Wednesday, 24 September 2014

On rehoming ex-battery hens

The Ex-Batts and BHWT volunteers

Back in June I drove to Oswestry for a hen rehoming organised by the British Hen Welfare Trust.  

On arrival at the farm I was greeted by several volunteers, all of whom I immediately labelled as slightly mad since they all appeared to be cuddling chickens.  This stereotypical view of the dedicated chicken rescuer was soon replaced with the realisation that this was in fact a very slick operation. Each of the would be rehomers, myself included, had been given allocated time slots to come and collect the several thousand hens and these ladies were simply ready and poised to help the new owners load up their hens, answer any questions and of course pose for pictures.  When I said that this was going on the blog the coin flipped and they thought I was mad - touché!

Following my arrival the process seemed to move very quickly.  They asked me how many I wanted, they loaded up my crates, I gave a healthy donation and away I went with 10 scraggly beasties in the back of my car.  I was over the moon to have a new flock and I couldn’t have been more impressed by the volunteers and just how slick and well organised the operation was.
Yolko's progress

Once back home I could assess the new birds and they were a very sorry sight indeed.  Pale, patchy with some birds almost bare and clearly stressed – I popped them in to one of the outbuildings for a couple of weeks so that they could be quarantined, wormed and left to settle in.  Despite their bedraggled outward appearance the birds were in fact very healthy, heavy and alert.  One hen in particular was also rather vicious.  A very upright and cross beaked bird; she was determined to get me.  Each time I entered the shed she would attack.  Flying at me, pecking at every given opportunity and acting like a hormonal cockerel on steroids.  I guess this was her way of coping with the change and she immediately earned the name Cluck Norris.
Egg production started immediately - all over the floor of the temporary shed.  This made each visit to the shed quite enjoyable, a mini treasure hunt almost since they had no qualms about laying in the most unlikely of places.  They soon started to come around to their new way of life though and with the introduction of a make shift egg box -  a plastic compost bin with a wooden planter inside, they gradually started laying in one place making egg collection much easier.  After a couple of weeks I started to let them free range and they met my existing small flock with very little fuss.

I immediately noticed that these birds are incredibly inquisitive and one bird in particular (Yolko, pictured above) is almost loving.  Everyday she runs to greet me, she’ll walk around the garden with me constantly chattering away and she’ll even perch on my knee enjoying a little fuss and a cuddle.  This hen was in the worst condition out of the lot on arrival with few feathers at all. After three months she has now completely feathered up and is as bright as a button.
The latest arrivals and a few of the flock
Since my initial foray in to rescue chickens, I have since rescused another six hens (this time white birds who lay dark brown and blue eggs, pictured above) and this time I got to go direct to the farm and in to the barn where they were kept.  To say that this was an experience would be an understatement.  16,000 birds in a very confined space was an assault on the senses but I have to say that these birds were in fantastic condition when compared to my initial batch and kept very well in a cage free environment.  This farm rehomes every 70 weeks or so (the average optimum production life of the commercial hen) and I’ll definitely be going back to save more from the meat man in future.

If you are thinking of rehoming hens I'd urge you to do so as it's a thoroughly worthwhile experience.  More information can be found on the British Hen Welfare Trust homepage and once registered you will be telephoned by one of their volunteers who will help you with any questions you may have.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

A gradual progress

Greenhouse offerings

It’s been just over 3 months since I moved here and I don’t think I’ve stopped. Posting here has fallen by the wayside and it seems like just as I go to write, something else crops up, often when you least expect it.  A runaway sheep or a broken piece of machinery are the usual suspects; neither of which I have any experience of or am I well placed to deal with but I’m learning – slowly. 

Since I wrote last, I’ve collected my first few harvests of potatoes, salad, tomatoes, peppers, chillies and beans and I’m hoping this will continue for some time to come yet.   I didn’t think I’d have time to get anything growing this year but it’s gone quite well. The vegetable garden is still very small with the larger garden being created this autumn/winter.   I’ve decided to follow the no-dig method, firstly for establishing my beds, the same method I trialed on my allotment a couple of years back with success, and secondly throughout the rest of the growing period.  This should cut out the time and effort required to remove a lawn whilst ensuring the natural balance of the soil is kept intact. In other words – it’s easier, it's better for the soil and those within, and it has the same desired overall effect (if not better) as digging – makes sense to me! There’ll be plenty more on this in the months to come but I’d love to hear from anyone who has done this and what they found most beneficial.

The hedgerows that form the boundary around our fields have provided a feast of blackberries and plums, which I’ve made good use of.  We’ve had a few crumbles and cakes and although I’d like to get around to making jam I think this will have to wait until next year.  In the meantime I’ll just continue grazing on the berries as I tend to the animals.  I’ll be planting more edible hedges shortly too with the seedlings from around the fields and some other trees I’ll source and I’ll also try to improve on what we already have by laying some of the hedges and in filling in the gaps the sheep have exposed with young plants.

Brahma chick meets the laying flock
On the livestock front, the “flock” has expanded greatly and we now have a mini-farm situation going on - two horses, six sheep and quite a lot of chickens.  The latter are a mix of my old girls, two rescues worth of ex-battery hens, two pure-bred breeding trios (Cream Legbars and French Wheaten Marans) and a load of chicks hatched around 11 weeks ago (Speckled Sussex and Brahma).  They are great fun and extremely productive, which is great as this smallholder has many uses for their eggs, although the vast majority end up as cake.  

In addition to this I'm hoping to add a few more species to the farm. As I write, there are Turkey eggs in the incubator and when candled yesterday 5 were viable so fingers crossed for a good hatch.  These are not for Christmas I hasten to add – not this one anyway. No, Turkeys take 28 days to hatch, meaning we have another 21 days to go until we hear the tint pitter patter of scaly feet and not enough time to fatten a Turkey up in time for the big day.  They come from a heritage (wild) type bird largely used for egg production so we’ll just have to wait and see what hatches out.
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