Spring in the Garden

Spring in the Garden

Friday, 27 February 2009

Betsy's half dozen

Betsy has actually laid eight eggs since Thursday last week, but we ate two at the weekend. In the meantime we've been trying to use up the eggs we'd bought, not expecting her to start laying so soon.

Here are the half dozen we haven't eaten yet.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

New shoots in the garden

Last week the crocus were starting to come out.

We've also got some small cyclamens in flower here and there.

Today I noticed that my broad beans are finally sprouting. I was beginning to worry that they hadn't liked the cold weather that arrived a day or so after I planted them at the end of December. No photo as yet, but as soon as they're up a bit more and the sun shines I'll take one.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

How battery hen farming could become a thing of the past

Someone else is wishing we could eradicate battery farming altogether and is wondering about a campaign.

I had thought this blog would be a genteel, non-political affair, but even chickens can arouse a passionate desire for justice and compassion. There's more on commercial chicken farming on the Compassion in World Farming website.

Recently I'm questioning the wisdom of strident campaigns with negative messages, although sometimes it does seem like the only way to get a message across. I'd prefer a gentle, positive campaign, if it would work.

As consumers I think we need to remember two things.

Firstly we have a responsibility to be informed about things like the conditions people work in, the pay they receive and the way animals are treated to bring us the bargains and 'good value' we seek.

Secondly we have the power to bring about a change by buying products that are good value for everyone involved and have not caused poverty or suffering in their production.

After all if no one buys eggs from battery hens farmers will stop using that method of producing eggs.

On the other hand, farmers will only switch to keeping free-range hens if they can be sure there is a market for it as extra costs are involved, not to mention the initial outlay a change in farming methods will need.

If I can add a third thing, let's not forget the power we have to influence our friends by spreading the word in a positive, non-preachy fashion. (Hope I'm not sounding too preachy myself.)

Compassion in World Farming have a few more ideas.

The RSPCA website displays a list of products made with free range eggs.

When we first moved here, some miles from the Tesco supermarket we had been able to walk to, I made a monthly trip there to do a big shop. Now I avoid the place like the plague as I've heard so many bad things about the way they do business and their record on animal welfare. Of course, I realise not everyone can do this if they want to. Life is never that simple, but even if you have few shops to choose from and a limited budget there are still choices you can make for the better.

However, if you want to be sure your eggs come from happy hens you might need to keep your own, as this article suggests.


Monday, 23 February 2009

A very good reason for buying free range eggs and chickens

The Garden Small Holder has just rescued another batch of ex-battery hens, which is very good of her. The picture of these abused creatures is quite horrific. This is what a year or so of being kept in an egg-producing battery farm does to chickens, yet very often, proper living conditions and a good diet can allow these birds to grow their feathers back and lead a fairly decent life. To my mind it is criminal that the birds are allowed to be treated this way in the first place. If you treated your pet cat or dog, and probably your budgie, like this you would be prosecuted, so why is it legal to treat chickens so cruelly?

However, I'm not sure I would be willing to take on the extra stress that nursing these poor birds back to health involves. Looking after our healthy birds is quite a steep enough learning curve at the moment. I would imagine that after such an awful life their immune system must be weakened and the birds are more likely to be prone to disease, which is what seems to have been the case for these birds. It certainly doesn't strike me as the best way to start out keeping hens, but perhaps it would be a bit easier for an experienced poultry keeper who has some idea what is normal for healthy chickens.

This highlights for me the importance of Hugh Fearnley-Wittenstall's Chicken Out Campaign and the need to bring an end to battery hens and chickens raised in over-crowded and unnatural conditions. The campaign is now concentrating on the way chickens are bred for the table as so many supermarkets have said they will only stock free-range eggs, so one wonders why so many battery hens are still being kept and what happens to their eggs.

I've been buying free-range eggs and chickens for years, but it occured to me (indeed I believe I read it somewhere) that many products containing egg will contain eggs from battery hens if it is not stated that the eggs are free range, so perhaps we need to keep an eye out for that, too. It does make shopping a bit more complicated, but it's something we can do to reduce the number of hens who have to be tortured because we who live in a country where obesity is becoming a serious problem have been willing to let them suffer so we can have cheap food.

A Fox and A Fourth Egg

When I looked out the window this morning I saw a large, old fox at the top of the garden, possibly lingering to eat some bird food on the ground, but I wasn't very happy to see him/her there and chased him away before letting the girls out of their roosting quarters. I kept a look out for some while, but didn't see him again.

Betsy was unperturbed and laid another egg today, her fourth, about half past nine.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Egg number three

Betsy laid another egg today, her third so far. We noticed her go upstairs this morning and once she had come down there was an egg in the nest box.

The other two also went upstairs for quite a while and Amber was definitely in the nest box, but not surprisingly there were no more eggs, although Amber's comb is beginning to grow, but only one tuft or notch or whatever it's called, so far. We did start to wonder if they were unwell, but they were fine after lunch. Perhaps it's all part of getting ready for egg laying. When you haven't kept chickens before it's hard to know what is normal behaviour and what isn't.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

A second egg and a change of scene

This morning I found a second egg, which had been laid in the roosting area, so perhaps the fan was drawn across the nest box a bit too early last night. We were told to do this each evening for the first month so the birds don't get into the habit of roosting in there and making it mucky. This helps to keep the eggs clean.

As you can see from the picture, the second egg was bigger than the first, but not quite as big as the medium egg, which we bought.

The small egg got a bit lost in the egg cup. I guess that's what they call a pullet's egg.

They both tasted very nice, but the yolks seemed a bit orange, which may be due to the dyes in the feed, which I'm not entirely happy about. We shall make sure we buy organic feed next time, not least because I have been buying organic free range eggs for some time now as I think that is best for the chickens and the environment.

Later on we moved the ark and run onto the grass, which they obviously enjoy eating.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Our first egg

It's typical, isn't it? I went to see my parents today, which mostly involved driving on quiet country roads, so the journey there and back was nice and relaxing.

About half past one our daughter phoned me up to say, 'what do I do with an egg?' Now she isn't stupid, and she can cook an egg in several different ways, so I began to twig that this wasn't any old egg she was talking about. Apparently she had seen Betsy go upstairs to the nesting area, so thought she would take a look and lo and behold, Betsy has produced an egg just three days after arriving! Our first egg and I wasn't there to see it, although it was still waiting for me when I got home and daughter took some lovely photos. We'll wait for another one or two before we eat it.

It's not a very big egg, but it is an egg, and I think she can be excused if her first egg is too small to be classed as 'medium'. After all, in human terms she must still be a teenager.

Perhaps it was the lettuce I gave them before I left this morning. I'm pretty sure Betsy ate most of it. I tried to put out three lots of lettuce, so they could have an equal share, but Betsy had almost finished the first bit before I fiddled about putting the second bit through the wire, and the same happened with most of the pieces, although I think the other two got a bit of a look in eventually. If they like cabbage, they love lettuce.

Introducing 'the girls'

If you aren't interested in chickens you might like to come back next week, when the novelty may have worn off, at least a bit.

I thought it was time to introduce our young ladies. They are three ordinary little brown hybrid chickens, although one is much darker than the other two. They are meant to be docile, hardy and good layers, so good birds for beginners like us.

This is the darker, reddish one. Our daughter decided she should be called Robin. You can see one of the others behind her with much lighter, gingery feathers. She seems the quieter, most timid one so far.

We have decided to call this one Betsy. She seems to be the pushy one. If she wants it she'll get it and the other two get out of her way.

Currently she has more of a comb than the other two, which suggests she is a bit more mature. I don't think her comb is as red as it could be, though, and it might still need to grow a bit more. Apart from that temporary physical difference she is hard to tell apart from Amber just to look at. However my daughter has spotted that Amber is darker on the back of the head and neck.

Here is Amber if you want to compare her. Amber seems to be the most inquisitive and was first to have a nose around upstairs when they first arrived.

Wire netting isn't the best window, but if you click on the pictures to enlarge them you can see a bit better.

We were told that our chickens were about 18 to 20 weeks old when they arrived. They are what is called 'point of lay' birds as they should start laying in a few weeks. As only one has a comb so far we expect she will be the first to lay, but don't know how long we'll have to wait. However, we certainly hope to have our own eggs by Easter. Young hens are called pullets, presumably from the French 'poulette', or 'little female chicken'.

When they first arrived they kept together in a huddle and stayed away from us. Now if they see us coming they come towards us to see what we've got for them, which isn't anything half the time, but they are obviously optimists.

They flinch every time a bird flies overhead, even if it is only a blackbird or pigeon. On the other hand, a chaffinch who thought to land on top of their run took one look at the size of them and thought better of it, doing an about turn onto the rockery.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Chickens on day two

Apparently chickens aren't always sure where to find the bedroom in a new home, but our girls took themselves off to bed about twenty past five last night, except for the darker one. She lingered a while and I thought she wasn't going to bother, then she flew up onto the ladder and disappeared into the loft, where the roost is. I pulled up the ramp and secured the rope to keep any marauding foxes out.

When hubby opened it up this morning, this area was a lot grubbier than it looks in the photo, taken when it was in pristine condition.

He was keen to see to them this morning as he had come home after they went to bed last night. He decided to put some bark mulch down in the run to make it easier to clear away their droppings, which are dropped on a fairly regular basis. The bark will also make foraging more interesting for them, while still allowing them access to grass, plantain and other weeds growing in the cracks between the paving stones.

In the information we were given by Forsham Cottage Arks it says that chickens should not be given access to mown grass because they will probably gobble it up and over fill their crops, causing them a lot of problems, which could include death. So, it is better for chickens to have to peck at the grass and only take in small amounts.

Food seems to be high on the list of a chicken's interests, so Forsham suggests keeping them busy eating most of the time, by supplying layers mash rather than pellets. It has the same ingredients as pellets, but takes longer for them to eat as it is much more powdery and less compact, thus taking more beakfuls to consume the same quantity. Bored birds can develop all sorts of nasty habits, such as pecking each other and doing serious damage in some cases, so we don't want our girls to get bored, or too stressed, either.

Having read books, blogs and a discussion forum to gain tips on looking after our chickens, I find Forsham's advice contradicts what I've read elsewhere. They don't think there is a real need to give chickens mixed corn, although it can be helpful to get the chickens home, if you've allowed them to roam during the day. They certainly shouldn't have too much of it.

It seems layers mash or pellets should make up 95% of our chickens daily food intake. Kitchen scraps are not a good idea, even if the chickens love it, as they are unlikely to be of a high nutritional value. The lady in the Forsham office I spoke to said it was like giving them chocolate bars. I presume this doesn't apply to raw lettuce and cabbage leaves, although too many greens could give them the runs, I suppose. Too many treats can leave chickens less healthy and less likely to lay well.

I was also surprised to read in the info from Forsham that oyster shells aren't necessary either, as there should be sufficient calcium in the mash. As egg shells are made from calcium hens need plenty of calcium to ensure their eggs have good shells, although they can sometimes pass a shell-less egg, especially when they are immature, and that doesn't indicate a lack of calcium.

The other thing chickens need to consume is plenty of grit as they don't have any teeth. As you can see from the picture, the grit is quite chunky, too. This helps them to grind the food down to aid digestion.

So we shall stick to the feeding regime Forsham Cottage Arks suggest and see how we get on.

I think I could sit and watch the chickens for hours, at least, I could if we had warmer weather. They are fascinating to watch, and so much about their behaviour we still need to understand such as why does the darker bird appear to be on her own more, while the lighter pair seem to follow each other around? Are the latter more competitive or pushy, or more friendly towards each other? Why were the lighter two opening their mouths wide yet making no noise, earlier?

One funny aspect of their behaviour is the way they rush for a few steps and then slow down as if they suddenly think, why was I rushing? I'm sure there's no need really. I also find it soothing when they are clucking gently to themselves.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Chickens at last

I've been saying we're getting chickens for a while now, but today they have arrived.

A man in a van from Forsham Cottage Arks drew into our drive just after half past twelve and produced a crate of chickens and

various pieces of wood and wire with which to make an ark and run for the chickens. He then proceeded to put it all together and in next to no time it was all ready for the hens to move in to.

Last but not least he produced all the containers we would need to feed and water our hens and bags of food, grit and wood shavings. He was gone before two o'clock.

The girls have started to explore their new home

and quickly worked out where they can find food and drink.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

A sunny day in the garden

We had a lot of warm, sunny intervals today and spent much of the day in the garden. I was quite warm planting garlic just before lunch and nearly took my coat off.

The birds have been singing their little hearts out today in contrast to their silence when it snowed. It was lovely to hear them.

It's a bit late to be planting garlic, but I didn't have the energy to plant anything last Autumn, and hubby kindly bought me some Spring planting garlic. I've read that they really need some frost if they are to do well, and when I planted them, perhaps a bit later in February last year, they didn't seem to do anything until the Autumn. However, you are meant to be able to plant garlic in February if it is the right kind and we do have cold weather forecast for the next two or three weeks, although it might be warming up over the next few days.

I also planted a few heather plants my parents gave me for my birthday back in January as the weather and soil haven't really been suitable until now. As our soil isn't particularly acid I chose Erica Carnea, which flowers in Winter when not much else does, and tolerates a higher PH (less acid) than most heathers.

Hubby did a lot of general clearing up and our son moved my bird table higher up the garden away from the area where we want the chickens to go to begin with. We have been told they should be delivered on Monday.

Last Sunday we put our new wooden compost bin together. We just had to slot all the planks in place. Eventually we want it to go where the black bin is now (see photo), but when I thought about moving it I found a frog hibernating inside, so I put him back and covered him with the clods of earth I had removed and put the bin back on top. I hope he didn't come to any harm. I wasn't expecting to find him in there, but then nor was I expecting to find clods of earth in a compost bin. Apparently hubby is trying to kill off bindweed, but it didn't look very dead.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Remember to feed your friends, the birds.

Birds are a gardener's friend. Just watching them can be a great source of entertainment and pleasure, but many of them eat the pests in the garden, so it is a good idea to feed them at this time of year when they need a lot of food to keep warm and that food can be scarce.

We have a particularly aggressive blackbird at the moment who chases away all competitors for food, his own size or smaller. However, it isn't just the male who is being so possessive, a female blackbird, presumably his mate, is also chasing other female blackbirds away. The territorial turtle dove of two weeks ago seems to have calmed down now as I spotted two pairs feeding in our garden at the same time this morning. I managed to get photos of a turtle dove in the snow with a wood pigeon in the tree behind and also a blackbird feeding on our bird table. Click to enlarge the photos.

I have sometimes seen a thrush in our garden recently, but he seems to be a rare visitor, which is a shame as thrushes are partial to a juicy snail, smashing the shell on a stone in order to get to the soft part.

We've also had chaffinches and greenfinches visit our garden, especially during this recent cold patch. Wrens can also sometimes be seen daintily inspecting the undergrowth for anything edible.

With the cold weather we have had blue tits, great tits and long-tailed tits coming to eat the food we've put out, but except when the magnolia tree was covered with snow, they clearly also enjoy greenfly and other such delights as they can find on it. Pictured are a great tit and a pair of long-tailed tits feeding on fat balls.

The robin is a regular in our garden, which is a good thing because he will eat slugs and all manner of grubs whenever he gets the chance. (Look for a hint of red in this picture.)
We will have to watch out for the pigeons, though as they can be quite a nuisance in the veg patch.

One bird that doesn't visit often, probably because we have no pond stocked with fish for it to eat, is the heron, who rested on the top of some trees at the top of the garden earlier last week.

If you have some birds in your garden you would like to identify the RSPB have a 'bird identifier' to help you out. They even have the bird calls to listen to, which has made me realise that the commotion I sometimes hear in the woods at night must be the Tawny, or aptly named 'Screech', Owl.

Birds are Nature's own pesticides, but it's not just feeding them in Winter that keeps them healthy and abundant. If you want the birds to help you keep the harmful bugs and grubs down in your garden you need to make your garden wildlife-friendly and, most important, cut out the chemicals that are poisoning the birds and the things they feed on. There are environmentally-friendly, organic alternatives available.


Thursday, 5 February 2009

Provisional Delivery Date

We had to say no to our chickens being delivered yesterday as there is still a lot of snow lying on the ground where we plan to put them, and to be honest we were expecting more than a day's notice.

However, all being well they should be delivered on the 16th or 17th of this month.

So we hope it really will be sunny on Saturday so we can do the necessary work to get everything ready for our chicks.

We also hope our new boiler will be installed and nothing stops that from happening as a week without hot water and central heating will have been quite long enough.

Hence I'm not using the pc much as it's upstairs away from the fire.

Bye for now. I'm back down to the warm.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Snow in our garden

Today our garden is very white. About a foot of snow has fallen overnight.

There are hardly any cars in the road.

The birds are hungry. I did venture out to put extra bird food down, although I forgot to thaw the water. Otherwise I stayed indoors and baked bread, cooked jackets potatoes for lunch and warming red cabbage for dinner.

Ironically today is Candlemas, the Christianised version of the pagan festival Imolc, which mark the return of light and warmth to the land - or perhaps the hope that they will. Candlemas is a fixed date, but the date of Imolc is decided by movements in the sky. This year it will be on the 4th February. Brigid or Bride is associated with the day as is her Christian counterpart St Brigid in some parts.