Friday, 27 August 2010

Rain rain rain

It might be great weather for ducks, but not for hens. These birds have been out of their cages for twelve days, and it has rained almost every day since. The poor things have been released into a soggy windswept August, better than a tiny cage I suppose but it seems terribly unfair after such a warm summer so far. The relentless driving rain has brought the reality of keeping chickens into sharp focus, and has somewhat tempered my equally relentless enthusiasm for leaping out of bed at 6.00am. The wet weather has put paid to my husband’s visits to see the birds, and if I want Teddy to come with me he drives a ruthless bargain that results in me carrying him all the way there and back and a treat when we get home. For Teddy the temptation of checking for eggs washed away with the raindrops.

Everything is so much harder in the rain. Yesterday I arrived to find the bin that contains all the chicken food knocked over, several sacks of feed sopping wet and an inch of water swilling around at the bottom. I had to carry it all home through the pouring rain, sort out the wet from the dry feed into a bucket and hope that it wouldn’t go mouldy and then all go to waste. The hens keep managing to dismantle their feeder somehow which results in a sodden wet mush of food in their pen (heaven for passing rats which are a danger to hens), so all that has to be scraped off the ground along with all the wet chicken poop. I have to cover over the entire pen so the hens will stay remotely dry, but somehow they still look brill-creamed as the relentless wind forces the rain through the sides. To make things worse I discovered a dreaded red mite in the coop (a common but horrible pest for chickens as it feeds off blood in their feet over night and is very painful), so I had to remove all the bedding, clean out the coop, spray with anti-mite solution and then replace all the straw. All of this I did in the pouring rain, in a hurry, because I had promised my somewhat neglected family I would not be spending my usual half hour chatting to the hens, only to discover another red mite two days later. Hmm, looks like I will have to seek some advice from the professionals on how to deal with this.

Keeping hens isn’t as easy as I had thought.

On a more positive note our friend Lynne Franks came to stay for the weekend, and although I had hoped to get a sunny picture of her with Mrs Tufty the hen, the wet weather prevented even one quick snap so here she is instead enjoying one of her eggs for breakfast:

Monday, 23 August 2010

Blue Tack Drama

Life with our new hens is falling into a rhythm now. Up at six am to let them out, fill up their feeder, change their water, clean up last night’s chicken poop, then run home before Teddy starts complaining that I have been gone too long. Back up to the hens again later in the morning to check for eggs, yet another change of their water (I have learned that hens have an extraordinary capacity to fling dirt around, most of which ends up in their water dispenser) and to have a little chat with my new feathered friends and check how they are all getting along with each other. Then back at dusk to put them all to bed.
Two Tone seems to be emerging as ‘Top’ hen. By far the biggest I’ve noticed all the other hens deferring to her, and one quick peck on the comb sends them scurrying away into the corner. Apparently this rather nasty behaviour is quite normal as the hens literally establish a new ‘pecking order’, and is a necessary bit of unpleasantness until the new hierarchy is formed. All these hens were new to each other when we first got them, having lost their former cage mates either to the slaughter house or more hopefully (but more unlikely) to other rescue homes.
I have noticed that Mrs Tufty must be bearing some of the burden of this bullying as her comb is sometimes slightly bloodied from where another hen has been pecking her. While this is unfortunate for the poor hen it has helped to endear her to me, along with little Feathers who is also mercilessly bullied and is by far the smallest and lightest of all the girls. Mrs Tufty and Feathers therefore get singled out for special treatment, especially as they seem so friendly and are always the most inquisitive on my frequent visits to the hen enclosure. I have started getting them out of their pen and letting them walk about with the other hens, partly as an experiment to see what will happen and also because I can’t resist giving them an experience of increasing freedom. Now they have come to expect their little outings whenever they see me and get very excited. Teddy especially loves it when I get them out for a walk, especially as Mrs Tufty follows him about pecking at his green boots which makes him squeal with laughter.
In fact it was with Mrs Tufty that I had my first heart in the mouth moment a few days ago. Teddy and I were putting the girls to bed one evening, when a piece of blue tack that Teddy had been playing with unbeknownst to me plopped down into the pen. Quick as a flash Mrs Tufty was on it, trying to get it into her beak to swallow it down. It would probably kill her if she ate it so I knew I had to get it off her fast; easier said than done of course. Luckily it kept sticking to her beak then would drop back to the floor but I never knew a hen could be so quick. Every time it dropped she beat me to it, then she decided to run off with her prize to the far corner of the pen where she could eat in piece. There was nothing for it, I had to go in after her, so on hands and knees through the pen and god knows what else I chased after her. What commenced could only be described as a sort of undignified hen wrestling match, with Mrs Tufty in one corner and me in the other. After more pointless swiping at the blasted piece of blue tack and with her far superior chicken reflexes getting the better of me I had eventually to grab her, tuck her under one arm and physically prize it off her beak. The offending piece of blue tack is pictured above, post drama:
Mrs Tufty – 0  Jade – 1

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Naming Day

Today Teddy and I finally got round to naming all the hens. For the first few days I really couldn’t tell them apart but after some study of their finer features, and as their characters begin to emerge I can recognise each one. So here they are:
GINGER – This was the hen we named first and probably the most easily distinguishable from the others. I would have called her Chestnut due to her lovely chestnut coloured feathers, but one of the other hens from the flock outside has that name so Ginger it is. She is quite bold and inquisitive but won’t let me pick her up.
TWO TONE – So called due to the marked difference in colour between her dark neck and much paler feathers on her body. My husband David doesn’t like this name but given that his suggestions were ‘Chicken Zinger’ or ‘McNugget’ I am sticking with Two Tone.
FEATHERS – Ironically the most feather bare of all our birds, when she lifts her head you can see right through to the scraggly skin on her chest and neck. I am hoping that by Christening her Feathers she will blossom into a fully plumed beauty. She is quite a timid little chicken, the smallest of the bunch and seems to be the most hen pecked, poor thing.
MRS TUFTY – This hen seems to be emerging as my little favourite to date. Whenever I open the hatch she is always there looking very interested and comes trotting over to see if there are any new exciting titbits on offer. She got her name from the tufty curly nature of the feathers on the back of her neck.
After we named them, Teddy and I did a little video showing them all, but because the quality seems quite poor here I have put it on YouTube instead. CLICK HERE TO WATCH IT
You can also watch a much clearer version of the DUST BATH CHICKEN VIDEO, which I now know to be Two Tone having the time of her life.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

And the eggs just keep coming

This morning I decided to do without the morning acrobatics seeing as the hens seem to be just fine going up and down the ramp on their own. After a few minutes of letting it down out they came, one by one and made a run, or a waddle, for their food and water. I still get such a thrill from seeing them walking about, but now their pen seems far too small and I am longing to let them out and merge them with the rest of the flock (which incidentally don’t belong to me) in the much larger enclosure. I’ve been told I have to wait a month but I hate seeing them pecking at the wire like they want to get out. I may have to get some advice and see if I can wait just two weeks.
It seems that the hens don’t lay over night. They like to have a little stretch, some breakfast and then one by one they go up to the coop to lay their egg, and sure enough at about ten am we have 2 or 3 eggs delivered. I can’t resist going up to the hen house every half hour to see what they are up to and almost every time they amaze me with some new antics.
 One of the hens (I still can’t really tell them apart other than Ginger), had made herself a dust bath by scratching away all the grass and was in heaven rolling around kicking up the dirt. I never realised hens like dust baths but it has something to do with keeping parasites off their feathers. What dumbfounds me is how on earth does she know how to do this? She hasn’t learned it from her mother or even watched other birds doing it, yet there she was for a good fifteen minutes fluffing out her feathers in the dust rolling onto her back and rubbing her neck into the ground obviously in a pure poultry rapture.Later that morning
Teddy and I went up again to see if we can spot any more dust bathing, but instead we found one of the hens in the coop sitting on the straw. She was busy making herself a proper nest, gathering up the straw around her body with her beak. It was so cute I nearly cried. These poor poor birds have been denied these simple pleasures for so long, yet at the first opportunity here they are doing what hens do. Even Teddy was delighted with the sight and kept wanting to open the coop to watch her. The next visit to the coop revealed yet another egg, right in the middle of the nest (see picture above).
Teddy had this egg fried for lunch and declared it yummy.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

The search for eggs begins

After the excitement of putting my hens to bed last night I could hardly sleep for thinking about them tucked up in their coop. Would they be too squashed together? Would they get too cold after the controlled atmosphere of the battery farm they were used to? Would they be frightened when plunged into total darkness for over ten hours?
Fretting absurdly about the hens' welfare I finally fell asleep at midnight thinking about my girls.  I even dreamt about them before waking at 6.00am, desparate to check they were all okay. I couldn’t sleep any more knowing my hens had the opportunity to witness their first ever sunrise, so like an excited child at Christmas I leapt up and straight into my wellies over my pyjamas.
Dawn chorus
Up at the chicken enclosure the other hens were all out of their coop already, the cockerel busy announcing the dawning of another day. With some anticipation I opened up the door to the new hens' coop. Would they have survived the night?
The hens were grouped in pairs, snuggled up together, looking a little startled but definitely alive. Slowly I lowered the ramp taking care not to drop a hen straight down onto the grass below, expectantly waiting for them to emerge into the pen but no, they weren’t showing the same enthusiasm for coming out as they had going in.
Now I had a dilemma. In my enthusiasm to let my hens out at 6.00am I failed to remember I could do with some help from my husband, who was fast asleep and unlikely to be as enthusiastic as me about the prospect of disturbing a Sunday morning lie-in. The cockerel was becoming rather over excited at the prospect of seeing his new girlfriends again and was strutting around the outside of the pen like an Italian stallion, and was showing great interest in hopping into the pen every time I tried to open it.
The problem was how to get the hens into the pen without opening it in advance, thus allowing the cockerel time to jump in while my back was turned. This is how I found myself chasing a cockerel at six in the morning in my pyjamas to the far side of the enclosure, racing back, grabbing a hen, closing the coop with a swing of my bottom then dropping her into the open pen before the cock had time to run back. I had to repeat this merry dance four times and I swear if someone had walked into the field at that moment they would have reported me to the RSPCA. Tomorrow morning I am going to wait for my husband to wake up.

Egg hunt
Come 11.00am, I am back at the hen house, now I am fretting that they haven’t got enough shade so I went up to put some cover over part of their pen. Only three hens are in view, one of them must have gone back up to the coop. A quick inspection shows that, yes, the most chestnut coloured hen, now christened Ginger, is sitting on a nest of straw up in the coop.
Hunkering down, I watch the other hens for ten minutes pecking around the grass, and eventually Ginger slowly emerges down the ramp to rejoin her friends. Before I leave, a quick check to see if there are any eggs, but no, nothing in sight. I rustle the straw just to make sure and my hand brushes something hard and unmistakably oval.
An egg! A beautiful, perfect, brown egg laid by Ginger. Despite my elation I don’t feel I can feed it to my family, this is still a stressed out battery hen egg after all, but I present it to David (husband) and Teddy (son) as a most beautiful work of art.

Later that night Teddy comes to help put the hens to bed and asks if he can check for eggs. I am convinced there are no more but let him check just for the fun of it, and am totally surprised when he holds aloft egg number two with an excited cry of “Mummy, another egg!”.
So, day two and two eggs. At this rate we will be eating omelettes every day. I wonder which hen laid the second one, and more importantly how on earth can I tell the other three hens apart and what to name them?
Suggestions on a postcard please.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

The first day of freedom

This afternoon I finally did something I have desperately wanted to do for a very long time.Ten years ago I was moved to tears when I read about the work of the Farm Animal Sanctuary, a charity that saves desperately wretched farm animals from slaughter and, instead, nurses them back to health, allowing them to live out their natural lives in happy homes where the abattoir is not looming on the horizon.
One story in particular affected me so deeply I knew that one day I would have to do my bit. A volunteer from the sanctuary found a hen that had been left to die in a filthy pen with only rotting chicken carcasses for company. It was cowering in a corner, depressed, sick, dehydrated and desperate. The volunteer sat down to try and coax it away from its perch of rotting flesh but didn't have to wait long. The pathetic creature scuttled over, clambered onto the proffered lap and settled down to enjoy some warmth and sympathetic companionship. This lucky hen went on to enjoy a full and happy life.

Rescue Mission
So today I rescued four battery hens from certain death with a little help from the British Hen Welfare Trust (BHWT).
The rescue mission began with a drive across Dartmoor to Chulmleigh, the headquarters of the BHWT. There, we were joined by a number of fellow rescuers whose stream of cars drove around the farm to the collection point where we were greeted by the fantastic BHWT team.
We were, I must admit, quite surprised with how well the hens actually looked. They seemed to have plenty of feathers and didn't look anywhere near as sick as we had prepared ourselves for. However, looks can be deceptive and these hens have had a particularly tough life so far. Battery farms normally keep hens for the first year or so of their lives. Our little brave girls had to be subjected to just under two years in those awful conditions and were only looking better than we had expected because they had come into their second set of feathers recently. These were poorly hens and with a life expectancy of only two or three years I wanted to get them home and to  freedom as soon as possible.

Natural instincts
What really amazed me, and almost brought me to tears, was how their basic natural instincts kicked in the very moment we released them. They had never seen grass before, but immediately began to peck at it. And without any instruction three of them made their own way into the coop. I'm sure the last one would have done too, but I wanted to help her out on her first traumatic day outside the cage. So, all tucked up I left my girls for their first night of proper sleep. Who knows? Will we be collecting their first freedom eggs in the morning?

Our hens' first day of freedom is captured in this video. It begins at the BHWT collection centre and ends as I tuck them up for bed after their first day of freedom. You'll notice I have put them in their own smaller pen within a much larger enclosure. This is, I assure you, far much more space than they have ever experienced, and after a month or so of building up their health and strength they will be able to join the other hens, plus one cockerel, in the large enclosure.