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?

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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A long awaited arrival

It seems both a life time and no time at all since I wrote about the beginnings of ‘Project Goat milk’. The dream has finally become a reality this month with the arrival of the goat kids.

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For those of you who like numbers, the average gestation length of a goat is 150 days (might come in handy at a pub quiz, you never know). Counting forward from the date of mating gave us estimated due dates of the 17th and 18th of April for Amy and Bernadette respectively.

Thinking myself extra super organised and well prepared I booked some holiday off work covering these dates. Unfortunately, best laid plans never seem to work out. I should also know by now (2 human babies, assistance at many non human births) that due dates are merely a guide to be acknowledged and subsequently ignored.

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The first kids arrived on the evening of the 13th of April- I think it should have been a Friday. I had just spent several hours in A&E with Farmer F . For once it wasn’t him causing the problem, it was me. To cut a long story short I had had a couple of ‘funny turns’ and then taken her off to the land of A&E. After much poking, prodding and a series of tests that seemed to come straight from the ministry of silly walks handbook, I was discharged with a box of Aspirin and a diagnosis of ‘Query TIA’. Fortunately my ‘turns’ have since been demoted to the level of Migraine with Aura without headache (go figure) , or Temporal lobe epilepsy. I’m still a work in progress- the doctors haven’t quite worked out what to do with me yet.

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Anyway, back to the goats. After several hours in hospital on Thursday, we returned home tired and hungry. F went to check on the goats whilst I got something to eat. He quickly reappeared ‘Er, you might want to go and check the goats’. He might have well pointed at me, messiah-esque, and said ‘Lazurus, rise’ I was out of the kitchen like a rat up a drain pipe.

img_5178Amy had popped. Two gorgeous, gangly kids. One spotty, speckled coated nanny and one buckskin coated billy. These became Priya and Leonard . I was in love. Slightly disappointed at not being at the birth but relieved everything had gone well. Amy had two healthy kids who were up on their feet and feeding. Goat kids are a lot different to lambs- long, gangly legs remind me of foals, yet they are far more sure footed. Floppy oversized ears, the kind of ears you hope they grow into.

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Friday came and went, no more of my ‘episodes’ and no more kids. Saturday I went down to the goats first thing – Bernie didn’t get up to greet me. Here we go, I thought, she’s in labour. I left them be and came back an hour later. Still nothing. Bernadette was up but not acting like her usual self. Normally she is feisty, now she seemed subdued, although putting up a good show of being ‘normal’.  I got F to hold her whilst I checked her over. My suspicions were confirmed, she was almost fully dilated but her pelvic canal (the bit that the kid comes through) was empty. Time for me to retreat again. Another hour or so passed before i came to check on her. I peered through the window, hoping to see some little ones, but Bernie was lying quietly on her own. Time was ticking on- the risk of infection to both Bernie and her babies was increasing as the hours passed, and I was anxious in case the kids were in any difficulty. I gave her an injection of oxytocin to help her labour progress, and sat down in Amy’s pen to observe from a distance. Within minutes Bernie was up on her feet and contracting well. After 30 minutes of this, there was still no kid. Time to take a closer look. A gentle examination and i found the bag of fluid surrounding a kid, and ruptured the membranes. Inside were two big feet and a head and I relaxed a little. The kid was alive, moving and in the right position. Baby goats are born as if they are about to dive into a pool- front legs stretched out, nose and head next, slightly tucked in chin. Of course there are other ways to be born, but this is the easiest, textbook and straightforward.  A bit of gentle persuasion and soon Bernie had birthed her first kid, a very big buckskin boy (now known as Howard) .

img_5275The second kid was presenting awkwardly- his head was bent slightly back so he was almost looking over his shoulders. I helped to position him better and Bernie birthed him quickly. This was Rajesh, another beautifully marked boy. Bernadette started to clean and nuzzle him immediately. My work done, I stayed long enough to shake out a clean bed of straw before letting the little family get to know each other in peace.  img_5220