animal psychology, poultry, Small Holding

High-Rise Chickens!

High-rise Chickens — My very good friend is married to the Chicken Whisperer. Their smallholding is Paradise on Earth for world weary hens, and some ducks and geese. They live in a woodland glade with a babbling brook and ponds that can be emptied and refilled at the turn of a stop-cock. Everywhere is cottage garden and orchards with tumbling verdura and magic, mossy, stone walls sprouting ferns and navelwort. Here is the ultimate gated community with little houses for the various feathered cohorts, groups of birds with special bonds of species, family or long association.

They all return to their own homes at dusk to be locked securely in until dawn, when they are free to potter in the gardens and browse on nature’s bounty or feed from the bowls of delicious and varied porridges that my friend prepares under instruction from the Whisperer and which cater for their special dietary needs.

A few weeks ago a hen disappeared. Searches were instituted. The ground was scanned for feathers. Every nook and cranny was probed – no hen was found. Security was reviewed; electric fences and nocturnal patrols were discussed. Then she re-appeared!

She was not alone; behind her marched seven chicks, brooded in secret and now displayed to the world. But every night, just before dusk, they disappeared again.

My friend and her husband hid in the bushes, peeped around trees and skulked in the lane but could not find their hiding place.

Every morning in trepidation they counted the chicks. Every morning there were seven – now almost as big as their mother. The Whisperer and his wife were wan with sleeplessly anxiety about this stubborn mother hen and her at-risk offspring out in the night to be smelled out by a fox.

‘What they need is a new house – their own place!’ Timber was purchased, and roofing felt and dowelling for perches, door furniture and hundreds more nails and screws than were actually needed (that’s hardware retail for you these days). Digging and levelling, sawing and hammering ensued. It took a couple of weeks in the rain and wind, dodging falling branches as Hurricane Ophelia came and went. Still every morning seven chicks would appear and march in step past the work in progress.

Then humane traps were constructed and baited deliciously (these chicks were not stupid) and the Whisperer knew that it had to be all or nothing –  mother hen and every single chick or no-one. To leave one or two chicks alone in the wild night was unthinkable. Catching them all took enormous concentration and time (two whole days) and lots and lots of treats. But Bingo! They were all caught and decanted into their beautiful new home. They were shut in for two days and two nights (a lot in chicken-time). ‘That should be enough,’ said the Whisperer, confident that now they would return each night to their secure and luxurious new accommodation..

However, they did not.  On the third day, at dusk, their coop was empty: no mother hen, no chicks!

But hey, what’s this?  Upwardly mobile chickens!   Not very clear photos, but they are all up in one of the tallest trees. That’s right, you can see the top of a telegraph pole which gives away their altitude and the falling leaves have denuded their cover.

Arboreal Chickens – what next?

 

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Hill Farming, Humour

Nature’s scam

Don’t be taken in – it’s a scam – Mother Nature’s attempt at PR!

Daffodils have absolutely nothing to do with the Spring –

they are harbingers of disappointment – raisers of false hope!

At least, that’s what they are in Wales.

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They have been out for two weeks and our hill is overflowing –

not with the sound of lambs and birdsong –

but with gurgling springs – excess ground-water spewing out of rabbit holes –

and the baas of disgruntled sheep, pained by the muscular effort of holding back the inevitable.

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They watch the weather forecast on the wide screen telly, through the picture window,

but anyway they know about these things and no one wants to drop a new born babe –

plop, into a puddle – so they are holding on until there’s a break in the cloud.

And meanwhile they blame me, and by the way, this hay is damp.

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Our single antediluvian lamb is chasing chickens now.

Ducks, Splish and Splosh (named Flip and Flop in dryer times) look on and say,

‘Well what do you expect – laying lamb-shaped, wooly eggs that are not waterproof!  This mud is delicious,’ and off they dibble-dabble.

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Hill Farming

Predator Proofing

Last night, late, we arrived home from a weeks holiday in Cornwall so, only now, it is safe to mention the feverish activity that preceded our departure for the far south-west.  It’s not that we feared cyber initiated incursions during our absence; it is that we do not believe in tempting fate.

Fox by Julian

Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   © Copyright Julian Dowse and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Now we are back I can risk telling you that we were predator-proofing.  We struggled in the torrential rain to make the poultry fox-proof  and badger-proof before entrusting them to a friend to tend daily.  We erected 8 ft high double fences with embedded roof slates buried and wired around the base and heavy scaffolding poles also fixed at the base to discourage tunnelling.  Alan vetoed the purchase of electric fencing — God forbid — that is plan ‘B’.   Phase Two will encompass the netting roof which will be necessary when we have chicks — to keep out the magpies and buzzards (but I haven’t mentioned this to Alan yet).

Poultry run

Poultry run

The cats had not left home this time and were in-doors waiting for us on our return  — the one dubious benefit of heavy rain.

I immediately donned my wellies and went out to shine the repaired torch through the chicken-wire window of the new coop.  The chickens were on their perch, one with its head cocked quizzically to one side and a brown egg smashed on the floor beneath her — ‘point of lay’ but still hasn’t got the hang of it quite.

The ducks were also on the floor of the coop, carefully preening the last of the day’s mud from their feathers in a scene that reminded me of our bathroom on a  Friday evening when our five children, then teenagers, were still at home.

Outside the coop in the new predator-proof poultry run something strange has occurred — a 25 foot square enclosure of pasture has undergone some sort of cold fusion.  There is, it seems, a complication of keeping predators out and it is keeping poultry (especially ducks) in.  In one week, two ducks have carefully liquidised the chicken run.

Puddle Ducks at work

Puddle Ducks at work

Carefully ducked ground

Carefully ducked ground

They meticulously probe the soft soil for grubs and wriggly things, repeatedly washing their bills in any standing water they can find — puddly land becomes a morass in no time — they are very conscientious!

Compensation!

Compensation!

This morning, bright and early, I  counted the sheep huddled by the fence and found one too many —  that’s odd!

There was one stray sheep on the other side of the fence trying very hard to blend in with ours — they do so hate to be alone.

In this wet weather sometimes, in the dips, the tension in the wire fences lifts the fence posts right out of the ground and some of the ewes are quite clever at encouraging this process, particularly if there is nice grass on the other side.  This seems to account for our new ewe — she has been returned.

Casually hoofed mud -- quite different

Casually hoofed mud — quite different

 

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Climate, Hill Farming

Too rough for ducks!

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Our stream in summer

The exceptional rains continue, the ground is saturated, the reservoirs are overflowing and the rivers are in flood. It’s worse further north and it’s bad enough here.

P1060690 Our little stream

Same  stream today!

Last week, unusually for December,  I saw a Dor Beetle on the path — moving to higher ground, I thought, ahead of the flood.

P1060520 Abandon Home

Just in time, as it happened, before water started to spew out of the burrow.  In the valley bottoms the water table is higher than the ground so mole hills erupt with water, like volcanoes, and if you stab the ground with a stick it may spurt at you.

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Water is running everywhere.  Waterfalls appearing where they do not normally belong.

New Waterfall

Impromptu waterfall

At dusk this evening the chickens put themselves to bed but the two ducks were nowhere to be seen. They weren’t in the sodden field, nor in the yard, not under the truck and not in the barn or in the road which has turned into a torrent.

The lane

The road

 

Way to a neighbours house, cut off by stream

Way to a neighbours house, cut off by stream

The torch wouldn’t work and the hurricane lamp blew out, but somewhere, above the storm, there was a distant quacking.   The two ducks had strayed into the wetland (well — it’s all wet at the moment) and become separated and were calling to each other over the stream.  As I approached through the aspen and alder, one panicked and tried to cross the raging stream (remember, their wings are clipped), next minute she was in the churning, muddy water, whizzing downstream, spinning and flapping, quacking and squawking.  I was downstream of her so, holding on to a tree, I managed to lunge at her as she approached and flip her unceremoniously onto the muddy bank where she disappeared into a holly thicket before I landed, splat, where she had just been.  Traumatised (both of us) I carried her home over the bridge and reunited her with her friend, who came running to meet us.

Fuzzy Ducks

Tomorrow, I think they had better try their new enclosure — it’s too rough for ducks!

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Hill Farming, Small Holding

Chicken Fiasco

We live in the Northern Hemisphere, that means, as I write, it is autumn.

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In Britain we do something very strange in autumn.  We turn back our clocks an hour, to give us more daylight in the morning and less in the evening (is that right?)  It started in the war when someone decided to put the clocks forward in the spring giving us long balmy summer evenings in which to ‘dig for Britain’ and increase agricultural production.  Ever since we have been moving the clocks back and forth and generally confusing ourselves.

Last week-end was the time designated to move the clocks back (we are all supposed to do it at the same time) —  not that  the hours of daylight are impressed — they have continued to dwindle along their inevitable celestial way, getting shorter and shorter, leaving less and less time for the farmer’s chores, and we have to cope with the disturbance in our routine wrought by the hour change — waking too early, hungry at all the wrong times,  confused animals, missed liasons, getting to the dentist at the wrong time and general discombobulation.

I blame this for the chicken incident.

Speckled hen

Last week-end we went to Rutland for a wedding and Alan (who is thus culpable) noticed a sign saying

‘Point of lay chickens for sale’

Now anyone who knows anything about chickens knows that they stop laying in winter, which in the Northern Hemisphere comes shortly after autumn.  The purchase of chickens at the point of lay in autumn is pointless — they, the chickens, will quite likely be eaten by hungry preditors during the long, dark, eggless winter months and you will never see the fruits of your investment.

Note to self — buy chickens in spring.  But sometimes one just wants to do something extraordinary.

Meet our new chickens:

Hens and ducks

Those astute amongst you will have noticed something strange about two of them.

We did not lose our powers of reason entirely in Rutland — we noticed the huge pile of eggs on a box in the corner of the strangely muddy yard — duck eggs.

‘Oh yes,’ said the lady, ‘very good layers — our ducks, and they go on laying through the winter’.

So instead of four hens, we drove home with two grey hens (a Speckled and a Bluebell) and two Khaki Campbell ducks, shut in the boot of our camper-van.

We learned something new almost immediately as strange smells emanated from the rear of the vehicle unsettling the dog — ducks, unlike chickens, do not evidently switch off automatically when placed in the dark, they can see in the dark and they can squeeze through surprisingly small holes.

When we got home we had two chickens but no obvious ducks.  After the removal of several panels, the mattress, and parts of the bed we found them, gone to ground, between the water tank and the chemical toilet (obviously not liking to pooh on the plastic sheets and newspaper that we had put down for them in the boot).

This week, while I shampoo the camper van carpet, Alan (partly culpable) has been constructing a new pen and coop for the production of the most expensive eggs known to man.

Meanwhile I have a nagging worry about the ducks — raised commercially from day old chicks in a yard with only shallow trays of water and small puddles and without the benefit of proper parenting, we may well have to teach them to swim.  Life is full of new challenges…

Just now the chicken alarm went off — clucking wildly because two buzzards were making a low reconnaissance flight over the temporary poultry pen — I, but not the dog, was out there in my pyjamas in a trice.

Where had I got to?  Getting to know ducks.  They have laid 9 eggs in just under a week and are very meticulous with their ablutions taking a good hour to do what Granny called ‘a stand-up wash’ every morning  then they flap around drying their wings.

They are very easy to herd, which is good, and although they are not supposed to, they put themselves into the coop at dusk with the chickens, even though they don’t seem to like them very much.

Once the new coop is finished we will start on the floating pontoon for the duck-house…   If they can swim!

 

 

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Communication, Humour

Only Puddleducks

Worst floods since 1756

We crossed the Somerset levels this week-end to visit family in Devon and Cornwall, the media warned of an impending apocalyptic storm, the prime minister acknowledged the plight of those whose farms and livelihoods  were already flooded and promised to dredge the rivers of Somerset.  Weather forecasts showed only swirling cloud completely obliterating our corner of western Europe.  We were foolish to set off.

It did rain most of the way to Plymouth.

We saw some swans preening in a vibrantly green field just east of Bridgewater.  We peered into the gloom waiting for the sea of flooded fields to appear.  The sun came out and we scanned the sky for rainbows, and for doves carrying twigs — there were none.

Where were the news men in galoshes standing on bridges about to be washed away and waiting for the record high tide at Burnham on Sea?  We did not expect the motorway to be submerged (we know that the clever civil engineers at least build their motorways higher than the flood plain) but from the high ground we had been led to expect diluvial vistas — silver fields.

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As far as the eye could see all was green, actually very green for the time of year and some of the streams looked alarmingly full, I give you that.

When we arrived at our destination I checked to see if the Somerset levels had been moved, perhaps to Norfolk where it is very flat or to Cumbria where it does rain a lot, but no they were still where I thought they were and still in the centre of a media storm.  Yes, that’s about it — a media storm.

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I wonder, is there something else going on — are they trying to distract us?

(Apologies if you have been flooded – please send photos! —  on 04.02.2014 the ‘storm ‘continues with a visit from HRH The Prince of Wales – for your information — an area of 25 sq miles is under water, that is equivalent to 5 miles by 5 miles, not a huge area in farming terms or compared with the area of the whole of the Somerset levels, it involves between 20-40 homes but is disrupting a lot more who feel that the problem is due to the government’s Environment Agency’s neglect of the river system. )
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