Starting from scratch…

Its  been almost a month since the chickens (Now named Sybil, Martha, Agnes and Delores, thanks to Twitter poll) arrived on the farm. I thought it’d be a good idea to  share some of the reasons why we got them, and (as a complete ‘chicken keeping novice’)  share some of my tips if you are thinking of getting any. Sure, I’ve learned about chicken husbandry, and know how to care for more complicated bird injuries, but I’ve never kept them before.


Before getting your birds, its a good idea to ask yourself why you want to keep hens ? Do you want a regular supply of eggs? Or will they just be companions?

Personally, my reasons for wanting some hens were as follows;

  • 1. We live on a farm, we should have chickens, right? In fact, we should have a few of each farm species, a sort of Noah’s ark for farm animals. Except pigs. I’m not so keen on piggies! P.S Do Not Tell Mr Farm Upon The Hill that this was my reason. This is just between us, right?

2. With my somewhat rose tinted ‘ This- will -make – childhood great ‘ spectacles on I had a hazy vision of the mini farmers helping to take care of the chickens, learning all sorts of life lessons and skills in the process

3.We didn’t need ‘fancy chickens’. Plain hybrids would do fine. No need for a trip to a poultry breeder for us. I wanted to do some good.  Rehoming ex commercial chickens would definitely fulfil this. We were warned that they may not give a reliable egg supply, but so far they have been fairly consistent!

4. I needed assistance in my valiant organic, pesticide free war on the blasted slugs – they ate my Lupins, now it’s serious.

I felt I had time and resources to give these birds a chance to lead lives in a free range environment. If you are wondering if you have enough time too, you’ll be pleased to hear they don’t take up much, especially if you plan on letting them free range. You still need to be prepared to collect eggs, check your birds daily , clean out the nest boxes and feed and water them. In theory you also have to get up early  let them out first thing , and make sure the pop hole is shut at night. But technology is a wonderful thing and an automatic doorkeeper can do that bit for you.  All in all it takes about 20 minutes for me to do the routine tasks daily. Much more worthwhile than watching reruns of Teen Mom OG.

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The other great thing about chicken keeping is you don’t necessarily need acres of garden. Just remember that chickens will potentially turn a manicured lawn into a series of dustbaths and scratch bowls . They’ll also snack on bedding plants, so if your garden is very sacred, using a moveable run or large enclosure may be wise.


We have sited our coop on concrete, which ironically is the shell of the old chicken house. This is a great spot as it means the house is out of direct sunlight and sheltered against rain and wind. The concrete will make it easier to clean up after the birds too. Initially I kept them in the coop and small run for 2 days, before letting them into a bigger pen made of fencing pallets. Now they have the whole shed base to explore, including the log pile which acts as great enrichment for them.


Once you’ve done your research and have decided on breed and how many  you can house, its time to get shopping! I definitely recommend getting your chicken supplies before you get your birds . Being a lover of lists, I found it useful to make a checklist of things that we needed for the first few days. This included

  • Coop – When it comes to choosing a house, the amount of info online can be quite overwhelming. There are even instructions on how to build one from scratch , but unless you are very keen on DIY, I’d stick to ready made! Factors I considered when deciding on what to buy included – ease of access for cleaning, run space and security.
  • Food containers and drinkers – something that is easy to clean, durable and safe.
  • Container for grit – this can be shop bought or homemade.
  • Bedding for nest box
  • Feed bin- save your pennies and get a dustbin with a lockable lid!
  • Diatomaceous earth – handy stuff – for red mite control, also useful for lice.
  • Basic health kit – this includes wormer (I use Flubenvet) , nail clippers, corn starch for stemming bleeds, dressings and tape and lubricant (in case of vent prolapse).

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Feeding chickens is easy. Once upon a time, chickens got tit bits left from the family table. Nowadays, kitchen scraps are a definite no-no. DEFRA, aka ‘they who must be obeyed’, make the rules relating to keeping poultry. They have placed a “complete ban on using kitchen waste from non-vegan households and from catering waste containing products of animal origin”. This goes for all farm animal species, even those kept as ‘pets’ . To be honest, there is absolutely no need to feed anything other than a commercial chicken food. These diets contain the correct levels of protein, minerals and calcium to keep your birds  in good condition. At the minute, our girls are getting a choice of both layers pellets and mash .This is because Sybil and Agnes have wonky beaks, possibly due to being de-beaked. Sybil especially seemed to be struggling to eat pellets and was quite thin when she arrived. She much prefers mash! I let the birds choose when and how much they want to eat, allowing them free access to it. Clean, cool drinking water is also essential. An average sized chicken in lay will need to drink approximately 200ml per day, which will increase in hot weather.

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One of my biggest concerns before getting the girls was whether they were going to attract vermin. ”Where there’s chickens, there’s rats’ is a common saying. Hopefully, taking  simple precautions like keeping the food store rodent proof and cleaning up after the chickens regularly will  help to prevent major rodent issues, along with George who is a remarkably good hunter.

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So far the chickens  have been a lot of fun to look after, and have settled in really well. So well, in fact, that i’m planning a coop expansion…just don’t tell Mr Farm Upon The Hill, ok?!

If you keep chickens, what would your top tips be for newbies?

 

 

 

A solitary existence

Did you know there are 267 species of Bee in the UK? I didn’t. My knowledge of bees is basic, although for some reason we learned a lot about the ‘waggle dance’ at university. It turns out that my knowledge of solitary bees is even more so. Up until this past month I had no idea that 90% of the Bees in the UK prefer to live a solitary existence. Unlike honey beesThey don’t live in a colony or ‘serve’ a Queen. Instead single female bees of Solitary species will build their own nest. Nesting materials vary depending on species.

Some prefer to site this underground, digging out a narrow tunnel to form a nesting chamber. There are even 3 species of solitary bee that nest in empty snail shells. Others are ‘aerial nesters’, choosing to build nests within cavities or hollow stems, as well as artificial ‘Bee hotels’.

Our ‘bee house’ is situated on the west facing wall of the farmhouse. It is attached (rudimentarily and precariously) to a downpipe, and is surrounded by flowers. Roses, nasturtiums, snapdragons and centaurea provide a plentiful supply of nectar which solitary bees use as a food source.  I put it up at the beginning of Summer, hoping that it would attract some attention. Every so often I have brushed off cobwebs from the tubes, hoping that by keeping the entrances clear it would give potential occupants a chance to investigate. It must have worked, because last month someone paid a visit.

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I had been tidying some of the potted plants on the patio when I noticed a bee buzzing around near the ‘hotel’. It flitted around outside before landing and crawling into it. I was ecstatic. I couldn’t believe it was being used.  Not wanting to disturb our new arrival, I left the bee to continue its work without me ‘hovering’ over it. A couple of hours later, progress had been made.

One of the narrowest bamboo tubes had been sealed over, with a mixture of mud and greenery. I think this was the work of a Mason bee.

Whilst marvelling at the neat cap that now covered one tube , I became aware of another visitor to the hotel. At first all I saw was the tail end of a bee disappearing into a tube, lugging a portion of leaf. The scrap of vegetation seemed to be almost half as long as the bee carrying it.

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A leaf cutter bee! This female, working independently and parallel to the other, was also furnishing her nest. There are now 3 mud capped tubes and at least 2 leaf filled chambers.

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Female solitary bees furnish their nests with everything their offspring need to make it to adulthood. Balls of pollen and nectar are placed in the cavity, with an egg laid on top. Several eggs may be laid in one tube, with ‘partition walls’ dividing it up into individual rooms. Once the nest is full, the bee seals the end. The choice of sealant varies – mud, chewed leaves or even fine hair.

If I asked you to picture a bee in your minds eye, chances are you would see a honey bee or a bumble bee, rather than a species of solitary bee. But Solitary bee species are just as important, if not more so, for the survival of humans . 1 in 3 mouthfuls of food we eat relies on a pollinator species. Solitary bees are more efficient pollinators than honey or bumblebees. In fact, a single mason bee can do the work of 120 honey bees, making them incredibly important for food production.

If you want to find out how you can help encourage solitary bees in your garden, have a look at this website. You can also find further information here and record any sightings on iRecord.

 

 

Coming home to roost

“I believe that all children should be surrounded by books and animals.”
― Gerald Durrell

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Once upon a time, when a different generation lived here in the farmhouse, the farm upon the hill would have been one that ‘old MacDonald’ would have been proud to live on. Pigs, ducks, turkeys, sheep, cart horses and chickens were kept alongside the cows. Not only did the animals feed the family, they filled the larder, worked the land and paid the bills.  Nowadays, raising cows for dairy or beef production is the mainstay of the farm.

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My hope is to restore some of the diversity of the old farming system, whilst still managing to leave plenty of room for the ‘real farming’ to carry on.  The goats are still here, although due to my wonky turns milking them has taken a back seat. Recently we have added a chicken coop to the farm. It stands on the remains of the old chicken shed, alongside my greenhouse and the log pile. The birds came from a commercial flock, via Fresh Start For Hens.   It seemed like an awfully long time between being approved as rehomers and the chickens arriving.

The night before the chickens arrived we watched a short video which showed the flock being checked to make sure they were fit and healthy for the journey to their new homes. The clip explained that  due to the avian flu restrictions, the chickens had spent more time indoors than the farmer would have liked. The flock did look a little bedraggled, but nevertheless were bright and alert, with one even laying an egg on camera!

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The flock then journeyed across the country to various collection points. All we had to do was make sure their coop was ready and turn up to fetch them on time. Ironically our ‘collection point’ was a terraced house in a nearby village, and it was a bit surreal to see 20 or so chickens calmly milling about in the concrete back yard. We chose the four that would be coming to stay with us, gently transferred them to the chicken crate ( an ‘ancient relic’. No farmer chucks out anything that might come in handy one day. Just as well!) which was appreciated by the volunteer re-homer for not being a cardboard box or ‘new fangled crate’ . Five minutes later and the chickens were home, fed, watered and left to settle in in peace. In fact they were so remarkably settled that we had 3 eggs within the first 24 hours of them arriving on the farm!

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Since then they have grown stronger and brighter. The different ‘personalities’ are becoming more obvious – the bossy one, the quiet one, the inquisitive one, the troublemaker. New feathers are emerging and we have had a consistent supply of fresh and tasty eggs.  The supply of eggs was never the most important factor for me in rehoming these chickens. In fact, Fresh start for hens makes it quite clear that eggs from ex commercial chickens are a bonus. Commercial chickens are generally sent to slaughter at 72 weeks of age. I knew we could offer them a chance for a longer happier life. On top of us being able to offer them a home, they are able to give us something in return.

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Both mini farmers have taken an active interest in caring for the new arrivals. C enjoys checking for eggs and shepherding the birds back into the coop after a day of free ranging. JoJo likes feeding them, painstakingly distributing feed evenly between all four chickens! The chickens seem to respond to the children too running towards rather than away from them – I think it is a height thing…well that and the treat foods they sneak them!img_8044Animals have been my passion for as long as I can remember, although I haven’t always been surrounded by them. As a child I grew up in a world far removed from green fields, hedgerows and cow herds. For almost 10 years we lived in a red brick terraced house in West London, with giant ‘winged birds’ flying overhead, on their flight path to Heathrow. We played out on the streets, in parks or in our tiny garden that would fit into this farm a thousand times over. Summer holidays were different – we visited Ireland and its 40 shades of green. We stayed in a whitewashed cottage on a dairy farm, with views down over the Slieve Mish mountains. We were allowed to help milk the cows, got up at the crack of dawn to watch calves being born, built dens behind the tractor shed and climbed amongst the straw bales. These hazy memories of childhood have shaped the way I want my children to grow up, with a love and understanding of both city and country life.

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My children are luckier than I was in so far as they are surrounded by animals, and we have the space, time and knowledge to enable this. I am an enabler! I don’t want to force my passion for life other than human onto anyone, least of all my children. Feeling forced or pushed to do something is a definite reason for turning your back on it. Instead I want to provide them with opportunities and experiences that will help them grow. If they share my passion fantastic, if not they will hopefully still learn valuable lessons by looking after the animals here on the farm. They will learn kindness, compassion, responsibility, pride, respect, how to be gentle and to do no harm. They will learn where their food comes from, about animal husbandry and behaviour, evolution , ecosystems and their place in the landscape that surrounds them. These four chickens are not just the sum total of the eggs they produce, they are so much more.

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