Just Another Day in Barbara’s Back Yard

Just Another Day in Barbara’s Back Yard

I was standing at the kitchen sink this morning (as I very often do!) and a sparrowhawk landed on the little table in front of the kitchen window.  Amazing, it was so close.  Usually you struggle to identify birds of prey circling high in the sky above you but this was so easy to identify – it was so close. Even though I stood perfectly still, I must have blinked because he was off in a flash – but the picture in my mind remains.

Daisy laid her very first egg this morning.  Dorking eggs are pale – not brown – and this is probably one of the reasons that Dorkings are now a rare breed.  Although the nutritional content of white and brown eggs is exactly the same – the perception is different – and consequently supermarkets only seem to sell brown eggs now.

Once Dillon learned to crow, he quickly realised he could do other things too – much to Doris’s consternation (she had obviously forgotten about Dillon the First).  The Spice Girls seemed to accept it as par for the course.  I can never quite figure out whether hens like to be jumped on – the ducks however do seem to enjoy it.  When we first had ducks (and geese) I was told we would need a pond if we wanted fertile eggs, so we spent ages digging out a pond deep enough for the geese to swim in.  The ducks and geese did love the pond – but they managed equally well on dry land.

Before I started this blog, I used to let the hens out then rush off to start work.  Now I am writing a blog, I sit and watch them for a while each morning and it’s amazing how much more you notice.  Doris (the oldest hen)) always comes to stand by my feet, waiting for some sunflower seeds.  The Spice Girls are quite adventurous now – and less timid that the other hens.  I use black plastic sheets on the vegetable patch to supress weeds – slimy creatures love to hide under it – so every so often I spread it out for the hens and ducks – the spice Girls are always the first on there picking off slugs and snails.

Doris

Dillon (cockerel) and Desmond (drake) have had a few scraps but they seem to have come to a sort of truce and, provided they keep out of each other’s way, everything’s fine.  I have learned that you do need at least 2 ducks with a drake, especially if you are keeping ducks and hens together – the previous drake insisted on mating with one of the hens and I had to separate them.  (Several reasons I won’t go into here – their anatomy is different and therefore damaging to the hen.)

 

Autumn in Barbara’s Back Yard

Autumn  – season of mists and mellow fruitfulness – perfectly described by John Keats

So much brighter – and warmer – today – tidied up the hen house – and found where the Spice Girls are laying their eggs.  They have settled in much faster than the last lot and have calmed down – they don’t skitter away from me in panic any more.  Still have difficulty getting them in at night – it’s almost like they are saying to me:  “Just one more bit of grass first…”  I tell them that they really will be let out again in the morning and there will be plenty more grass to eat!

Dillon crowed for the first time this week – I felt a thrill of excitement when I heard him – its ages since we had an adult cockerel.  He has quite a deep crow (the bantam cockerel we had made a really shrill noise – much to the annoyance of the boys who were sleeping in the room nearest him!)  Clearing up the garden it was so lovely to hear him crowing.  Happy hens lay happy eggs!

Lit the fire the last few nights – my new herby firelighters work really well – just need to show husband how to use them instead of those smelly petrol ones – you just put them on top of screwed up newspaper and you need some really dry kindling or a dry log on top.  Works like a dream!

My two new ‘NZW’ does must have some Californian blood in them.  Half Keri’s babies now have black noses and tails – and ear tips!  They will probably be much hardier – and make better rabbits to breed for meat – but they are definitely not pure bred NZWhites!  Wonder how Lily’s babies will turn out!  They will all make lovely house rabbits – they are really friendly and the Californians with their black noses and tails are really cute.  They are ready for new homes now – £15 each – if you are looking for a pet that doesn’t need a walk every day.

October in Barbara’s Back Yard

The New Spice Girls

The new ex-bats are bigger than the last ones and less timid.  They are settling in much quicker and seem less vulnerable, but they are not very adventurous yet – just eating their layers mash – and I think it will be a while before they have grown enough feathers back in order to perch.

The first night I put them all in the little pen (as instructed) but the next morning one of them had got out so I opened up the pen but put a board across the door to discourage them from venturing outside until they had got their bearings.

The next day, Ginger (obviously the ringleader) had circumvented my barricade and was exploring outside, she got quite stroppy when I tried to usher her back in.

Like before, my other hens are ignoring the newcomers – they don’t seem to recognise them as the same species.

I made firelighters – I pruned and cut down the herbs in the herb garden.  Sage, thyme, bay, rosemary and lavender contain oils and burn well so I tie them in bundles with other herbs – tarragon, marjoram, lemon mint and hyssop to make firelighters.  I hang them up in the barn to dry.  They are much more environmentally friendly – and cheaper – than chemical firelighters – and work just as well.   It was a beautiful day, the sun was really warm and it was lovely outside – except I kept being plagued with ladybirds landing on me – and occasionally biting too.

I picked the first pumpkins and made spicy pumpkin soup – with chilli powder, allspice, cayenne, – and fresh thyme.

Homegrown carrots, parsnips and potatoes generally suffer from some pests – like wireworm and carrot fly – so when preparing them, I don’t put the scrap bits on the compost heap – I put them in a bucket and give them to the hens to scratch through and devour all the bugs.  Same with cabbages – I give the outer leaves – complete with slugs and caterpillars to the ducks and hens to pick  through. The ducks love slugs and snails.  Every other day I check the polytunnel for snails – collecting them in a bucket and then I tip them into the ducks’ water bowl.

Weeding is much more fun when you can feed the chickweed to the hens and the shepherd’s purse and dandelions to the rabbits.  Much more satisfying.

September in Barbara’s Back Yard

September in Barbara’s Back Yard

Lily Rabbit has had her babies.  Don’t know how many yet as I don’t like to disturb her.  Relieved that she is fertile – as last time she was mated no babies appeared.

Collected some pondweed and duck weed out of the ornamental pond and gave it to the ducks.  The ducks love rooting through it – and they greedily gobble up all the duck weed off the top of the water (hence its name I guess!).

I’ve decided to call the third duck Jasmine – I often change names as their personalities develop.  So I have Desmond, Olivia (Oli) and Jasmine ducks, Dillon and Daisy the Dorkings, Doris Brown and Grace Grey.  They are fascinating to watch.  The ducks prefer the water bowl to the pond.  In the morning they come rushing out – looking to see if there’s any snails in the water bowl.

Picked all the ripe tomatoes out of the polytunnel, and most of the basil and Thai basil.  I will make tomato and basil soup for today, skin and chop the rest of the tomatoes and freeze them in tubs – some of them with chopped basil – for later use in curries and pasta dishes. The rest of the chopped basil I freeze in plastic bags, or ice cube trays (with a few drops of water) for adding to meals in the winter.  The Thai basil I am drying – laying it on a baking tray in a very cool oven until it is dry, then picking off the leaves and chopping them in the chopper attachment of my mixer.  The basil can then be stored in an airtight jar.

Summer in the poultry patch

I finally let the chicks and ducklings out of their shed to free range today.

Because I have lost so many hens, ducks and rabbits to foxes, polecats and goodness knows what else I have been extremely careful with these new ducklings and chicks.  So they haven’t got 4 acres – they have 10 square yards with a hedge and a duckpond – and a big shed.  So it’s not exactly free range!

The first thing the ducklings did was eat some grass, then they ran round and round quacking excitedly, they are so delighted to be outside.  They haven’t found the pond yet – I moved their water bowl outside and they are dipping chunks of bread in it.

They keep out of the way of Doris (head honcho hen) but seem to get on fine with Grace (grey hen) and the chicks.  They are very inquisitive, poking their beaks into everything, trying different plants – and spitting some of them out!  They  like plantains but not burdock or feverfew.  When they find something distasteful they quickly dunk their beaks in the water bowl.  It’s lovely to see them outside.  They keep together – if one runs after something – the other quickly runs too.

Grace has wandered off for a dust bath under the hedge – she seems very relieved to be out in the fresh air with some grass to eat.

The chicks are exploring, occasionally cheeping to one another when they find something interesting – or get too far apart.  They have most of their feathers but are still fluffy whereas the ducklings have all their feathers.

Doris has followed Grace and gone off for a dust bath and left the little ones in peace.  They are finishing off the bread and scraps.  When Doris comes back to the water bowl for a drink, the babies keep well out of her way.

It’s so lovely to see them all outside.

The Ducklings are growing fast

The ducklings are growing fast

They have most of their feathers now.  Indian Runners are so funny, the way they stretch their necks up and look around.

Doris, the resident brown hen, doesn’t think much of them and pecks at them if they come too close.  Grace (other hen) is quite indifferent to anything going on around her and wanders around in a dream most of the time.  I don’t think she’s really noticed they have arrived.  The other day she pecked at something really close to the Dorking chicks – and one of them pecked back – and made Grace jump – she looked so surprised it made me laugh.

I am hoping I have a drake and a duck – I think I shall call them Oliver and Isobel – I never name anything until they have settled in – then, when I’m out with them, the names will just come to me. I always make a bit of time each day to sit and watch – the poem (by W H Davies) “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare,” often comes to mind.  No point having animals and birds if you don’t get time to enjoy them.

Early June – Indian Runner Ducklings and Dorking Chicks

Early June – Indian Runner Ducklings and Dorking Chicks

I decided this year might be my last chance to breed some Indian Runner ducks and some Dorking hens.  Earlier in the year I had put a ‘wanted’ advert on Preloved for Dorking hens to go with Dillon, my Dorking cockerel.  I had received a reply from someone in Yorkshire saying they had hatched some Dorking eggs and I replied that I would be interested when the chicks were a bit older.

By the time I got around to replying, the fox had got Dillon (I was really upset as he was a wonderful, placid, gentle, friendly cockerel.)  It was during the day and I was around outside most of the day – I just couldn’t find him at bedtime – searched everywhere and all I found was one tail feather.

Anyway we went to Yorkshire to get three Dorking chicks.  When we arrived, in the pen next to the chicks were some Indian Runner ducklings – so we came back with two ducks as well.

I am so scared of losing them that they have been in a pen in the hen house at night and painstakingly moved to a pen outside each day.

One of the chicks died – not sure what happened but one morning he just sat all hunched up and within a few hours he had gone.  The other two are thriving, not sure yet of course if they are boys are girls!

Now the ducklings are bigger I have let them have free run of the hen house but they are not going outdoors until I am sure they know where home is and I’ve checked that there are no gaps they can get through!  The first day, they stood poking their heads out of the door and looking all around.  Can’t wait until they go outside and find the pond!  They love the water bowl and try swimming in it but they are much too big to even get their heads under the water now.

 

 

 

Today’s Treasures – Spring is just around the corner … or is it?

Spring is just around the corner … or is it?

The snowdrops are out and the frogs are hopping around the pond looking for mates, primroses are in bud and daffodils are peeping tantalising flashes of yellow ready to blossom into sunshine flowers. Then, just when you think Spring is finally on the way, the #BeastfromtheEast arrives and we’re in the middle of a snowstorm again.  Only in England!

But it won’t be long before the primroses are out in profusion and daffodils and tulips will be swaying gently in the breeze. The birds are already dressed in their Spring colours and singing their Spring songs joining in the dawn chorus – and they know that the snow will soon be gone.

The hens don’t mind the snow, they are always eager to rush out into the fresh air and scratch around outside.  The Spice Girls (our ex-battery hens – see previous post) have settled in and have become part of the family – at least two of them have – one didn’t survive the move and another managed to get lost somewhere – but Ginger and Meg (Nutmeg) now rush out to greet me every morning.  They seem to be so grateful now they have settled into a ‘normal’ lifestyle.  They still haven’t got many feathers (I tell them they will freeze in this snow but they take no notice) but their feathers should grow back eventually.  They still don’t perch at night – they settle down in one of the nest boxes whilst the other hens roost in the rafters. But apart from that, they act like ordinary chickens and are part of Dillon’s flock (he’s the cockerel and definitely rules the roost).

When it’s cold and snowy the wild birds seem so grateful for the food on the bird table.  I always thaw the water in the birdbath if it’s frozen and put extra food out.  I watch them for hours – the long-tailed tits arrive all of a flutter, twittering to each other, the tiny wren, and of course the robin, showing off his best red waistcoat.  We’ve seen lots of different birds this winter – even a bullfinch graced us with his presence for a few days.

Published in the March edition of the Whitchurch Gossip

Today’s Treasures – Meet the Spice Girls our Ex-battery Hens

Meet the Spice Girls

We have adopted some ex-battery hens through the British Hen Welfare Trust @BHWTOfficial.  We’ve called them ‘The Spice Girls’ – there’s Cinnamon, Meg (nutmeg) Corrie (coriander) and Ginger.

I received an email from the Trust advising that they had 350 hens needing new homes in the Wrexham area so I offered to adopt some.  I’ve kept hens for years so was somewhat surprised to receive lots of advice on how to look after them – although I do appreciate that there would be quite a few new foster families who had never kept hens before.

What surprised me even more were the recommendations for caring for ex-battery hens.  I had to go and get some layers mash (which is basically crushed layers pellets).  My free range hens are mainly fed on corn (locally grown wheat) with some layers pellets during the winter. Evidently ex batts need the food they are used to for a while – I found this out when I tried to tempt them with some bread – they looked at me as if I had gone mad!  Goodness knows what they will do when they eventually encounter a worm!

Our hens have a very large hen house and I was advised to keep our new arrivals in a smaller pen inside the hen house initially.  So I shut them in a little pen for the first three nights.  On the fourth evening, I took the top off so they could get out but (as I was told but didn’t quite believe) they were all still in their little pen in the morning.  I went out at lunchtime to see how they were getting on and Ginger was ‘gingerly’ exploring the hen house, carefully negotiating around obstacles and looking curiously at the food trough full of corn.  Head on one side she studied everything cautiously.  Then Doris came in with Dillon to see what I was doing and if there were any titbits.  Amazingly they ignored Ginger – even Dillon – who usually jumps on everything that moves – it was like Ginger belonged to a different species.  Usually there’s a bit of a scrap when new hens arrive – until they have sorted out the pecking order.  Next morning, they were all in their little pen once more.

The Spice Girls are missing a lot of feathers and their combs are pale and droopy.  Hopefully they will all be feeling better soon and their combs will be bright red again.  Here are some of the other hens outside with Dillon – our Dorking cockerel – wonder how long it will be before the Spice Girls join them?

It’s fascinating looking after livestock – you never know what you are going to find when you go out in the morning – there’s always something interesting going on.  My hens come running when I call them – and of course they give me presents of beautiful free-range eggs!

Published in the February edition of the Whitchurch Gossip

Update on the Spice Girls – our ex-batt Hens

Update on The Spice Girls – our ex-batt hens

The bad news is that Cinnamon didn’t make it, she was struggling to stand up and eventually just gave up.  The other three worked out how to hop out of their little pen and joined in scratching for bits in the hen house – keeping a wary eye out for the resident hens and keeping out of their way as much as possible.

Ginger has become very inquisitive and now she always hops out to meet me and follows me around, keeping close to my feet to avoid Doris and Fliss and Floss – the youngest hens.  Here she is pecking at the grass – it’s the first time she’s seen snow and she’s missing half her feathers but she’s happy to be outside when I am around.

Although the young hens don’t like the Spice Girls and peck at them if they get too close, the older hens are quite kind to them.  Ebony, the oldest, really doesn’t think a lot of Dillon and has always kept out of his way as much as possible.  She has found the little pen a refuge and spends quite a lot of time in there with the Spice Girls.

Whilst the rest of the hens perch at night, the Spice Girls all go back into their little pen.  I wonder if they will ever learn to sleep in the rafters.  In the meantime, they’ve learned how to perch on the edge of their pen in order to get out, that sunflower seeds are a treat worth running over for and grass is edible.

This is Dillon with Doris – she is the biggest bossy boots in the hen house and definitely top of the pecking order.