Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Hello Ladies

 Hello webby world,

This one is all about pets. Well, 12 of them. You can meet the others at a later date.

We have quite a number of pets. We've two lovely young cats, two sweet natured rats, three guinea pigs from a rescue centre and 12 chickens.  We had a lizard until very recently but she died, poor thing. We'll have another soon.
Almost all of those pets are totally my fault.

Let's introduce you to the chooks. In April 2004 Mark showed me an article in the Guardian about a cool hen house for keeping chickens in urban back gardens. The eglu looked like an overgrown iMac, all colour and curves. The poor man was expecting me to smile, say something like "neat," and get on with my life. I said "That is SO cool! Let's get one. Chickens in the garden would be fab!" Oh dear.

After a year of reading about them, talking about them, coming up with increasingly desperate excuses for why it would be a good idea ("it will be so good for the kids - like living on a farm without having to actually be on a farm!") I just announced I was buying myself an eglu for my birthday.

Their house and playground
That was just the start. My pair of hens were killed after 3 months by a fox. I replaced them with a trio. A couple of years later my friend Lisa asked where she could get a cheap second hand eglu for her son. He was desperate for a pair of hens for his 9th birthday and wouldn't even be tempted away by the offer of an Xbox from her disgusted husband. I sold my eglu to Lisa and put the money towards a big hen house and went chicken shopping again.

A trio became a half dozen, then 8 sounded such a good number. Aww, but that one is so pretty, and there's barely any difference between 8 and 9, surely...  The numbers ebbed and flowed as some died or were killed by foxes and others joined us. By this spring our flock had reached 12. In my defence, some of those are, erm, in their twilight years and don't lay any more. They have earned their retirement but that still left me short of eggs for breakfast so I had to get new hens.

Mark's initial horror of anything with such dinosaur feet and talons (and my own nervousness of being pecked) lasted less than a week. He even texts me photos of particularly nice breeds at the garden centre he passes when commuting down south. He tolerates my crazy-assed naming themes and has favourite hens himself. In short, he's gone native. Win!

Name themes we've had- 

We started off naming each hen individually but over the years started giving each group that arrived some themed names. Those names in bold are still with us, although some are very advanced in years. The horrid loss of many of the Forecast hens when only a few months old was the result of a daylight fox attack while the chooks were still free-ranging.

The 'Chicken' Supremes: Diana, Mary and Florence

Beatles songs: Lucy, Eleanor, Penny, Rita and Prudence.

Science fiction TV characters: Buffy, Caprica 6, Xena, Chloe (from Smallville - loved her), Sarah Jane

Doctor Who Companions : Rose, Martha, Donna, Ace, Leela and Amy
Shipping forecast regions: Lundy, Rockall, Shannon, Malin, Bailey, Hebrides, Viking, Cromarty, Dogger, Biscay, Fitzroy and Finisterre.

NB: If you don't know what the shipping forecast is, find out here. It is read out over BBC Radio 4 at set times of the day and it's somehow soothing and poetic.
If you are very familiar with it, you'll know that Finisterre is no longer a region; it's been renamed Fitzroy. But it's a lovely name and hell, they are chickens. They don't care.

They all have very distinct personalities, and are a range of different hybrid and pure breed hens. Those whose ear patches are white lay white eggs. The others all lay different shades of brown from very pale to a rich brick colour. Their sizes vary a lot too. Mixed use breeds like Rita (a Bluebelle) are very heavy of body and could be killed when young for their meat. Those like Donna (White Star) are bred as laying birds only. There is no muscle (meat) on them at all. It's all feathers and bones.
Rita - Queen of the flock
Penny - 2nd in command (Cromarty behind her)

Xena and Donna
Martha - a bit of a bully

Biscay - very friendly

Hebrides with Fin behind her

Dogger - follows me like a puppy

Fitzroy - very skittish

Cromarty - a real survivor
Viking - big, very dumb, often broody
Finisterre - sweet tempered

Cromarty was a marvel. She was friends with Malin; they were always together. When the fox attacked I found them huddled against each other by the fence. Malin had died and Crom was so terribly wounded. I was scared I'd have to put her down because her damage was so severe. Her wing was broken, her leg injured so she couldn't stand, the back bald with huge bleeding wounds all across it.  We managed to nurse her back to health, although she pined for Malin dreadfully for a week or so. She kept making the little "where are you" peeps hens do when they are lost. 
She is fine now. Fitzroy  and Fin became her new pals. Her feathers are darker than before and she can't jump very high but she's healthy and is laying eggs again. Go Crom!

Questions everyone asks:
1) Do you hatch chicks?
No, we have only females so the eggs are infertile

2) Is that one with the big comb a cockerel? 
(usually Donna, whose comb flops to the side like an oversized quiff)
No, most chickens have combs. The size of the comb is down to the breed and the sexual maturity of the bird

3) How can you get eggs if you haven't got a cockerel?
Hens lay eggs, like women have periods. They happen regardless of the presence of a male.

4) Are you going to eat them when they die/stop laying?
NO! Ew! For a start if they got ill and died I don't want us eating diseased meat. For another thing they have almost no meat on them. And, being old, what little there is of it would be tough as old boots. And hell, I don't eat meat anyway.
But most importantly, these are my pets. They are pets with the benefit of free eggs, but still pets with names and personalities. The cats don't provide me with breakfast* and I don't eat them. And in their post-menopausal years they deserve a happy retirement.

*In fairness, the cats have tried to bring me breakfast on several occasions. It's not their fault I don't fancy mice or sparrow chicks.

Hens are fantastic pets. They eat slugs, weeds, wilted veg we won't eat. They produce the best fertiliser my garden could have. They are easy to take care of, rarely noisy, easy to tame and make the garden a more fun place to be. And when they do lay eggs, those eggs are the most delicious you've ever tasted.
Hurray for chooks!

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