So, this girl on the left is the last one standing. In fact, when I say girl, I mean transgender. This little Buff Nankin started life as a hen called Gabby. They’re not huge layers like many bantams, preferring to lay just one or two clutches per year instead of the egg machines we’ve become used to. I found Gabby and her sister rather flighty birds, never willing to become too tame and always ready to flee. The only exception to this was when they were broody – boy, did they give a good peck during those times. In the past year, however, old age has had a rather dramatic effect and Gabby has undergone a transformation. Her wattles and comb have become larger and more vibrant red. Her tail feathers have lengthened a little and……she’s started to crow. Not a enormous, deafening and neighbour-annoying sound, but something that says ‘I’m not a hen anymore‘.
After the last of my Silkies died, I was left with Gabby and two Rhode Island Reds. I say ‘died‘ – it was more like ‘murdered‘. Despite having hatched the Rhodies and looked after the tiny chicks, my Silkie seemed to attract the unwanted attention of her grown offspring and they became huge bullies in the run. Gabby would hide in the corner, whilst my Silkie took to spending her life in the nest box. I separated them to try and calm things down but she wasn’t happy on her own. Unfortunately, the brutes just seemed to stamp all sense of life out of her (it wasn’t physical, but just constant stress). That was a HUGE black mark against them. And, i’m afraid, more black marks came when they started eating their eggs. I tried everything; replacing eggs with egg-shaped wood, putting chilli powder on eggs, taking out the nestbox, changing it’s location etc. Nothing worked, and for the past six months at least I’ve not managed to claim a freshly and unscathed egg once.
This weekend was the end. I don’t like the wringing of necks, but I’ll do it if I have to. Luckily, a friend was up for the weekend and he came and sorted the hens out for me so I didn’t have to do it myself. That’s the thing with keeping lifestock; eventually, the end arrives. And, much as I like hens, these were bullying, egg eating individuals that I saw no way to keep or pass on to a new home. I have to say, however, they WERE good for something and a scrumptious Coq au vin followed.
Now, alas, I’m left with poor little transgender Gabby who I didn’t have the heart to also say goodbye too…after all, he, she, has done nothing wrong. Despite chickens being sociable creature, there seems to be sense of relief in the coop. He certainly looks happier, scratching around, crowing and even taking some greens from my hand…..far different from the nervous creature he was before the two rogues were dealt their last blow. After the move I’m determined to get some more hens….though now knowing Rhode Island Reds, it won’t be them. Some of the nicest hens I’ve ever kept were Light Speckled Sussex; gorgeous birds, friendly and good, reliable egg layers though not the hardiest of specimens. I also can’t help but love the fluffy Silkie, and I think I’ll get one to have as a brooder. And there’ll be transgender Gabby in the mix too, with his funny little crow to make a mark on wherever new we move to!
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.
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.
Keeping livestock is not for the faint hearted. I awoke this morning to a listless crowd, there was some passing interest in the kitchen scraps, a few clucks at a worm, but far from the normal rowdiness. I went to a clients, I had some wine, I rescued a women and child who had filled their diesel car with petrol. I then discovered, after hearing some odd sounds booming from the hen house, an upturned light sussex hen, legs in the air, straight, cold, rigid. Her final throws of life couldn’t have been longer than mere minutes before, her slowly glazing eyes losing their colour, her wattle draining of blood.
Worriedly I looked in on the others who were quiet, a strangely telling stillness to wish their feathered member goodbye. Gabby is fluffed like a ball. Elle is listless, her eyes doing their best from closing. X is gasping for air.
Calling Ms Osbaldeston-Fieldsend, a women betrothed to her flock and knowing the ways to win a viral battle or two, I quickly explained the situation whilst becoming more worried about my hens. X is now in the kitchen eating boiled eggs (as recommended by Ms O-F), though her gasping seems to be a sure sign that the reaper isn’t far away. Meanwhile Elle, Georgia, Gabby and Charlotte have been let into the garden. A kind of final plea for them to perk up, snack on some grubs, have a dust bath, do anything to make themselves feel, and be, better.
I intend to keep a vigil until something happens one way or another. In the meantime, goodbye little X, you served me well and the coop won’t be the same without you
I am once again craving solitude, aspiring for hermiting, and wanting to disappear to a land far from London. Off in the deepest reaches of Suffolk, beyond towering buildings and sprawling suburbia, lie some quiet, green, unkept acres. My family farm, now mostly sold to a holiday let entrepreneur, is hidden amongst a patchwork of fields, a labyrinth of hedgerows. Our land rented to farmers for the meantime, it continually calls to me, bringing me home and making my hermiting thoughts dream of becoming a recluse in a beautiful land.
Grove farm buildings (to right of land) are all now sold in addition to front meadow. However the barn just hidden by the tree on the left is a possible planning permission spot.
Christmas is nearly upon us. Snow is on the ground, the chickens cluck in the early freezing morning. I wake, in my London abode and, though I may not remain gloomy, my mind is clouded by a call from the homeland. Its difficult to think of anything else, just the bliss of walking dogs across the crisp, frosty grass. Awaking to the sounds of hens, cows calling in the pasture, their breath white and spiralling through the air. A wood is waiting to be planted, the roe deer and pheasants territory expanding. The bucking March hares in the Hill field wait with anticipation for spring, for boundless energy, for the new generation to appear. There is so much to do, yet London smog sucks me in.
My Dad bales hay in his youth
The first battle is done. The owners of the existing buildings now have piped water instead of the century old well. My writing career expands, taking me on a path of self sufficiency from anywhere in the world and as long as an internet company could supply me to the middle of nowhere I could work. I want to plant a reed sewage bed. To erect a small wind turbine. To lay out a vegetable plot which will sustain not only me, but my family and visitors with food. Sheep to shear for Leone’s knitting, cows to milk, a host of chicken species to sustain my obsession. An open fire to roast my toes on in the cold winter nights, a veranda to sit out on in summer nights watching the fire flies and gently swaying trees. Guest rooms for friends, bedazzled and stress coiled, to come and relax, unwind, find utter peace and quiet.
My Grandad takes a ride on Twink
Its there, waiting for me, asking me to come back and take my heritage, build a life, be a hermit at peace. The Gay Gardening could easily continue, though it would probably become more Gay Farming than simply gardening. My numbness to society will pass, it always does and I’ll return eager, happy and energetic for the world. But an increased reoccurance of this craving only means one thing, its gradually taking a hold and unless I follow this path, things may remain dismal and grey forever.
I’ve always found that by far the best pest control in any garden is chickens. I keep a small group of 7, 2 silkies, 2 buff nankins and 3 light sussex. They provide me with fresh eggs, an outlet for all my, and many of my neighbours kitchen waste, a constant supply of nutrient rich manure and on hand, organic pest control. If you aim to let chickens out in the garden it is VERY important that you do so correctly, otherwise all that will ensue is damage and destruction to lawns and plants.
I don’t have a lawn so I don’t have to worry about my hens scratching it into a dusty, barren landscape. By by far the most important thing to do is ensure that your hens, whilst cooped up, receive plenty of green stuff. This means that on racing for freedom when let out, they won’t go straight to your prize lupin and strip the leaves, or gobble up your wonderful salads, or trash you latest bedding plant installation. Obviously, common sense is needed. Any young seedlings will need to be protected, or placed in an area where the hens can’t get to them. If on their first outing you notice a particular lust for one plant, a plant that you don’t want destroyed, then once again make sure it is out of reach.
You can let your hens out for as long or as short as you wish. It is important over the first few times to take note of what happens. In the first instance I would always recommend near constant supervision and curtailing their freedom to an hour at most. This ensures minimum destruction and once your feathered friends are stashed away, you can survey any damage. Over time you’ll gain knowledge of your flock and how they work. I can now happily let mine out all day, with the knowledge that damage to my plants will be minimal. The cats have got used to the invasion, and all I have to do after is sweep the gravel path back into place and clear up any rogue droppings.
A light sussex inspects a snail like snack
Update: And when I say use common sense, I really mean it! I just went out only to discover that I’d forgotten to move my chive seedlings, well, what’s left of them! Touch wood they remerge from their nibbled stems!