Almost another year …

My last post was written just after my mother came to live with us, and there’s been little time for blogging since. However, Mum had a stroke and passed away very peacefully a while back now, and while I can’t promise to write here regularly, I do want to update you with the goings on in the Hen Garden.

Connie became egg bound earlier this year, and eventually we had her put to sleep. We still have two of the elderly bantams, who lay eggs occasionally and go broody at every opportunity. We get one or two hen eggs a day, and the occasional softie, though we’ve been too distracted to observe who is in lay and who is in retirement.

Our plan was to leave things as they were this year, and invest in a new coop and some new bantams next year, but of course we changed our minds. We’re not replacing the Cube, but the old Eglu Go had split so we have no spare to use for introductions or as a broody coop or hospital. Once we decided to bring in some new girls, we cobbled together a nest box and mini-coop with the run from the defunct Eglu Go, and fenced them off from the other hens within the electric fence. Not ideal, but sufficient. And a new coop will now be our Christmas present to each other.

I like bantams for their eggs, while DH prefers hens, particularly Light Sussex. So we settled on a compromise and found some Light Sussex Bantams … to our surprise, they are rather bigger than true bantams*, more like 3/4 sized hens really.

And because they are pretty, we also have two Mille Fleur Bantams, who, like our elderly bantams probably won’t lay that often, but they are so attractive to have around the garden.

So meet Esther and Elsie – the LS Bantams, and Evangeline and Emily, our Mille Fleur Bantams 🙂

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I think I can tell which MF is which, as one has slightly darker feathers with more white spots around her neck, but I’m not yet certain of which LS is Elsie and which is Esther! Though of course, because of their size, the LS girls will be top of the internal pecking order. It will be interesting to see how that changes when we introduce them to the older girls.

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*By definition, true bantams do not have a larg fowl counterpart, see https://poultrykeeper.com/chicken-breeds/

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After all this time …

We moved the Moppet House today … to fresh grass. In the process, I noticed something I’d not really seen before. We’ve always said that we can’t tell the different bantams apart, except that we’ve been aware that some are darker than others … today while we moved their house, we had them penned in a small space for a while and I realised that actually, we have two very different feather patterns … seen from above, it’s quite obvious:

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One variety has very delicately laced feathers, while the other has a single vein down the centre of each feather.

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Seeing their photos like this makes it appear very obvious … but it isn’t! They are such flighty creatures. We have three of the laced, and two of the dark.

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I’ve not been able to identify the specific breeds as yet, but I’ll keep working on it!

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They’ve been with us since March 2013 and I’ve finally discovered a difference between them!

ETA (edited to add, not estimated time of arrival!) … the darker feathering is known as Gold Partridge … but I still can’t identify the paler feathering.

Feathers

There are an infinite variety of feathers … and even within breeds, each hen has a unique pattern, though we’d be hard pressed to spot some of their differences!

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Gold-laced Wyandotte … buff coloured feathers with a black edge. (The Silver-laced Wyandotte has white feathers with a black edge and looks very striking indeed … perhaps another time?)

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The CouCou (Cuckoo) Maran has barred feathers … rather like the Cuckoo after which it’s named, or the breast feathers of a Sparrowhawk.

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The Blue Maran has these delicately laced grey feathers with a darker edge, and see how the buff/brown develops in the ruff feathers.

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The Sussex has dark feathers on ruff, tail and wing tips … Carey’s are quite striking, while Clare’s are less marked …

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There is also a Speckled Sussex which has a different colouring altogether … and which I should love to see in the garden one day.

But even the run-of-the-mill brown ex-batt has a vast range of feathering …

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I noticed Betsy has these beautiful white-laced gold-edged feathers in her ruff, and that her new feathers (still not fully grown) are mottled dark and light …

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I do hope that once her feathers are fully through she will perk up, as she’s clearly still not feeling 100%. Any hen, even ex-batts, can change colour after a moult … the same but with these subtle differences.

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I have always struggled to tell our bantams apart … we had one (that we recently lost) with a golden ruff that was easily identifiable. But of our remaining bantams, there are three with quite pale ruff feathers, and two with darker and I have no idea which is which!

I’m not sure I could tell the Vicarage girls apart without the leg rings …

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… though on careful study their combs are all slightly different.

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But there are other ways to tell who is who … if you spend time with hens, you soon realise that they each have their own individual characters. So hopefully the rain will hold off a little longer and I can sit a while with the girls and a pocket full of corn 🙂

Bertha's distinctive feathering

Now which hen is this?!

 

 

Combs

You can tell a lot from a hen’s comb.

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Camilla and Clare have pale, tiny, firm combs. These are immature birds, not yet in lay.

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Charlie’s is perhaps a little larger and darker. It’s hard to be sure how much it will yet grow.

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Carey is the only one of the Famous Five (yes, that’s what DH has christened them!) who looks as if she might be in lay or will soon start. Her comb is larger and brighter than the others. Perhaps she’s a week or two older?

Even when mature, a hen’s comb will change in size and shape as she goes in and out of lay according to season or health. We knew one of our bantams had heart disease because whenever she became excited/stressed, her comb would turn a dark, dusky pink.

Connie’s comb is different …

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Wyandottes generally have a flat, round comb. As she grows, it should become more rose-like. All the Famous Five are classed as ‘heavy, soft-feathered’ birds, but there any likeness ends!

Arrivals

Look who we have in the garden …

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We had opportunity to drive by a poultry farm, so of course, we couldn’t resist calling ahead to see what they had!

We are already getting to know the different characters. I had though Carey might be top hen, as she was so feisty when she was manhandled into the basket, but she and Connie seem to be the timid ones, keeping out of the way when I’m in the run. Charlie, on the other hand, is always near by, not quite under my feet yet, but interested and curious. Camilla is haughty … she has a very upright stance and can make a real fuss, especially when she sees a cat in the garden. And as we have four cats, she can be very strident at times! Clare (who seems to be moulting) was the first to find her way to roost in the Cube as night fell – I had put a torch in the Cube, to draw them in as it fell dark and Clare was very quick to see it. Connie soon followed, then Camilla. But both Carey and Charlie needed some assistance.

The Vicarage girls have been quite anxious to return to the Run, but they were so distracted by the new woodchip, that they paid scant attention to the new arrivals. I’m sure that won’t last long.

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They’re here!

I’m sorry if this post has a few too many photos, but I want you to meet our new arrivals …

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Yes, that’s an ex-batt in the foreground (hogging the food bowl) but just look at who is lurking there in the background …

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Aren’t they adorable?!

But what are they? I’ve done some research online and I have three options … either they are Pekin Bantams, Cochin Bantams or perhaps those breeds are actually one and the same … but the debate is fierce, it was really quite shocking   :o And really, I don’t care … they are beautiful, and have such exquisite feathers. However, we always said we’d not have hens with feathered legs … because our run is not covered and they would get wet. And the rain hasn’t stopped …

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(Look at those long toe feathers!)

The poor dears. My research suggests that actually they are Pekins – a true bantam (ie not a diminutive hen) – and Pekins are gentle creatures. These were happy to be handled on arrival, but ever since have huddled together out of reach whenever I approach. And they are the butt of much bullying from the three ex-batts that arrived with them.

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These girls aren’t well feathered – the one in the first picture has no tail to speak of and they all have bare, sore behinds  :( But thy have been in a domestic situation for two years already … I can only assume that, since they are the top of the pecking order, their diet has been lacking in protein? Their previous owner fed only corn …

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Yet the bantams’ feathers are in amazing condition. It doesn’t really make sense.

We’ve had eggs a plenty from the ex-batts already … in less than 24 hours we’ve had three eggs and a broken egg. While the seven bantams have laid only one egg between them. The more I think about it, the more concerned I am at their diet. So far, I’ve given them a mixture of corn and pellets, and of course they’ve picked out the corn, but at least they know where the feeders are! So no more corn for a while.

I was relieved to see that once I left them alone, the bantams did venture out a little …

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(The view from our dining room window)

I know what to expect from the ex-batts … their behaviour is normal chicken behaviour, digging, feeding, laying – though the aggression is rather harsh and surprising since these birds have been together a while already  :huh:  I’m not yet sure what to expect from the bantams. I’ve read that they need grass … so once they’ve had a few days to settle, I’ll fence off the grass in the Hen Garden for them (I have to reseed the bare area, since the first sowing didn’t germinate). And I’ll need to find a way to stop the ex-batts taking all the treats/supplements when I start giving them.  But for now it’s just pellets … and I’m anxious to know that the bantams are feeding.

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Others have noticed that the Hen Run is occupied once again. Oscar understood how to behave around our previous hens … I’m not at all sure how he will behave when he comes into contact with the miniature version!

As for names … I had some in mind, but now that I’ve met the girls, I’m not sure they’re suitable. I’ll work on it for a few days before deciding …

The time of year

Large scale commercial breeders can provide eggs, chicks and birds all year round, but that’s not the natural rhythm of life for chickens. At this time of year, hens are just coming back into lay again after the winter break, sometimes starting as early as mid-January. So while eggs and chicks may be available, we are interested in slightly older birds (around 16-18 weeks) so will have to wait a while yet.

We’ve been in touch with the daughter of a friend (it’s not what you know … ) and she has some Light Sussex chicks of about three weeks old … so we’ll wait until they are ready, until after our Easter break. We’re hoping she’ll have some Legbar too … we need to go and see her and her set-up sometime soon to reserve some birds. It will seem like a long wait – but at least we don’t have to rush to get the garden ready, and the ground may yet have a frost or two to help kill off any parasites and other bugs.

I already have some ideas for names …

Guide to breeds

Counting the cost

Unlike the first time around, when I had loads of new discoveries and sources of information to add to my blog (see The Hen House archives if that’s where you’re at – it’s all there), this time we have everything we need already. It’s just in the wrong place and covered with mud.

And still it rains.

But needs must. If we’re going to be ready for new hens in early March (we think we have a contact … but I left it to DH, remember?), we need to clear the ground, wash down the coops, reposition the netting … but I’m still counting the cost. Our netting/fencing is old and well used, so we could replace that. And the woodchip is soiled, apart from being buried in the mud, so we need more woodchip. We cleared out the layers pellets we had … they don’t keep for long so I’ll buy fresh when we’ve booked some hens.

And then there are the hens themselves. If it’s simply eggs you want, a brown hen (usually Warrens or related breeds) can cost as little as £5 at point-of-lay (ie at the beginning of their egg laying career). They are the hens used by large commercial enterprises – only they are culled at a young age once their egg production begins to fall. Organisations like BHWT rescue as many hens as they can from that process and find them homes where they often live out a productive, happy life. We started out with rescue hens … it was a joy to see them adapt to their new life, to watch as they gained confidence and feathers and weight. Bridget, one of our first batch of rescue hens, lived to over four years old. It was worth the extra effort and the soft shelled eggs (and the occasional disaster) just to watch the recovery process and to see them enjoying our garden.

But somehow, our hearts aren’t in it this time – when we lost our girls our recently adopted hens were just at that stage, just coming into lay for a new season, with all their feathers for the first time …

So this time, we’re looking at pure bred varieties. We’ve had both pure bred and hybrid birds … the advantage of a hybrid is that they lay more eggs year round, while pure bred birds take a break in the winter. Hybrids tend not to live as long as a pure bred, simply because they have to work harder at this egg laying business, so they wear out sooner.

We’ve always resisted getting birds just for their looks – no feathered legs or fancy combs for us! We’ve had both Light Sussex and Welsummers, and would be happy again with either or similar. Though we might take a careful look at egg production before deciding, since we’ll not have as many birds this time – we treat our girls as pets, but having eggs is a big part of the pleasure of keeping hens, so we’ll be careful to choose a breed that lays a goodly number through the year.

Pure breds cost rather more … perhaps £20-£25 at POL (point-of-lay) … we can’t decide whether to get four birds, and add in a couple more later on, or start with six – though we have decided that in the circumstances, six is our maximum.

The legal definition in the UK of free range states that birds kept for the purposes of egg laying must be housed at a density of  ‘no more than nine hens per square metre’ …but makes no mention of how much outside space they should be allowed.

To us, free range must include going where you want … but of course, that isn’t good news for the garden or the vegetable patches! So, six birds in a 4x4m space will have to do. We’ll make sure there’s plenty of shade and shelter, and things to keep them occupied … it’s been so good to see our girls exploring through the bushes and shrubs, finding all sorts of goodies under the trees etc. We can’t quite achieve that in a fruit cage, but we’ll do our best. These guidelines from the RSPCA are a good starting point.

So fencing, woodchip, feed, buying eggs in winter and the hens themselves. It’s all adding up. But still, everyone needs a hobby, right?

  • The Hen House Archive

    Our original hen keeping adventure came to an end in January 2013, when a fox took our entire brood of hens. But don’t let that put you off … you can find the story at The Hen House Archive where there are still lots of stories, photos, and information about keeping hens I hope you'll find useful.
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    July 2018 … Four new girls arrive, two LS bantams and two Mille Fleur Pekins.

    June 2018 … We had an extended heatwave, with daily temperatures in the 30s.

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