If you’ve dabbled in self sufficiency and growing your own, you’ll know only too well of the wars and battles that rage in a garden. For those like myself who stay away from all chemical controls alltogether, stemming the flow of predatory creatures is a daily routine. Squash a lily beetle here, a lavender beetle there. Scoop up handfuls of ladybirds and set them marching into battle on aphid stricken plants. Wait until nightfall before going out for the slug and snail stomp. The conflict never ends, and as much as I can attract natural predators in, there’s a certain amount of upkeep that I have to do myself. However, I now have a foe that I cannot squish with a finger, or pop into a bottle to feed the hens later; rats.
I’ve always had mice in my garage for as long as I can remember. I don’t mind them at all actually, I have fond memories of growing up in the country and watching the field mice rustle back and forth under the living room window. I have three cats, and when populations start to boom, my felines soon curb it. The presence of rats is that bit more ominous though, and whilst on one hand I can appreciate their little cute noses and black button eyes, they have to go.
Behind my garage is a piece of private land which is owned by a man who used to live with his family a few doors up from me. He set about converting his home into a huge block of flats some years back; plans which us neighbours instantly put the kybosh on. He has since moved out and let his house out to a staggeringly large number of tenants. However, the private land behind me has become rat city, with old mattresses, deceased cars and general junk thrown there as a middle finger up to all of those who opposed him.
Last year, I noticed that several of my Australian finches were missing. No dead bodies, no hiding in corners, seemingly vanished. Then, I spied rat droppings above the aviary and realised that these omnivorous critters had decided to make a meal out of my gorgeous birds. Finches extinct and chicken grain sealed I thought the problem had been resolved. Until now. There have been a few cases where I’ve found eggs stashed underneath the nesting boxes, obviously rolled there by wily rats wanting a takeaway. However, now realising that though they may be able to squeeze through the tiniest gap themselves eggs just wont, they’ve started devouring my precious hen fruit right where they’ve been laid.
If you’ve read this blog for any length of time you’ll know that I’m a lover of wildlife and letting nature be. However, I’m afraid having rats in my roost is simply a health risk, not to mention the depression it brings to my lack of eggy breakfast. So alas, it’s off to rat poison I go. I’m afraid that in this instance, my chemical free rule will have to be bent slightly.
Whilst gardening plans may have started with gusto in 2012, the weather of late has made getting out amongst the plants a rather cold and damp affair. I’ll admit, I couldn’t wait for the seasons to change and already have windows filled with early germinating seeds. Broad beans are growing towards the ceiling, the salads for the 52 Week Salad Challenge are almost harvestable and under the safety of their heated propagator, echium seeds and other ornamentals are gently unfurling their first true leaves. However, with recent rain washing the snow away and temperatures beginning to become a little milder, your thoughts, as well as mine, may well be turning to allotments, veggies and self sufficiency.
Winter is in fact a great time to start preparing for self sufficiency as you have time to dig veggie beds, enrich the soil and sit down to actually plan what you want to grow. Start too late in the year and there’s a sudden frenzy to try and get everything done in time, and the British seasons move very swiftly and are unfaltering in their march ahead. If you’re new to self sufficiency it’s also a good time to reflect on just how much time you can put into the Grow Your Own bug. When I first got an allotment I was instantly convinced that I was headed for the Good Life. Like Tom and Barbara, I’d rope in the Gerry’s and Margos’ of this world and put them to work with a crop of potatoes, before repaying their kindness with a shower of beetroot. I’d never had to buy another vegetable ever again. How wrong I was.
Self sufficiency is an ongoing process, and it’s probably a good idea to come into self sufficiency gradually. Not many people have the time to set aside hours of work every week to plant, weed, water and harvest. Starting off small allows you to grasp one thing at a time, building your confidence and enthusiasm as you go. Self sufficiency also goes further than the actual crops you grow, but the ways in which you are reliant on gardening necessities such as water and manure. So, you can actually increase your self sufficiency without doing much at all.
Simple starts to self sufficiency can be as small as growing herbs in your garden instead of buying over-packed supermarket pots each week which are, more often than not, left on the windowsill to dry out or rot away. You could begin a small veggie patch which includes some of the vegetables most used in your kitchen, or even better, you could get a couple of hens. Garden Eco has a great range of coops, and you get the benefit of free food and free manure. That’s two simple self sufficiency steps in one feathery friend. Including a water butt in your garden so you’re self reliant on water is also an important step. You could even do away with your huge lawn – a resource needing mowers, fertilisers and a lot of labour to keep looking good – and change to smaller flowers beds and borders, vegetable patches or naturally draining patios. By the latter I mean not using concrete or other manmade materials if possible. Then there’s the consideration of the compost heap, making those trips to the garden centre a thing of the past as you nourish your garden from your own, controlled soil source.
2012 will in no time at all be racing ahead, leaving little time for gardeners to catch up. But, if you’re already champing at the bit to get your self sufficiency plans on track, you don’t have to jump in the deep end. Sometimes, starting off small can be the start of great things to come.
With Guy Fawkes only a couple of days away there’s a huge amount of celebration to be had. Whilst we’re trying to avoid baked hedgehogs and roasted frogs legs, it’s important to spare a thought for your happy hoard of hens. As the dogs whimpers under a rug and the cat has shat itself and is cowering under the bed, your poor hens are being deafened in their coop. It has to be said that my ladies are fairly used to rockets and bangs and pops throughout the year due to Eid and Diwali in addition to Bonfire Night, but I still don’t want frightened girls as dusk descends and fireworks fill the air.
Whilst lifting bins of ready-to-burn logs off the floor is a good way to stop amphibians and hedgehogs looking for a home from wandering in, shutting your girls into their coop should be a must. If you have a stationary run and coop like my system, lock the girls up tight into their inside quarters so that deafening roars are muffled a little. If you have a smaller system such as a coop and run complex, use some old carpet or sacking to help protect avian ears from the pops, sizzles and booms.
This years chicks have already heard their fair share of firework festivals, but Bonfire Night can be one of the loudest and most frightening of the year for many creatures. Birds of a lesser known constitution have been known to have the fright of their life, literally, and you don’t want to see the sad sight of a pile of cold feathers in the morning. So, whether you’re huddled on the couch with a trembling dog on your lap, or enjoying the bright lights outside as they fill the sky, make sure that your little ladies are having a night of terror.
In the hen house, even with the torrential rain over the past few days, the chicks have been growing quickly. They’re fast turning into terrible teenagers, rushing at me every time I open the door to throw in a few sprigs of green food. I do love Rhode Island Red’s. They become fantastically tame very quickly and, like Little Red, I can pick up all four quite easily and they’ll happily stand still and let me stroke them…as long as I’m feeding something into their eager beaks that is.
When the quartet first hatched I was instantly intrigued by a slight variation in colour and wondered whether it was to do with their sexes. Having only had Little Red before as a single chick I had nothing to compare him against, but as soon as these little ones hatched there seemed to be two which had a slightly lighter hue. It’s very apparent now that I have two hens and two cockerels with the cockerels a lighter and more golden colour than their drabber sisters.
Whilst they may look prettier it does spell their doom of course, and I’m sure that Mary is already warming the cooking pots for Coq au Vin later this year. They’re funny things, much more interested and into everything than the two sisters. Their fate is sealed but for now I will enjoy the quartet’s happy harmony as they bicker, squabble, play and harass the rest of the coop.
At three and half weeks old the four little fluffballs are doing incredibly well and have proved that rearing chicks is quite easy. Tiny, the last of the clutch to hatch and who looked rather off colour for the first days of life, is almost unrecognisable from her three clutch mates. I say her because as I recollect, Rhode Island Red hen chicks are slightly dark in colour than their cock counterparts. If this is true then my wish of having two of each has come true, with two scrumptious meals of Coq au Vin already being planned. My two young ladies meanwhile will stay with the coop as, after the death of both Little Red and Elle there is space for two new layers.
Whilst I couldn’t put Little Red into the main coop until several months old as the older hens viciously attacked him, this little quartet seem to be doing rather well. Georgia soon put herself back at the top of the pack after being away for six weeks and, especially for Buff Nankins Gabby and Charlotte, ferociously defended her chicks with much clucking, pecking and unbridled attacking.
I love how little chicks almost instantly take on adult traits and today, with the weather so dry and there run rather dusty, they set about taking very mini and very cute dust baths. Another found a worm and the ‘Lady and the Tramp’ scene ensued as two of them gripped either end in a bid to eat this tasty delicacy. One of the joys of rearing chicks is seeing these tiny balls of down turn into adults at an astonishingly fast rate. And with much cheeping and cuteness my quartet are thriving.
Any keen followers of my blog will know that there’s been a rollercoaster of a ride in the hen house over the past few months. First, the hens got a leading role on The Horticultural Channel, making their in episode one and then Georgia and Little Red showcasing their talents in episode two. Little Red then, filled with the joys of spring, revealed her *ahem* his true nature to me and after some muffled 6am crowing had to go to the coop in the sky. Georgia became broody like no end and settled down upon her third clutch of eggs and then only a couple of weeks ago poor fluffy ell became fatally eggbound and also winged her way towards the clouds. However, I have fantastic news because, as of yesterday, four tiny fluffy russett coloured Easter chicks are now peeking and cheeping from underneath Georgia’s ruffled breast.
Of the six eggs four hatched which is pretty good. One was unfertile whilst one had started to grow and later become addled. Still, these chicks are absolutely gorgeous as ever and are already intrigued by everything they see. The lacklustre and complimentary salad that came with last night’s takeaway had a few pieces of cucumbers that were happily pecked this morning. And whilst Little Red may be gone, we now have Little Red Retake 2, 3, 4 and 5!
It’s with a heavy heart that I have to inform you that poor little Elle, second in command and miniature silkie of the flock has flown to the coop in the clouds. A bright and happy little thing I became concerned over the past few weeks as she became more lethargic, tending to sit huddled in the sun rather than peck and scratch and enjoy spring as the others were doing. She still ate, she still drunk, but she was off balance, bloated.
I was fairly sure she was egg bound, even after the vet simply prescribed antibiotics. My finch hens always used to come off the nest when egg bound and it was a simple case of oiling up her vent, holding her over a bit of steam and putting her on a hot water bottle to let nature take it’s course. I don’t think I ever lost a finch to being egg bound, perhaps I was lucky.
I tried all the natural tricks with Elle, oiled her vent, held her over steam, placed her in a warm cosy place with heat. I fed her some extra calcium supplement and even probed around to see if I could locate the egg. Unfortunately it was too deep inside her and I couldn’t get a finger near it.
She was found dead in her outside run, the egg which had so cruelly caused her death lying beside her. I expect, as her muscles relaxed post death the egg simply released itself from its death inducing tomb and popped out. In an unsual turn about in my flocks blood lust, she was left well alone by the others, simply allowed to lay alongside her fatal egg where she died.
Goodbye little Elle, you won’t be forgotten.
Though I may still be missing Little Red, the march of life continues. Georgia, deciding its well and truly spring, has decided to settle her broody little self down upon newly laid eggs. Eggs which are probably still fertile from the last hours of pleasure that Little Red enjoyed. However, with Little Red the only Rhode Island Red of the flock I’m not keen on breeding hybrids, and quickly jumped online to discover just what eBay had to offer.
Whilst Little Red’s clutch wasn’t very good in hatch rate, I was very happy with it’s breed quality. There’s no denying that Little Red was growing into a fine beast of a cockerel and that any resulting hens would also be of high quality. In addition, I was surprised by the amount of meat that Little Red offered, so more Rhode Island Red’s seemed the way to go.
With eggs arriving after a couple of days they were ready to be incubated. There’s no doubt that Georgia is not only top hen but also the best mother of the bunch. It’s not that any of the other hens have never become broody, but Georgia always does it at the right time and never fails to take to eggs like a duck to water. Simply lift her out the nestbox, put her in a new run with a few eggs nestled amongst hay, and she’ll be gently pulling those little eggs to her warm breast in no time.
With six Rhode Island Red eggs now clutched between her feet, Georgia is now on her way to hatching out some beautiful Easter chicks. And whilst Little Red may be gone but not forgotten, life marches on and in 21 days there should be the patter of tiny feet as fluffy chicks burst out of their eggs.
Many readers may have followed the life of Little Red since he was hatched out last year. From a tiny, fluffy rustic coloured chick he quickly developed into one of the most eager and inquisitive chickens I’ve ever had. However, from the word go his days were numbered. Having desperately hoped that he was a hen for many months, even when his sexual nature started to shine through, Little Red has finally convinced me that yes, he is a guy. Some hens will mount each other when trying to establish a pecking order, I’ve seen this done in my own coop. However, his enjoyment of this past-time seemed a little perplexing, as did the quantity of springtime love that he was relishing in. It soon became apparent that, unfortunately, he was destined for the kitchen. I gave him a reprieve of a few days, but now, having been awoken yesterday by the first morning sounds of a muffled crow, I’m afraid Little Red has to be despatched.
Whilst you may think that crowing is the only reason not to have a cockerel, this, in a way, is the least of the problems. Far beyond the noise, the angry neighbours hammering on the wall at 5am, the glares from behind twitched curtains when you leave your home, a number of more important reasons why keeping a rooster with urban hens is not a good idea exist.
We’ve all heard of the tales from friends who were harrassed as a child by the farmyard cockerel. They can be evil little blighters and the fact that cock fighting exists shows just how aggressive cockerels can be. Whilst Little Red is currently quite a darling, once his spurs develop, his beak sharpens, and his eyes become more like those of Mordor’s Evil Eye, harmony at the bottom of my garden will be rocked.
Adding a cockerel to the mix completely changes the entire dynamic of a flock. Whilst hens will establish their own pecking order when kept on their own, even at this early age, I have noticed that Little Red’s presence is already affecting the hens. They seem to squabble more, have become more vocal, and whilst their quiet pecking order was stable before, having Little Red around seems to be leading to more uprisings from those at the bottom of the ladder.
The last thing most chicken keepers want is broody hens as it means only one thing – no eggs. The natural instinct of a hen is to lay a clutch of eggs and then settle down to incubate, and you can’t really blame them. But if your entire flock are broody there’s not going to be much egg laying going on. And with Little Red around, hormones will be rife, and broodiness is more likely to occur.
I’ll admit it, I don’t collect the eggs everyday because there’s simply no need. Having a couple of eggs in the nesting box can actually help in stimulating hens to lay, and as long as you haven’t got a broody girl trying to hatch out those newly laid eggs, eggs can be left in the nestbox with little harm. However, with a rooster present and all eggs therefore likely to be fertile, leaving them for just a couple of days could see embryo’s starting to develop. That is not what you want to see when you crack open the shell for your breakfast.
So alas, Little Red has to go. The chicken despatcher arrived this morning so tomorrow afternoon I’ll probably be plucking away. Whilst I could attempt to rehome him it kind of defeats the object of keeping chickens. I happily eat meat, and this is a reminder of just where it comes from. And that, to me, is a thankful reminder that I never take meat for granted. But whilst I know Little Red has had a happy and clucky life, that dreaded deed that hangs on the horizon is something I’m not particularly looking forward to.
Spring is here, everything is becoming lush and green, and seedlings are starting to thrive. However, lusty urgings are also starting to stir, and for one unlucky individual their sexual prowess may just be the end of the them.
Little Red, who has until now lived a very happy life, may be looking to a dismal future. I’ve been having the distinct impression for some time now that unfortunately she was, in fact, a he. And over the past few days Little Red has sealed the deal by starting to mate with his coop mates, including his own mother (there’s no bounds to the incestuous oedipus complex here). Whilst he is still growing into his final glorious plumage, his wattles and comb are starting to grow, his tail feathers are darkening to a glossy black hue, and though he hasn’t started to crow, you can tell that he is finding his voice with strange neck gestures.
I would dearly love to keep him, but there are several reasons why I can’t. First and foremost, in an urban environment, the crowing could be problematic. Whilst I shut my hens in at night and so he wouldn’t be able to wake the neighbourhood at 4am on a summers day, the neighbours already are very good with my clucky hens. A raucous cockeral could be too much. Little Red’s maturity would also completely change the dynamic in the coop, altering how the hens act and possibly causing more broodiness. Meanwhile, with fertile eggs then being laid, I would have to be extra vigiliant in egg collection as leaving eggs for a couple of days would almost certainly start an incubation process. And with cockerels being very large chickens, especially glorious Rhode Island Red’s, I simply haven’t the space.
So there are decisions to make…..most of which end in poor Little Red ending up on the kitchen table. I may look to rehome him if possible, but part of the chicken keeping process is not just for eggs, but also for meat. So it seems that Little Red’s television career on The Horticultural Channel.tv is to be cut rather short.