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hens

Lifestyle

The Hens Tale – Breeding Chicks from Cold Eggs

July 13, 2015

The Hen Story. Nature Gives and She Taketh Away

Less than a year ago I shared the arrival of our rescue hens with you. We were expecting shy, timid creatures but instead they were a bolshy bunch. Although rescued from a free range chicken farm, many had feathers missing and one young lady (they were a year old when they were sprung) was quickly nicknamed Rodette after her resemblance to the old, male singer with the funky hair.

The Hen Story - Nature Gives & Takes Away The chicken run is directly behind the kitchen window and their antics kept us entertained as they soon learnt to fly up onto the windowsill looking for food.

With the arrival of the rescue hens, our flock increased to 15 and the White Sussex rooster was kept busy. From the day they arrived we averaged around 50 eggs a week, so took to selling some at the gate which covered their feed bill. Once you have chickens, you never go hungry as there’s always something you can rustle up in the kitchen for breakfast, lunch or tea and our girls quickly learnt how to make pancakes. One of the unseen bonuses of rearing your own hens is being able to give a box of eggs to friends or swap them for a jar of local honey.

Roosting HensOur hens were kept in a big area at the back of the house which has a pallet gate fitted to keep the dogs out, but because we don’t clip their wings, the hens were able to jump up onto the wall of the adjoining farm or fly up into the trees when they wanted to. Two of the original flock slept above the coop every night, refusing to be locked into it with the other ladies, no matter how low the thermometer fell. Over the winter months the pen gates were left open, allowing them all to free range around our garden, giving them fresh grass and an opportunity to keep the slug and weed population at bay.

All was going well, the rescues plumped out and grew luxurious feathers which they liked to preen and fluff out. Even Rodette became hard to distinguish among the others once her soft coat returned.

And then the fox came.

We didn’t notice at first as we’d gotten out of the habit of counting the hens in at night. But one evening we went out a little earlier to check them as had a feeling there weren’t as many. Sure enough, there were two missing. Having been on the receiving end of foxes before, we knew they’d be back and within a couple of days another hen was taken. As the days went by, the raids became more frequent and bolder. We stopped the hens free ranging, locking them into their run as the fox was spotted both in the morning and lunchtime in the front garden. However, the hens were used to pecking around wherever they liked. With no fencing on top of the wall to prevent them getting out or the fox getting in, and no time to put something together, the foxes were onto a winner. Breakfast, lunch and dinner was laid out for their family, free for the taking.

The long and the short of it is that we couldn’t protect our scared hens. We weren’t prepared. We let them and ourselves down. During a two-week period when Mr G was working all hours and we had family staying, all but one hen was taken. We could only hope that their ending was quick. By the time a temporary, enclosed coop and run had been put together, only the Little White Hen remained.

The Hen Story - Nature Gives & Takes Away

The babies cot has been upcycled for the nnnth time.

We put the new accommodation onto the front lawn where we could keep the best eyes on her and moved her in. At first she pecked around in the grass, busy looking for bugs, though she must have been bit lonely and no doubt worried about her own survival after the trauma of seeing all her fellow hens disappear. As the days passed we could tell she missed the company of the others and we worried about her mental health. Was it fair to keep her alone? Should we give her away? Do hens even get depressed?

The Hen Story - Nature Gives & Takes Away We didn’t want to take on more hens until we were in a better place to keep them safe. Then one day our Little White Hen refused to come out of her temporary coop. On inspection we realised she was broody. Although we were pleased that she had something to occupy her, we realised this new state of being wouldn’t amount to anything as without fertile eggs under her, there would be no chicks.

Cold Eggs

The Hen Story - Nature Gives & Takes Away It became clear that our Little White Hen wasn’t going to snap out of her broodiness so I called into neighbours and asked if they might have some fertile eggs to spare. They opened the fridge and gave me half a dozen they’d picked up from their own nesting boxes over the previous few days. Although cold and unable to confirm fertility, I decided to take the gamble. I brought the eggs in and left them on the countertop, letting them slowly return to room temperature before slipping them under our Little White Hen.

For three weeks nothing happened then yesterday we heard a squawk. Our boisterous puppy ran out to investigate and low and behold there was a chick, and another and another. Four little balls of fluff had hatched under their surrogate mother and were looking for food. Our pup was beside herself with excitement, mother hen was protective, all of them were hungry. With no chick food in the house I rang Oldfarm’s Margaret for advice, not realising she’d blogged the recipe.

“Blend some seeds, porridge, raisins and bits from the cupboard to keep them going” she suggested “there’s no point buying a sack of feed”.

We did this but mother hen seemed a bit worried that it wasn’t fine enough, either that or she wasn’t feeling very maternal and ate as much of it as she could, pushing her chicks out-of-the-way in the process. I remembered that Old MacDonald’s, our excellent smallholding store sold small quantities of chick crumb so picked some up today, if our home-made feed wasn’t working out for them.

We made the decision after the last fox raid that we wouldn’t keep hens again unless we could offer them a safer environment to live in, so before the new little family come out Mr G will be attempting to fox proof the run.

The Hen Story - Nature Gives & Takes Away We suspect we got away with it for so many years because we have large dogs. But like us all, they became elderly and stopped hearing the foxes arrival. Now we have an eager new pup, if we can keep the chickens safe from her, we don’t think the foxes will venture into the garden again for a while.

I love that we’re surrounded by larger mammals. Badgers and foxes thrive in this area and we’re happy to share our space with them, feel excitement when we see them out in the fields, or crossing the road at night on the way in and out of their sets.

I just wish those darned bloody foxes wouldn’t keep stealing our hens…

 

Lifestyle

Uh-Oh, The ‘Hoods’ Have Arrived

August 12, 2014

Rehoming Rescue HensAfter all this time you’d have thought we’d have learnt.

“We’ll do some research before we get any more animals”. 
“Yep, it’s much easier when we know what we’re letting ourselves in for.”

That should have been enough don’t you think? In future, we’d find out what we were about to embark upon before we increase our livestock and in particular double our chicken flock with rescue hens. But that wouldn’t be any fun….

Saddleback pigs in August

Saddleback pigs in August

When it came to our first attempts at pig rearing last year, we absolutely did our homework. We trotted off to Old Farm and spent a day learning about fencing, feeding and generally caring for pigs before our two saddlebacks arrived. Even then we continued to learn throughout the months that followed, quickly realising that nothing can fully prepare you for the first time you have to take animals off to slaughter.

Rehoming Rescue HensWith the chickens we were self-taught. We assumed hens would be straightforward, lots of folk we know have them and so far our hens have been purely for their egg laying capabilities. We’d planned to get some brooders this year for the freezer but with a fox lair close by, knew we’d have to build runs etc to contain them at night so that, at least, is still on the ‘to do’ list.

Rehoming Rescue HensThe internet has been a great resource for us over recent years and poultry books helpful but nothing can really prepare you for rearing livestock. I did chat with the woman on the end of the phone line a wee bit when I rang to enquire about the 5,000 hens she was rescuing and hoping to re-home:

“We have a small flock of hens, how well will ex-batteries integrate with them?”
“Fine, no bother at all.”
“We’ll take four then”
“Would you not have room for a few more?”
“Ok, we’ll take eight”

Some hours later….

“You’ve done whaaaat?”

This all happened several months ago. Back then we had an attractive little flock, led by a very good-looking White Sussex cockerel. Sadly, the local fox began to pick the chickens and ducks off, one by one, boldly and in midday light, until he finally reached the prize he was looking for – Bob, our magnificent rooster. We hope he choked on one of the glorious tail feathers that weren’t left strewn on the lawn in Bob’s last fight for survival.

We haven’t seen the fox since.

After the horrors of helplessly watching our flock diminish, we were left with just three little hens, two of whom were broody and sitting on fertilised eggs.The eggs hatched, four healthy little chicks were born and our flock increased back to a manageable size of seven. Happy days. Then the phone call came…

Oh-Oh, the hoods have arrived“The hens are being released, I’ll met you Thursday at the handball club”

Eeeek! Seven to fourteen hens overnight and if they all lay eggs, that’s a lot of omelettes!

I should mention at this point that although I’ve referred to the hens as ex-batteries, due to a European ruling in 2012, commercial hens these days are no longer confined to the wire cages of old, they are now kept in ‘enriched’ cages where they can at least flap their wings. In the case of our new arrivals, they’ve come from a free range environment. That said, free range commercial farming and free range hobby farming are two different things. Commercially the hens are replaced every year and from what I can gather, the year old ones simply destroyed unless rescued. That leads to my point about the ‘hoods’.

Rehoming Rescue HensAfter the hens had been here a few days I googled ‘rehoming ex batteries’. Apparently, far from the featherless, poor little things I’d conjured up in my imagination, rescue hens are very street wise. Even free range, they’ve been reared in cramped conditions, sharing space with thousands of other birds and have had to adapt, learning to fight for their small bit of territory.

During the week they’ve been here, we’ve noticed they’re very brave and wander around bits of our property the other hens never ventured to. They’re also very friendly and don’t mind being handled. They haven’t figured out what the scraps thrown out the window are yet and they sleep almost on top of one another, even though they now have space to stretch and move around. Some of the hens were quite featherless, perhaps from being picked on but they’re certainly holding their own with our existing flock. Already we can tell our feed bill will be rising considerably and although ex-batteries aren’t supposed to lay many eggs, that message doesn’t seem to have reached our new ladies and we now have more eggs produced than we can manage.

Rehoming Rescue HensOverall, the hens seem to be integrating nicely and if one of the recent chicks does turn out to be the cockerel we think he might be, his father’s very good looking son, he’ll be a very happy lad indeed surrounded by so many ladies. They may however, take a bit of persuading to be receptive to his advances as I somehow think the new girls wont be taking any nonsense, no matter how long and glorious his tail feathers might be.

And as for our homework? Well our bee suit arrived this week so we best start looking into those beekeeping courses as the honeybees I wrote about in June have not only stayed, but have bred like mad.

If you’re thinking of keeping hens, the Consumer Association have a handy guide and if you’re thinking of re-housing ex-battery or rescue hens, poultrykeeper.com have a list of common health problems you might meet.

Have you thought about rescuing hens or already done so? How did you find the experience?