosting.

We do have more eggs than we can cope with but so far not more eggs than we can easily give away when things get out of hand. We are somehow managing to think both “there are more eggs than we can eat” and “it would be nice to have more chickens.”

Failing to grow my own food

This will be another year in which I’ve failed to grow my own food.

Like many previous years, I’ve not really gotten around to sowing seeds in February and March when I should have done – indeed, I was down for raising seedlings for the Lib Dem stall at the Green Fest this year, and ended up providing something with a much shorter lead-in time.

Anyway, at the Green Fest, I snapped up the stall’s leftover sunflower seedlings, nurtured them in the conservatory for a wee while, then planted them to the huge flowerbed P dug last year that hopefully soon we will be transforming into a cottage country garden border (ps, any tips?).

They got eaten by slugs within days. Completely destroyed. Every vestige of leaf munched by gastropods.

When I went to the garden centre to buy canes for the sunflowers, I also picked up some healthy looking tomato plants, and I put them in the earth in front of the sunflowers.

They looked more promising for a while – they grew big and strong, and had loads of flowers, and when we got back from Durham, there were small runs of healthy, fat-looking green fruit. And then they turned brown. The stems withered and went slimey and the brown consumed the fruit as well. I think I got blight.

Whilst I was on my planting spree, I put a row of sweetcorn seeds in the ground too. It was far too late to sow corn in May, but I figured what the heck? Of about 5 seeds, two came up, and have put on healthy leaves. They too are being munched, but have so far survived. I don’t have high hopes, however, just because they went in so late. They’ve no signs of flowers or cobs, and they need to get on with it at this time of year.

Over the years, I’ve had many attempts. The potatoes I planted and never earthed up that didn’t grow very much.  Other people’s surplus tomato seedlings – including the ones I put so many slug pellets on I didn’t quite dare eat the ensuing tomatoes;  the year I planted beans, but didn’t pinch out the tops, and only really got a plateful; and the other years I planted beans, and nothing came up.

Oh well. There’s always next February / March. What with a general election expected in 2010, I can’t think I’ll be busy around then?

Seed catalogue

My plan to grow my own veg has taken its first baby steps with a large order from the Organic Gardening Catalogue.

The following seeds should shortly be on their way…

  • PARSNIP The Student
  • ROCKET Rucola
  • MUSHROOMS White Cap Spawn – April-July
  • FENNEL Finale
  • HERB COLLECTION – Summer Sowing (Borage, Chervil, Coriander (leaf) Sorrel, Sage, Lemon Balm, Purslane (pictured), Peppermint)
  • LETTUCE Mixed Lettuces
  • ONION Long Red Florence
  • CARROTS Rainbow Mix
  • COURGETTE All Green Bush
  • ONION Ailsa Craig
  • ONION Bedfordshire Champion
  • SUNFLOWER Russian Mammoth
  • PUMPKIN Tom Fox
  • PUMPKIN Rouge vif D Etampes
  • RUNNER BEAN Desiree
  • DRYING BEAN Soissons
  • POTATO COLLECTION Blight Resisters 5kg (1kg each of Colleen, Orla, Milva, Robinta and Valor)
  • SWEETCORN Sweetie
  • SNAP POD PEA Sugar Bon
  • RADISH China Rose
  • RADISH French Breakfast
  • SPRING ONION White Lisbon
  • CABBAGE Christmas Drumhead
  • CABBAGE Greyhound
  • BRUSSELS SPROUT (Late) Seven Hills

I have also been reading my new allotment book, that tells me how to spend 30 mins a day getting the most out of an allotment, and erm, handily tells me not to buy seeds, but to get pre-started plants from the garden centre.