Spring in the Garden

Spring in the Garden

Monday, 20 April 2009

Chicken keeping course

Saturday hubby and I set off bright and early for a one day chicken keeping course at Middle Farm in Firle, East Sussex.

It was a very informative and enjoyable course, which I would recommend to anyone thinking of keeping chickens, or who, like us, has only had chickens for a short while and still has lots to learn, assuming you can get to Middle Farm by 10am, that is.

After a cup of tea or coffee our tutors, Tania and Bonnie, started by giving us a brief history of the chicken and description of various breeds followed by being told about how to buy chickens, where to put them when you've bought them and how to make them comfortable and safe. Feeding, maintenance and the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of health problems were also covered. There was plenty of opportunity to ask questions throughout the day.

We were taken out to look at the various chickens kept at Middle Farm before our last indoor session before lunch. They have some lovely breeds, some of which are cute or funny, but fairly impractical, such as these guys, know as Polands. Some breeders tie their top knots up, others trim their 'fringes' because otherwise they can't see where they are going very well.

Lunch consisted of a filled baguette with salad and a cup of tea, which was very nice. There was time to wander around for a bit before the afternoon session began. This included a brief lesson in how to 'despatch' a bird, although none of us were interested in keeping chickens for the table and we would probably all take our terminally ill birds to the vet when that became necessary.

It wasn't long before we went outside and were asked to inspect a chicken's feet and 'vent', which is the technical name for a chicken's behind. Their feet have a soft pad underneath, which can be cut and infected. Mites and other parasites are likely to congregate around a chickens backside as it is nice and warm, so that's a good place to look if you want to check for an infestation. In fact this area is a mine of information about a chicken's health. Just above the vent is a special gland from which chickens of both sexes obtain oil with which to preen themselves. I now know what that little lumpy bit is at the back of the chickens I put in the oven!

We also had a demonstration of how to clip a chicken's beak and toe nails, although I hadn't realised this is always necessary and I'm still not entirely sure it is but we'll be keeping an eye on 'our girls' to see if the top of their beaks get
overly long or their toe nails start to curl like a Chinese Emperor's finger nails. Tania and Bonnie used these Light Sussex as their demonstration models, the poor old cock being used for the most undignified bits:

Then it was our turn to have a go, using the Partridge Pekins to practice on and their nails and beaks are very fine and soft. I got to pick up the rooster, who had lovely, long, silky feathers on his neck.

Having washed our hands after handling the birds, it was time for afternoon tea and a generous slice of cake.

This session also explained that a cock bird is not necessary to keep hens in lay, something which a surprising number of people don't know. The male is only needed to fertilise eggs for breeding, and if one is borrowed, the eggs laid for about a month after his visit will be fertilised.

We were told how we could go about selling our eggs if we wanted to, and we were also told how we could hatch new chicks if we were so inclined. This part of the course included a visit to the incubators to learn how they work and what features they might have. Then for the best bit. We each got to carry a little fluffy day (or two) old chick to be with all the new hatchlings under the warm lamp. The chick was stood on our hands and we had to cover it with our other hand to stop it hopping off, so it was impossible to take a photo at the same time. Here they all are together, though.

We had a really great time and came a way with significantly less gaps in our knowledge of the day to day aspects of keeping chickens.

If you happen to be near Firle, then there is a lot to see at Open Farm for families with children interested in livestock. Apart from about ten different breeds of chickens there were also ducks and geese and a peacock. There were lamas and sheep in a shed, at least two breeds of pigs and we could have seen the cows being milked about 4.00 pm.

There is also an excellent farm shop as well as a shop selling mead, cider and non-alcoholic drinks. Numerous plants were on sale including herbs, vegetable seedlings and border perrenials. We picked up a bag of Marriage's layers mash and some oyster grit from John Piles' animal feed shop, also at Middle Farm, and another person on the course bought a couple of black rock POL chickens from him.

Last, but not least is the King of the Barn, whose name I've forgotten

and the rooster reserve which offers a home to retired cocks and spares to replace those who die in service or are no longer up to the task.

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