Hens in the Garden

I'd like to start by saying I'm not a chicken expert in any way, I just love and care for a small flock of hens which we have had for almost 3 years. 

Hens embody a way of life I craved for years. They are the entry level for many potential smallholders and for a lot of people that's as far as it goes, with hens giving so much in return for a bit of space in your garden and daily care and attention. 

We were renting in the city in 2018 when out of nowhere the landlord decided the time was right to sell the house we were living in and we had to move, totally devastated. We were working hard, paying off debts and trying to save, growing as much veg as we could in our tiny garden. Trying to preserve fruit and vegetables, make cider and bottle beer in a minuscule kitchen, basically trying to live a smallholder life in a cramped terraced house. As illustrated below...

I found a semi-detached house in the suburbs, not as nice as our house and a third more expensive but the garden was 56 metres long! Looking at the particulars of the house it suddenly dawned on me that they might let us have chickens. To cut a long story short, they agreed to the hens and to us turning the garden, which was all grass, into beds for growing vegetables. We moved in, May 2018

In the first week we had nine tonnes of rotted manure delivered to the back of the garden which completely blocked the path at the back of the house, the tractor barely made it down there. It was so stressful! We (mainly Eric as I had to work) cleared it in less than 24 hours. The manure went straight onto the beds and the garden began to take shape. We looked for a coop on Ebay and got a real bargain that needed a lot of work which Eric did beautifully and added an extended run. Pictures below are before and after.

We wanted to get ex-battery hens but there was a two month wait and I was impatient so we got a couple of pure breed hens from a local farm. We were keen to get rare breed hens as we are members of the RBST so we can support and follow their great work. We got a Cream Legbar (on the watch list but not critical) we called Margaret and a French Black Copper Maran (not on the RBST list) we called Colette.

They were pullets which means they were less that one year old and not yet laying. Every day we eagerly opened the nesting box and after just one week, Colette gave us a very small dark brown egg. Margaret's pale blue eggs came a few weeks after. 

A month after Colette and Margaret joined us, we got two ex-barn hens from the British Hen Welfare Trust who hadn't been confined to a cage but had never seen daylight and lived in a barn with hundreds (or thousands!) of other hens so we had to put them to bed on their first night as they had never had their own place to sleep before. Watching these four sort out the peeking order was traumatising. We separated them for the first two weeks (another coop from Ebay) so they could get used to each other through the wire mesh, and then merged them all together. You have to let them sort out who is boss for themselves and generally it all calms down after a week but it's not nice to watch, or hear. I was worried about the rescued hens being bullied but one of our new hens, Mary Shelley, battled it out with Colette relentlessly to be the head of the flock. Colette won eventually.

I mentioned this in my last blog, Planning a Herb Garden, but five months after we moved in, the landlord rang to say we had to leave as he wanted the house back. We were devastated, even worse than before. My main concern was the hens and finding a new landlord who would let us have them. I found our current home within the first hour of looking and said we would only be interested in looking around if we could move in with our hens, luckily the new landlord was a farmer. We fell in love with this beautiful cottage and are very happy to have been here for over three years now.

We now have ten hens, mostly ex-cage or ex-barn but we also have two Marsh Daisies (above) which I paid a ridiculous amount of money for at the Melton Mowbray Rare Breed Auction. We went to the auction long before we even got hens and spent about three hours just watching other people buy chickens and it was one of the most enjoyable and entertaining mornings we've ever spent. I really wanted some rare breed hens from the RBST critical list and these March Daisies were so beautiful I fell in love with them. Two years later they are still the most gorgeous birds in our flock and lay the most beautiful small white porcelain eggs which are always more yellow than all the others. The level of yellow/orange in the yolks is caused by the carotenoids the hens eat found mainly in grass and green plants as well as the organic grain they eat. The eggs have lost their deep yellow hue a bit over the winter, especially due to the restrictions in place due to Avian Flu (chickens are in their our lockdown too), so as we move further into Spring I grab handfuls of dandelions on my daily walks to give them a boost.

When we move to Wales we will get a cockerel, I don't want to annoy the neighbours too much while we are here. The girls start to cluck as soon as the sun comes up and make a right racket after laying an egg which can be very early in the summer months so I don't want to push my luck. On balance I think the village appreciates the extra eggs we sell at the front door. I would be lost and very sad without them. 💚

My latest design, Ostara, celebrates the Spring Equinox and as chicks and eggs are one of the symbols of this time of year, of course it had to feature our gorgeous hens.

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