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Pepper not doing so well

Ten days ago I wrote a story about our hen Pepper who had a problem with her crop which wasn’t emptying properly.

Since I whisked her into the vets for an operation at the beginning of January (where the vet found nothing untoward), we’ve been scratching our heads wondering what could be causing poor Pepper’s crop problems.

Pepper in the kitchen

Since her operation, Pepper’s been convalescing in the kitchen in a dog crate where she can stay warm and safe until she gets better.

Since my last story and after chatting with the vet, we’ve given Pepper “Flubenvet” which is a poultry wormer, in a little dropper into her beak over the course of seven days.  The vet didn’t think she had worms, but said worming her wouldn’t do her any harm.  We were willing to try anything.  We also gave her “Beryl’s Friendly Bacteria” which is especially for hens to help her post-antibiotic tummy.

Pepper doesn’t have much appetite but every day she eats a small amount of chick mash, scrambled eggs or porridge and drinks some water.  We massage her crop daily and monitor her droppings.   Each morning we check her crop to see if it has emptied overnight.  Pepper’s crop continues to feel like a ping pong ball in the mornings but she seems relatively perky and continues to have some appetite. She’s still going to the toilet despite her blockage which means that some food must be passing through.

We continue to hope.  However, Pepper’s morning crop situation is worrying and every day at 7.30am when we give her fresh bedding and her morning cuddle we desperately hope to find her crop empty.  A chicken’s crop is like a storage bag, it sits under the right breast and fills up during the day as the hen goes about her business foraging.  Food collected in the crop then trickles into the gizzard and then on into the digestive system.  By morning the crop should be empty and the hen house full of droppings from the previous day’s foraging.

Pepper in the polytunnel last weekend

Over the days Pepper hasn’t made a lot of progress but seems perky-ish and enjoys daily trips to the polytunnel where she has an hour or so to stretch her legs and scratch for worms.  We were so happy to see her eating worms and scratching around the first time we took her in.

Last weekend Pepper turned a corner.  On Saturday morning her crop had emptied, I jumped for joy!  Pepper spent Saturday and Sunday looking much happier and more lively and really enjoyed herself in the polytunnel.  If it wasn’t for the fact that underneath her feathers she was very thin, Pepper looked for all the world like her old healthy self.

Sadly though, since last weekend, Pepper’s perkiness has started to wane.  She has become more tired and droopy as each day has passed.  Her crop has gone back to feeling like a ping-pong ball again in the mornings and Adrian and I are preparing to say goodbye to our dear feathered friend.

Pepper last week scratching for worms

I carried Pepper into the polytunnel today but she just stood on the soil and closed her eyes.

I brought her back indoors and gave her some beetroot soup with a dropper but she has spent most of today asleep.  She is getting more wobbly on her legs and we have to take care when placing her back in her dog crate hen house so that she doesn’t topple over.

We are making her as comfortable as we can and keeping her hydrated, but sadly Pepper is fading.  There is only so much we can do.

 

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Poorly Pepper

For a wee while now one of our elderly hen ladies, Pepper hasn’t been quite her usual self.  The signs were subtle, in fact, there was only one sign, her tail feathers weren’t as perky as they usually are.  We weren’t unduly worried because she’d gone through a hard moult in November along with the other hens.  Hens can feel a bit depressed when they lose their feathers, particularly if the weather’s bad.  We thought she’d perk up once her plumage grew back.   We were also not too worried because she wasn’t displaying the usual signs of hen illness; her comb was a bright healthy shade of red, her bottom was clean and fluffy and she had a good appetite.  She was also feisty (Pepper is second in command to Clippy the top hen), and she was still merrily bossing the other hens around along with Clippy and keeping order in the flock.

Then, one morning a couple of weeks ago I noticed Pepper wasn’t eating her corn.  She was running in for it and claiming her position next to Clippy to get the biggest beakful, but  she wasn’t actually eating any, just moving it around on the ground.  Alarm bells ringing, I scooped her up and brought her indoors.  The first thing I did was feel her crop, it should be empty first thing in the morning but Pepper’s was full and the size of a large golf ball.  She was also quite thin.  I was relieved and upset at the same time.  I was glad to have found the source of her discomfort, but upset because an impacted crop would need operating on, and sod’s law, it was 2nd Jan, bank holiday in Scotland.

… within a few minutes I had Pepper in a box and Adrian was de-icing my car.  Having spent three seconds philosophising about how these things always seem to happen at weekends, I’d rung the emergency vet and booked Pepper in for a crop op.

A crop operation entails a small incision into the crop and the offending blockage being removed.  It’s done under a local anaesthetic and usually takes about 15 minutes.

Once at the vet’s we got started, I held Pepper in position and the vet got to work.  When the crop was opened, we were both a little surprised to see only corn.  No bailer twine, no ball of hay, no bunch of feathers.  Truth be told we were strangely disappointed, we had expected a big plug of something to plop out, like pulling out a bunch of hairs from the plug hole.

We were a little mystified because Pepper should have been able to digest the corn in her crop, it was soft and should have been able to pass through into her gizzard without any problem.

Pushing that niggling worry into the back of my mind for the moment, I set off for home with Pepper stitched up and looking quite perky considering.

We put her in the kitchen by the aga in a dog crate and monitored her.  The first thing she did was drink lots of water.  That’s good we thought.  Later that day, we offered her a tiny amount of softened chick mash in a mini cup which she ate and enjoyed.

The next day Pepper was looking perkier and we offered her a  tiny amount of scrambled egg which again she enjoyed.  Later in the evening she had some more softened up mash.

Pepper post op by the aga

On day three it was sunny and relatively warm.  After some thought over a cup of tea, we decided to put Pepper outside so she could be with her friends.  It’s always a fine balance when taking care of sick animals, how much we intervene as humans is something we’re always considering.  Hens are sociable creatures and we reckoned being with her friends would lift her spirits.  Not only this, but hens love lazing about in the sun and it was a mild, sunny day.  Indeed, as soon as we put Pepper out, she joined her pals for a catch up and a sunbathe and looked happy as can be.  That evening Pepper was still looking happy and the weather was still mild so we thought we’d leave her to sleep in the hen house with the flock.  We watched her go to roost and made sure she’d hopped onto a perch.  Then we went indoors and had a cup of tea.

Pepper having a cuddle

The following morning I went to check up on Pepper.  I waited by the coops as the sun slowly rose.  The auto-doors were set to open just before sunrise at 7.30am.  As the doors opened I watched the hens come down the ladder one by one.   All of them trouped out except for Pepper.  My heart sank, quick as a flash I ran round the back of the coop and whipped the back panel off and there she was was, sprawled on the floor.  I felt dreadful, what a terrible hen mum I am I thought as the tears started.  But then I saw a small movement, Pepper was alive!  I carefully picked her up and brought her back indoors.  We wrapped her up in a blanket and then gave her breakfast, tiny bits of fat from last night’s slow cooked beef dinner, a small amount of porridge and a small amount of scrambled egg.  Pepper quickly perked up and spent the rest of the day in the kitchen getting small amounts to eat and lots of cuddles.

Pepper continued to improve slowly, but as the days went by I started to get a little concerned that her crop wasn’t emptying as fast as it should be.  She was going to the toilet (albeit on the runny side – post antibiotic tummy), but each morning her crop didn’t feel as empty as it should be.

Not having had crop problems in our flock before I made the mistake of googling “crop issues in hens”.  Two things came up; impacted crop and sour crop.  There was little else about crops not emptying except a brief reference to capillary worms which can affect the digestive system and stop things working properly.  I pondered this info and by the end of the day I had convinced myself Pepper had gigantic capillary worms.

The following day and thinking more clearly I rang the vet for advice.  I wasn’t convinced anymore about worms, Pepper’s comb was looking too healthy for there to be a worm problem.  The vet and I chatted about Pepper and he told me that sadly only about 50% of hens with impacted crops get better.  Out of the 50% who don’t respond to treatment the problem is usually due to something underlying like a tumour.

Pepper having porridge out of a small cup

The vet also agreed it was unlikely to be worms, but that it wouldn’t do any harm to worm her.  So we decided to give Pepper flubenvet in a little dropper every day, just to make sure.  We’re also giving her probiotics (special ones for hens), and keeping her spirits up with regular cuddles and strokes.

We’re taking each day as it comes, fingers crossed for our dear hennie.

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Moving the Hens – Part 2

hen central - omlet walk in run complete

Carrying on from last week’s story, Moving the Hens, we have both been busy installing and preparing the new area for the chicken coops. We call this ‘Hen Central’ because it’s where they eat, drink, sleep and lay their eggs. The big jobs this week were to install two new fences and put up a walk in run.

hen central - old gate
hen central – old gate, new stob already in place

The first new fence is where the old entrance used to be. There was a fence there, but it was only chicken wire. Given it was along the track, this is where the biggest threat from unsupervised dogs was to be found. The gate was removed and proper stock fencing put up. Not 100% dog proof, but far stronger.

The second new fence is in the orchard which doubles as the hen run. It is needed not to keep the hens in, but the sheep out. Sheep have a penchant for scratching themselves on any available object, so they could do a lot of damage. They also are partial to corn, so would be tempted to get into the feed bins. Plus, the hens need somewhere where they can have a bit of peace and quiet.

Also, if a hen goes broody, we need to be able to set aside a space for the nursery run and an area for them to wander out and about, free from the danger of sheep’s hooves.

The walk in run is more to deter night time threats and also, prevent wild camping. The plan is, at roosting time, to tempt them into the run and shut the door. That way, the hens’ only option is to sleep in the safe chicken coops.

bye bye electric fence
bye bye electric fence

We ordered the Omlet Walk-in Run and it was earmarked for delivery on Tuesday. So, I got started on the deconstruction of the old hen central. First to go was the anti-badger electric fence. It had done it’s job, but was no longer needed. It would also no longer be a trap for the unwary, easy to trip over.

Next was the first of the two fences. That was fairly straightforward as most of the stobs were already in place.

Come Tuesday, no delivery date was available from DHL so I got on with the second fence. That was soon up complete with purpose built hen flaps.

hen central - new gate and fence
hen central – new gate and fence

Wednesday came and still no run or delivery date. I attempted to decipher the jumbled misinformation on the DHL tracking service and worked out that 13 of 14 parcels had been forwarded from the Glasgow depot to the local delivery agent. One was missing. Of course, modern customer service comprises the above misinformation and a chatbot that is worse than useless. We contacted Omlet to see if they could find out any more. They, too, struggled to get any meaningful information from DHL.

hen central - boxes opened omlet chicken run
hen central – boxes opened

Anyway, Thursday arrived and Nicole and I carried on and got as much of the new run ready as we could. The fences and new gate were in and all the shelters and feeders were laid out in their new locations. Thursday afternoon, still no news from DHL. Without warning, a van pulled up and disgorged 14 packages. It had arrived! DHL were kind enough to send an email to let us know it had been delivered.

hen central - level one omlet chicken run
hen central – level one underway

Friday, our day off, so to speak. Normally we take the dogs and a picnic and head off somewhere for a break. Not today. I got started on the new run. First off, I had to build a small bank as, at one corner, the land slipped away quite steeply. This meant transporting a fair few stones and some road scalpings. No sooner had I finished that than Mrs Mills Junior began to dismantle it. I gently persuaded her to move on and retired to ponder the Omlet instructions. An hour later, I felt ready to begin.

I have built a few Omlet runs in the past so was aware of the clip system they use. However, nothing had prepared me for the new ‘double-clip’ used in certain places. It needed about 20 tons of pressure to close it. I have to confess to employing some choice language. Finally, I worked out a technique I could use.

hen central - omlet walk in run complete
hen central – omlet walk in run complete

It’s not a one person job. Nicole pitched in to help and we worked non-stop till we had it built. We were both loudly cursing the Omlet plastic clip on by the end of it. We were both completely shattered when we finished some time around 6pm. We were delighted with the result, the run looked excellent. Cherokee, the cockerel was already hovering as he likes to get to bed early. But, he’s pretty cool and waited patiently. The moment we stepped out of the run, he stepped in and went to bed.

Seizing our opportunity, Nicole threw some rice and corn into the new run. All but two hens rushed in. Pepper and one of the youngsters (still to be named) decided to run round the outside instead. With deft care and precision, I coaxed them round to the front where Nicole was managing the door. To our relief, they crossed the threshold and we shut the door behind them. The hens were safe and happy. We had turned a two hour vigil into a five minute gathering. Wine and beer called, it was time for a celebration.

Then we counted them.

One short – who else but Mrs Mills Junior? Nicole arranged the search party and located her at the far end of the paddock having a dust bath. Gently, she was persuaded all the way back and, in another dance of co-ordinated movements, she was herded through the door.

Now we could celebrate.

Later on, when they were all tucked up in bed and the doors to their coops closed, Nicole opened the door to the run so they could get out in the morning. My next job will be to install an automatic door. We have the door motor, I just have to build a panel. Once that’s in place, we can leave the run securely closed at night and the door will open automatically for them in the morning.

Over the coming days, the goal is to train them to go into the run just before bed time. Hopefully, in time, they’ll forget about sleeping in the bushes.

hen central - view from the orchard
hen central – view from the orchard

 

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Moving the hens

This week we have been very busy moving the hen coops to a new part of the orchard.  This has been prompted by several things, but mainly it is down to Clippy.

Clippy (the flock matriarch) has always been on the feral side.  She prefers to lay her eggs in a clump of grass rather than in the nest boxes, she prefers to sleep in the bushes than in the hen coops and she’s the one likely to be found on the wrong side of the fence, sometimes to her detriment.

We wouldn’t mind Clippy doing her own thing if it wasn’t for the fact that as flock leader, she naturally sets an example to the other hens.  As a result, the flock is becoming noticeably more feral.  Over time we have discovered not just Clippy sleeping rough, but often two or three accomplices in neighbouring trees.  It’s not only at bed time that the hens are doing their own thing, over the summer we had hardly any eggs, or so we thought, until yesterday when Adrian stumbled across a huge pile nestled in a clump of sedge grass.

where the coops used to be

Things came to a head recently when one warm summer’s evening, MMJ (mother of the chicks) decided to sleep in the tree tops alongside her pals Clippy, Salt and Pepper.  MMJ  didn’t seem to realise that her chicks were too little to follow her, and perched high up upon her branch, merrily called them to follow her into the trees.  Fortunately we were in the garden frying sausages on the barbeque and heard the commotion.  With a little strategic shaking of branches we encouraged MMJ to abandon her camping expedition and go to bed in the coop with her little ones safely tucked under her wings.

Unfortunately MMJ going wild camping with her feathered pals didn’t prove to be a one off.  This has meant that every evening for the past couple of months, we have been on “hen watch” at dusk.  This has meant creeping around the orchard to see what MMJ gets up to.

We’ve tried blocking the bushes and launch pads but to no avail.  Clippy gets past all barriers and is often accompanied by one or two others.

newly situated coops

There’s another reason we don’t want the hens sleeping wild, it’s disruptive to our evenings and many a dinner has been reduced to burnt morsels while we pad around the orchard looking for hens and it’s a huge worry that the chicks lives could be in danger.  But on the other side of the bushes is our farm track leading to neighbouring houses.  If the hens decide to fly down from the trees on the other side, they could end up on the wrong side of the fence unable to get back in.  More than once we’ve found hens wandering around in the morning looking to get back into the orchard for their breakfast.

Again, this wouldn’t be a problem in itself if it wasn’t for the fact that sometimes visitors to our neighbours have dogs and unfortunately seem to forget they’re in farming country and let the dogs wander around off lead.  As smallholders, loose dogs around livestock is a huge concern.

So, having had one too many evenings disrupted, the thought of hens getting into trouble or the whole flock ending up feral, we decided to take action.

We’ve moved the hen coops away from the trees, into a part of the orchard where we can keep an eye on them from the kitchen window.  We’ve blocked off the wooded area where the hen coops used to be.

clearing nettles from the new hen area

Also, in preparation for winter and prowling badgers, we have ordered a large walk-in run from Omlet.  This company has predator proof runs with a “skirt” running around the bottom making it impossible for anything to burrow its way in.  The mesh is strong and nibble proof so will provide an added layer of protection for the flock at night.  It will make things easy for us to encourage the flock to roost in the safety of the hen coops at night.  Once the run is up, we’ll throw some corn in, shut the outer door and let the hens re-aquaint themselves with the coops.  We also plan to install an automatic door on the run that shuts at dusk and opens at dawn so the hens can wander off into the orchard as they please during the day, but at night they’ll be safely tucked up.  This arrives later today so we’ll be busy building that for the rest of the week.

building the frame for auto-opening door for new hen run

Meanwhile, we’ve already moved the coops and have spent the last three evenings in a mild state of stress watching the hens sorting out who sleeps where while they go “in, out, in, out, in out” of the coops for what feels like hours .  The most painful part has been monitoring Clippy and the chicks.  She has sent them skidaddling from the coop with a sharp peck on several occasions and the first time this happened we had to intervene as the chicks ran all the way down to the lambing shed at the far end of the orchard and it was getting dark.  We put Clippy into a different coop that evening and the chicks came back with a little encouragement.  However we don’t want to be intervening like this every time, Ideally the hens should sort it out for themselves and Clippy needs to learn that the chicks are part of her flock.  It’s a tricky one knowing when to intervene and when not to.

The last two evenings haven’t gone too badly, still a lot of to-ing and fro-ing but Clippy has been more tolerant of the chicks which has been a big relief.

We’re really looking forward to having the hen run installed and our flock becoming more domesticated.  We’re also looking forward to being able to cook dinner without any disruptions.

 

 

 

 

 

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Chicks Move to the Big House

Our chicks have had a purpose built predator proof run from when they were eggs. After they hatched, they had a couple of days to find their feet before being let out into the wider world. Each night, they returned in the early evening, had a quick meal of corn, and turned in for the night. Every morning, they were waiting by the door, eager to get out and about.

At around four weeks old, their mother, Mrs Mills Junior (MMJ), decided it was time to return to the main chicken coop. This could have gone smoothly… …but it didn’t

First, MMJ decided it would be a good idea to roost in the bushes behind the coop. A few of the hens like to do this from time to time. However, reaching said perch was an impossible ask for the chicks. They might be getting quite big, but they are not yet close to being able to fly.

Pipette looking out at chicks
Pipette looking out at chicks

MMJ set up herself up, got comfortable, closed her eyes and settled in for the night. We watched, wondering how best to intervene. Then, MMJ realised something was missing and, after an elongated period of calling, flew down to find her chicks. Much clucking and shaking of feathers ensued before, finally, she decided to head into the coop. The chicks were not sure about this and took their time, but eventually, they all followed her in. Quickly, we shut the door.

The following evening, it was raining. This time, MMJ decided the coop was the better option. However, two of the chicks had forgotten the way and sat disconsolately under the coop. This caused much scratching of heads. Eventually, I approached and threw a little corn down. They were straight over and were joined by Pepper. Pepper returned to the coop and this was enough to show the chicks the way. Phew!

is it bed time?

Next day, I made some adjustments to make the ladder easier for the chicks to use, basically, I made it a little less steep. However, MMJ decided to go for the tree roost option once again causing panic in her brood. This time, she seemed oblivious. We intervened, shaking the bush causing her to fly down. Cue mass clucking and shaking of feathers. She led her chicks around for about half an hour before finally settling into the coop. Once all five chicks were in, we shut the door.

We thought things were settling by now, however, we hadn’t made allowances for Clippy. Clippy is the flock matriarch and the most feral. She likes her wild camping. That would be fine, but she also feels the need to announce it to the world. Next evening, MMJ and the chicks were happily ensconced in the coop when Clippy flew onto the roof on her way to the bush. She clucked her intentions out loud and the chicks all rushed out to see. Cue mass disruption as other hens joined in.

it’s lovely in here

This whole stramash was made more complicated by MMJ deciding the coop was for her, her chicks and the cockerel only. No other hens allowed. Fortunately, we have two coops. Nevertheless, the four hens cast out were none too impressed. They checked out the other coop, but seemed unsure. In out. In out. When, finally, all were in, we pounced and closed the door.

Yesterday, things finally went smoothly. The chicks and MMJ joined the cockerel in the Green Frog coop. The other four headed straight into the Solway coop and roosted.

Who knows what fun and games tonight will bring?

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Chicks Thriving in Summer Weather

The recent summer weather has been welcome for many reasons and, in particular, it has benefitted the hens. Unlike many birds, hens do not have waterproof feathers so when it rains, they prefer to stay under shelter. For young, keen to explore, bubbling with energy little chicks, that’s like being stuck in playpen with no toys.

The last week or so has been much drier and the chicks have been out and about, foraging, scoffing and having a lovely time. They have also been growing and are now bigger than blackbirds. As each day passes, they get a little braver and can be seen scuttling further and further from their mother, Mrs Mills Junior (MMJ). They are also looking a bit scruffy as their adult feathers are pushing through the fluff they were born with. You can see tiny feathers poking out through their tails and also their developing wings. There’s nothing they like better than stretching their wings out in the sun.

Exploring far and wide, they come into contact with the rest of the flock and it is great to see that they are already accepted. Anyone who’s introduced new hens to an existing flock will know what I mean.

Cherokee the cockerel likes to keep a watchful eye over them. MMJ is more tolerant of him than some of the other hens who are sent away if they get too close.

Given our hens have pretty much given up laying, we are looking forward to the next generation of layers growing up and once again filling our kitchen with eggs. That will take the pressure off the older timers who can then live their lives out in gentle tranquillity and luxury.

At night, they still use their nursery run and coop. We put them to bed around 6pm. Soon we will leave it open till sunset and see if MMJ moves them into the main hen house.

The nursery run has been a huge success and in future, we’ll use the same approach for broody hens. We’re already in the planning stages for a small, fenced off area that can keep the sheep at a safe distance and provide room for multiple nursery runs.

Although it’s hard to tell the girls from the boys at this age, it’s looking like four girls and one boy. Time will tell, but we’re hopeful.

 

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Chicks Abroad

On Saturday, we spent some time watching our newly hatched chicks in their safe and secure run. It soon became clear that they already needed larger premises. Although they were safe where they were, the grass was showing signs of wear and tear plus, they needed to get out and about and get some natural food and exercise. Also, this means their mother, Mrs Mills Junior (MMJ), can teach them what they need to know. Over time, we have learned the best policy is to trust the animals – they know what they’re doing.

Our hens free range, but we do have fences to keep them away from danger, mainly the track (delivery vans) and neighbours’ cats. Though hens can fly, a 90cm high stock fence is enough to keep them contained.

In their secure facility

Having, some years back, had chicks happily charge through these fences and all over the place, we installed chicken wire around the perimeter. We also put in a few hedgehog tunnels so the hedgehogs could still roam freely. Tiny curtains were enough to stop the chicks. Over time, the odd gap had appeared. mostly around the gates. So, before we could let these chicks out, the main area needed to be checked and made chick proof.

We also decided to move the sheep out. They have been using the lambing shed to keep out of the sun and rain. This is situated in the orchard where the hens roam. Fortunately, we have a field shelter and a “silvo shelter” so we closed off access to the hen area. The other hens will find their roaming area reduced, but it’s still an acre or so.

Sunday, we set to work. I say ‘we’, but mean ‘me’, Nicole being busy with our new dog Elliot, I raised the ground level under three gates using some of the road scalpings we have for just such occasions. Ten barrow loads or so were duly wheeled in. I also attached chicken netting to the gates and made sure the gaps at either end were covered.

That done, we opened the door at the front of the run. MMJ was initially reluctant to set forth, but eventually wandered through. She was closely followed by four chicks. As she headed slightly further away, chick number five ran up and down inside the run, not quite able to work out how to follow her. Thankfully, she did find the exit and caught up.

MMJ and 5 chicks - meets the other hens
Saying hello to the others

Having sat on eggs and chicks for three to four weeks, the first thing MMJ did was have a dust bath. She found a shady corner and got to digging, all the while making contented clucking sounds. The chicks stood around waiting, bored, until having waited long enough, they started jumping all over her. Eventually, MMJ got the hint and took them for a walk. The other hens had seen them by now but, thankfully, seemed completely disinterested. In fact, MMJ took them over to say hello and announced their presence by jumping onto Clippy, the flock matriarch, and giving her a taste of what might happen should she get too close to her precious chicks.

tempted by strawberries
tempted by strawberries

We kept a close eye on them all, but MMJ seemed to know what she was doing so eventually we left her to it. After, of course, we’d tempted them into camera range with a few chopped up strawberries.

Chicks being little cutie pies, we took a few photos and these can be found in the chicks gallery. We may add some as they grow up. In the meantime, it’s loads of stress for us as we worry about cats, kites, buzzards, golden eagles (we have the occasional visit), sparrowhawks, crows, stoats, foxes and so on.

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Baby chicks hatch

About three weeks ago, we mentioned we had a broody hen (Broody Hens Conundrum); Mrs Mills Junior (MMJ) to be precise. After last year when two hens sat on eggs but none hatched, we decided to source fertilised eggs. It was made easy by the fact that MMJ was broody but not actually sitting on any eggs.

Chicken Run - Omlet
secure location

So, we moved her to a secure location, her own personal run safe and secure from the weather, predators and nosey hens. We settled eight eggs underneath her and sat back to wait. 24 days was the time to hatching according to reliable sources.

This week, they hatched, a little early we suspect. First we knew was Friday morning when a tiny ‘seep seep’ could be heard. Peering down the run into the hen house revealed MMJ peering back accompanied by a hatchling stretching its neck to look at us. We had chicks!

We kept our distance, despite much temptation to peek more closely. Today, we were rewarded by the sight of MMJ taking her brood out for a walk in the sunshine. I say walk, what I really meant was nap. MMJ was sitting there happily and one tiny head was poking out from under one of her wings. We both stood and watched, our breath held in anticipation. A few minutes later (long minutes let me tell you), a second head popped out from under her front. Two chicks. Moments later, two more heads. Four chicks.

Eventually, all four squeezed out and started mooching around in the grass under MMJ’s watchful eyes.

At this point, Nicole sneaked round and checked the hen house. Of the eight eggs, five had hatched. We waited and watched, but number 5 never appeared. With things to do, including sheep to shear (Shearing 2022 – hand clipping the woolly Ryelands), we left them to it.

Later on, I made a cuppa for Nicole and took it to her at the shearing pen. On the way back, I checked in on MMJ. She was up and about scratching away happily and was surrounded by five chicks.

This is excellent news. Not only will we have chicks brought up and accepted into the flock, MMJ only had to sit for 3 weeks. Last year, sitting on eggs that turned out not to be fertilised, Clippy and Pepper sat for 9 or 10 weeks, maybe longer, and their condition suffered as a result. MMJ’s comb is bright red, as it should be, and she looks to be in excellent condition. All in all, we are well pleased we decided to give her her own enclosed space.

Next job, check the wider perimeter so the chicks can’t get through the fence onto the track.

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Broody Hens Conundrum

hens in hen run

With spring fully underway, though the weather doesn’t feel like it, we are on the lookout for broody hens. Each year, one or two of our hens decides it’s time to sit on eggs. Each has their own particular approach.

Clippy likes to disappear, much like her mother did. All of a sudden, she’ll just go off the radar and we’ll be wondering where she is. We’re never quite sure and worry that some predator has taken her. Then a few days later, we’ll catch a glimpse of her sneaking towards the food dispensers, often giving the other hens a wide berth. Putting our private detective hats on, we try to follow her back without being seen. Not easy in an open field with the tiny apple trees providing the only cover. Last year, she built a nest in a newly planted woodland area, under a bramble and right up against the fence to one of the neighbouring properties. We managed to locate it and had a quick look while she was off on one of her excursions and saw thirteen eggs (again, just like her mother).

The weeks went by. Nothing. Now hens’ eggs should hatch in around 24 days, so something was wrong. In fact, not a single egg hatched but it was months before Clippy gave up. It took her a long time to rebuild her condition.

Chicken Coop - Green Frog
Chicken Coop – Green Frog

Pepper, on the other hand, decided to go broody in the Green Frog henhouse. We have three henhouses, Green Frog, Solway and Omlet so our hens have plenty of choice. Normal night time spot is Green Frog (or the bushes behind it). The favourite laying spot is one of the two nest boxes in Green Frog. That said, sometimes they switch and lately the eggs have been laid in Solway (4 available boxes). Omlet (just the one nest box) has been out of favour for a while.

So, back to Pepper. Last year she decided to go broody and make her nest in Green Frog. On the plus side, we could easily monitor her. On the down side, constant interruption. Hens do like a bit of peace and quiet when they’re sitting on eggs. However, the other hens took umbrage at being locked out of their favourite nest box and made quite a racket at laying time. Well, more than usual. In fact, they managed to dislodge Pepper more than once as we found her in the left box one, day the right box the next day, then back to the left one, and so on.

Chicken Coop - Solway
Chicken Coop – Solway

We moved her and her eggs to Solway thinking that would give her some security. But as soon as Solway opened the following dawn, she was back into Green Frog. We moved her eggs back but the nest box hopping continued. As with Clippy, none hatched. The whole experience took such a toll on Pepper that she lost a lot of weight and feathers. She was in a very poor state and we started giving her extra feed to help her recover. Predators are all always on the lookout for weak or distressed animals and a local stoat took his opportunity and snatched her. Luckily, it was witnessed by Nicole who was out in flash, in her slippers, and rescued Pepper. She made a full recovery, Pepper that is.

Cherokee the cockerel
Cherokee the cockerel

So, the question arose; why so many eggs and no hatchlings? Our attention turned to Cherokee. Now, Cherokee has blossomed since he moved in with us a few years back. He came from a house nearby where he’d survived a dog attack in which all his hens had died. He had subsequently been left to his own devices. We offered to take him and, over time, he’s gone from shy and tetchy to become Mr Cool as Mince. The problem is, he’s so cool he can’t really be bothered to catch the hens. He gets a sudden urge and lopes across the grass to the nearest hen, full of intent. She hears him coming, takes one look and makes herself scarce. Cherokee arrives where said hen was moments before, stops and looks around in a puzzled demeanour. Sometimes he catches them, but more often than not he gives up and goes off to find something to eat. His predecessor was far more persistent. Or, perhaps, Cherokee is just firing blanks.

We scratched our heads and came up with a possible solution.

Saturday past, Mrs Mills Junior (MMJ) went broody and settled down in Green Frog. We gave her a couple of days to make sure it wasn’t a false alarm and then moved her to Omlet. We had set Omlet up with its own private run which is predator proof. MMJ, surprisingly, had not laid any eggs, so we got the latest one, laid earlier in Solway, and put it in her new nest. Of course, MMJ was not too impressed and scurried around her new run squawking irritably, perhaps trying to find her way back to Green Frog. We gave her time to settle and next day, she was sitting on her single egg. Broodiness had trumped indignance.

Chicken Run - Omlet
Chicken Run – Omlet

Knowing this one egg may not be fertile, not wanting her to sit there all summer and wanting some new chicks, we sourced some fertile eggs from Backyard Chickens near Dalbeattie. Today, we zipped down there and collected them. We drove back with Nicole clutching the carefully packed eggs to protect them from the myriad of potholes that are a feature of roads in Dumfries and Galloway.

Chicken Run - Omlet
Omlet kitted out for restful brooding

Getting back, we carefully opened Omlet and reached in to pick up MMJ so we could put the eggs in place. MMJ was having none of it and shot off into her run squawking as if a giant fox was right behind her. Quietly, we placed the eight eggs in her nest and retreated. Minutes later, she was back on her nest making contented noises.

Hopefully in 24 day’s time, we’ll be reporting on squeaks and baby chickens.

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Hens prefer wild camping

hens sleeping out

Our hens have all the creature comforts we can provide. There are three state of the art plastic hen houses with automatic door openers that open and close at dawn and dusk. Inside, there are purpose built roosting bars or individual boxes packed with fresh sawdust. Each hen can choose its own sleeping arrangements to its personal taste. These are kept clean and mite free and provide protection from wind, rain, snow and all the varieties of weather that South West Scotland can throw at them.

However, this is not good enough for Clippy, Mrs Mills Junior (MMJ) and Salt. They have decided it’s far more comfortable, or exciting, or both, to sleep rough. Clippy started it all. She has always been borderline feral, much prefers the great outdoors. She’s also the current matriarch and has been sleeping out on and off for a while now. MMJ and Salt have recently joined her. Poor old Cherokee (the cockerel) must be wondering where they all go at bed time.

We shall keep an eye on them and expect that, as in previous years, once the cold, wet weather sets in and all the leaf cover has gone, they may decide the warm, dry shelter of a hen coop is the best bet.