Arthur's Blog: Coping With Chickens

It has been a mixed year on the keeping-chickens front here.

In early spring, after just coming into lay, my Buff Cochin hen, Nancy died. A mystery illness resulted in her being unable to walk. This once great, young hen that once plodded like a matron about the gardens paths, I found one morning like an old fist-thumped fluffy pillow in her nesting box. Nancy had “gone off her legs” – a term used in chicken keeping that normally results in only one lifeless outcome.

After several days spent on the kitchen floor at home wrapped in a blanket, and having been offered everything possible to try and revive a once-vigorous appetite, plus a rather useless visit to the vet as a last chance saloon (not recommended to hen keepers unless their vet is seriously experienced with poultry conditions, you may as well drop £20 notes along the pavement if they aren’t!) Nancy silently and almost unexplainably died. She is now buried under a ‘Lady of Shallot’ rose planted in her memory in the garden. This David Austin stalwart has flowers of a burnt, buff apricot complexion.

Her cockerel Christopher, now being alone, urgently needed a mistress. Cochins are a rare breed and it was the worst time of year to try and get him some adult hens due to the hatching season having only just started. I settled on an adult buff Columbian brahma hen who has a black collar of feathers. She is called Jennifer. Brahmas are a similar size to cochins, but lack any of their cuddliness or charm. Jennifer sadly, is ungainly, sleek, scatty and has a hawkish face, a relic of the brahma’s Indian game ancestry. Why Brahmas are far more commonly kept than cochins, I cannot personally fathom.

The only thing I think of that caused stress to Nancy and possibly resulted in her going downhill within days was that she was the only hen for Christopher to lavish his affections upon. Was this daily attention and vigour too much for her young body to handle? It seems likely that this was the case and that this burden lead to her developing problems internally. The moral is to always ensure that a cockerel has a wife and at least two mistresses so his needs can then be spread about between the hens!

My only hope of continuing Nancy and Christopher’s lineage was then placed on six eggs that Nancy had laid before coming ill that were in the incubator. Of these eggs, only three hatched and all of them of course are cockerels. I will keep one of these boys and the other two I am finding good garden homes for.

Several broody bantams have been loaned to me over the summer by friends who don’t want the task of hatching chicks but whose hens are so stubborn that they refuse to stop being broody. These bantam hens have hatched many chicks between them – too many for me and the garden to cope with, in truth, and as the broods begin to reach several weeks in age I am glad that the flock’s number can start to reduce, with the loaned bantam hens returning to their own gardens.

By September, the plan is for the number of garden chickens to be firmly under double figures – this will mean I can take more than a day off too! You cannot take holidays when all your charges are alive, there is no see you in a weeks’ time button – but that’s what comes with a life involving livestock and plants, and I wouldn’t be without them.

Some of the resulting chicks have been Dutch and old English game bantams from Matthew and Emma’s Bampton eggs; others have been blue-egg-laying Cream Legbars and Buff Orpingtons from eggs given to me kindly by Jacqueline, my friend and serious Emma Bridgewater collector. She runs a very good poultry business at her family farm, selling point of lay hens of both hybrid and pure breeds, called Warwickshire chicken coop. This is the place to go (along with Chatsworth farmyard in Derbyshire) if you’re looking for healthy new hens!

The Cream Legbars and bantam chicks have gone to Bampton, apart from two of the Cream Legbar hens that have stayed with me – these I am taking to join Sarah Raven’s flock at Perch Hill later in the year. They are a fast-maturing breed and the hens have neat little feathered head crests like hats. They always look smart and lay generous amounts of blue eggs that people either seem to love or hate. I hatched a few for Matthew last year and he likes them as they free range far and wide about the farm, but always return to the hen house to lay their blue eggs and roost up safely each night.

The Orpington chicks are staying at the factory as these will grow into large, ginger birds like the Cochins but without the feathered legs. Orpingtons were bred in Kent in 1888 by the poultry fancier William Cook. I am hoping at least four of the current Orpington chicks will turn out to be hens to form a jolly, flock next year with Christopher in charge of course!

In January and February the flock will have a holiday in the roof top greenhouse, as the sun’s rays reach this part of the factory when winter is firmly tightening its grip, and the birds can sunbathe and dust bath all day long while their droppings fertilise the flower beds.

If you pick up the current summer edition of Liz Earl Wellbeing magazine (seen in supermarkets throughout the land), Liz has written a feature all about Emma and the factory as she visited early in the year.

Do visit the garden to see cosmos and gladioli flowering at large now, as the courtyard has never been so colourful, it is the perfect place to take tea and cake in – at least when the wind isn’t howling in from the road!

Best wishes,