So it turns out that having chickens about the place may well be addictive. I find that I’m really enjoying having them around. They burble imperiously at me when I bring them corn, and I like the pompous way in which they strut. Yet I have to say, I don’t feel actual affection for them, is that dreadful? They make me smile, but I don’t think I’ll have any qualms raising some for meat. Maybe I’m better at this livestock rearing lark than I thought I’d be? Or maybe it’s that with two cats and a dog already, I don’t feel the need for any more pets. Either way, I’m very glad that we have them on the smallholding and I continue to be thrilled at the fact that we are already self-sufficient in eggs.
Yesterday we decided to spend the morning obtaining two new hens to add to our little flock. We had been thinking about the huge list of chores that we want to tackle here on our smallholding and had started talking about the kind of livestock we’d like to rear for meat this year. We’re going to start small, a few sheep and pigs and some meat hens and geese and we’ll leave anything more adventurous for next year. The idea for the meat hens was to get our layers to go broody and hatch some fertilised eggs but since adopting our four ex-battery chickens we’ve learnt that hybrid hens rarely go broody which is a shame. So plan b was to find a local chicken breeder and buy some posh designer hens to use as our broody mothers. It didn’t exactly go to plan. We found a local smallholding that said we could pop by to see the point of lay hens they had for sale and somehow we ended up coming home with two more hybrids! These aren’t bog standard commercial crosses though, we got a Sussex ranger and an Amberlink, two pretty white birds, one of which has a very sweet black fringe around her bottom. Our little flock have sadly taken a bit of a dislike to our two new chickens and they’re all occupying separate parts of the paddock at the moment but we’re dousing them all in vile-smelling anti-peck spray and hope they’ll become friends eventually. We kept them separate during the day yesterday and popped the new girls into the house to sleep with the other hens at dusk. There was a bit of pecking and chasing today but we’ll keep an eye on them.
With new hens coming in, we decided that our free range outdoor pen, which we’ve been moving around the hen house on a monthly basis, needed to be increased in size. I’ve been quite unimpressed with the mobile pen we bought. It cost about £100 and it’s actually relatively small, but worse than that, even when constantly repositioned, the stakes that hold up the net sides lean a lot whenever it rains and the hens have actually been able to flutter over them a few times. The chickens had basically created a scratched, bare patch circling their rather immobile wooden chicken house where we’d been moving it about. Given that they’re currently occupying a paddock we intend to use as a vegetable garden, we thought we’d put chicken wire around the paddock itself so that the chickens could truly range free. There was a bit still around that we could repair and we added new wire when needed.
Quotes to have someone come in and do this work were surprisingly high, running to close to £1000 so we decided to invest a day and do it ourselves. I’m very pleased with the result. For a total cost of £120 (covering 50 metres of chicken wire, wire snippers, a heavy duty staple gun and staples) we secured the whole paddock, and I see the tools as an investment for the smallholding for the future. The wire won’t keep any determined predators out but we haven’t seen a fox since arriving here in October and we hope that the dog being outside all the time will encourage them to keep away, and we obviously lock the hens up at night. I think it’ll keep the chickens in the paddock though, which is our primary aim. We’ve both now had to chase escapee hens and it’s tedious to say the least! So here we are, more chickens than people on the smallholding and enjoying the eggs, even though they’re not laying that much. Our next step is to move the chickens all into a different paddock and to get going on hatching our meat birds, but I think we’ll wait for the spring so that the little chicks don’t get too cold. In the meantime, I found it made me genuinely happy when we removed the temporary fencing and the hens all went charging all over the paddock. They were so clearly enjoying themselves, and I think that given they must have more space to roam per hen than any other poultry in the South East of England, well they might!