Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Let's talk about the girls

It's been just over a week since the hens arrived, and in some ways the changes have been subtle, but very definite.

I think because we've done so much reading and preparation, we knew the commitment
in terms of time, of setting a routine and so forth. The hen house & run is secure and sturdy, but the garden fence and gate have been strengthened. We both get out of bed before 6.30am to clean and fill feeders and drinkers, put them in the run and let the birds out.

Saturday morning clean bedding day is no longer just about throwing the sheets in the washing machine - it also means fresh bedding for the birds, scrubbing their sleeping quarters and another bagload of composting material.

We need to do a little more organising indoors, but for the meantime, a bag of hen grit makes a very good doorstop.

By the second night, they had all learnt to put themselves to bed at dusk, but for the near future it means no nights on the town and certainly no weekends away. So no Hereford Food Festival this year, but we've got plenty we can do nearer to home. I suspect that come the time of the Welsh Smallholders Show next May, we'll have plenty of volunteers to look after them (they'll be laying by then, so will pay their way).

Anyway, last Sunday, we drove down to Perfect Poultry in Surrey (just of Junction 3 of the M3, to be precise) to collect the birds I'd reserved. In spite of all the places I'd visited, all the research I'd done, I had never handled a hen. But when I was handed the first of them - the Barnevelder, it was even more special. All the pets I had as a child had been presents, and the many cats that have shared my space over the years have all invited themselves in. This was the first ever animal that I had bought for myself, that I had total responsibility for.

The hen was placed in a box for transit, and was joined by a Light Sussex. A White Leghorn and a Lavender Araucana were placed in a second box and we loaded the van, placing the boxes so that there was least chance of them moving.

As it was a hot afternoon, we set off straight home, taking the motorway route. Once we arrived home, I filled a drinker so they had fresh water, and put a generous handful of mealworms & corn on an untreated sleeper offcut (hereafter known as the Treats Table). We took them out of the boxes one by one, and placed them in the house. After a short while, we opened to pophole into the run, and one by one they negotiated the ramp and headed towards the corn. We watched them for a while, then left them to get used to their new surroundings.

Come sunset, only the Barnevelder had worked out that she had to go back up the ramp to bed. The other three huddled together in the far corner of the run, and Howard had to get on his hands and knees to fish them out for me to place them inside on the perch. We worried that this would be a routine we would need to follow for a while, but by the next evening, all four made their way in by the proper route. Within a couple of days they were going to bed regardless of whether or not they'd had an evening treat. Corn is their favourite treat, but as it's basically hen sweets, I restrict it to a small handfull every few days. The other treat they love is far more healthy - broccoli. Hens need greenery, and brassicas are a good source of calcium, as vital for hens as for us.

Even in the week they've been here, they have matured. Gigliola, the Leghorn, is now always first up and about in the morning. Her comb has grown and is changing from pale pink to red. Whether we'll get any eggs from her before Spring I'm not sure, but she's strutting about the run in a very confident manner. Dusty, the Light Sussex, is as solid and uncomplicated as would be expected of her breed. But she's always the first to any food. Jerney, the Barnevelder, is the most quiet & placid of the quartet. She lost some tail feathers before she came to us, but that aside, she's a fine looking, very strong and solid bird. (For that reason, a nightmare to catch - those claws do damage!).

I must admit that Rita, the Araucana, is my favourite, just. She doesn't have the standard red comb - instead she has a crest - a small bouffant of grey feathers. She cranes her neck to look at the outside world, and sometimes turns her head. owl like, 180 degrees. If you open the door to do some daytime maintainance (such as when the water drinker tray has had a load of wood shavings kicked into it), she's the first to the gap. She's always second to food, but being smaller and more agile, often takes it from under Dusty's beak. She is also usually the last in at night, and the last to settle.

This Sunday we had a slight scare. Smudger, the local semi feral tom cat (his human owner's children are totally feral, so you can't blame him), paid a visit. He was prowling round the run, clearing undressing the hens and wrapping them in foil with his eyes. (This is the same cat that snuck into the kitchen a couple of Christmases ago and we caught straddling the oven ready duck!). We saw him off, with the help of a full watering can, and sealed up his entry/escape route. On checking the hens, we noticed that three had bloodied beaks. It appears that in trying to see him off, they'd tried to stick their heads through the wire and scraped the skin at the top of the beak/base of the comb. We couldn't get hold of Jerney to treat her, but the scratch is healing nicely. Gigliola was easy to handle, and we dabbed some purple Gentian Violet antiseptic spray on the scratch. We caught & treated Rita as well, and with the splash of purple on her crest, she has a temporary blue rinse - very fetching!

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