We’ve got too many chickens !

This young cock has just lost a fightThis boy got beaten up by a band of roaming youngsters that I call the red bunch and as he was walking away with his head down I started taking photographs of him and he suddenly perked up and strode along proudly as though to show me that he was non the worse for his humiliation.

The culprits were a large group of young red cockerels who are now at sexual maturity and are a pain in the whotsit – not just because they’re fighting with all the other young cocks but also they’ve started to gang up on the girls and the poor things have to walk the gauntlet before being allowed into the chicken shed to roost for the night.

That's the spirit !Anyone who has kept chickens will know what I mean – I almost feel like throwing something at them when they start their antics and the girls are becoming nervous and scatty and if this goes on any longer they’ll go off the lay, their backs will lose their feathers and some of them may be tempted to sleep outside and risk an encounter with Mr Fox.

Young cockerels almost ready for the potIt’s been a real joy all summer to see this year’s chicks grow up. A high proportion of them are bright orange with a few blacks and a couple of pure whites. All of them are in great condition, bright eyed and constantly on the move.

The garden has been brought alive by the flashing past of dozens of orange chicks running when they hear the feeder being filled up. But I counted the chickens this morning and there are fifty and an awful lot of them are young males. I’ll try to find homes for the best cockerels – normally my neighbours are interested if they need to change their stock – but sadly, it’s not worth feeding them all winter and the time has come to cull them and get them into the freezer.


Hens, hatching eggs, chicks and dustbaths

Our hens lay their eggs (mostly!) in empty gunpowder containers in the chicken house. Once a hen goes broody, she’ll stay put on the eggs and when you approach her she has a very aggressive stare and pecks you when you put your hand near her. You can be almost sure then that she wants to be left in peace to hatch her eggs. I say “her” eggs but the chicken doesn’t really mind whose eggs she sits on !

We often swop the eggs our hens have chosen to sit on, replacing them with our “best” eggs or with eggs from friends. Our huge red cockerel – the biggest I’ve ever seen – was a gift of an egg from a friend who said we’d be delighted with him and we are !

When the hen is settled on her eggs, we lift the barrel and its contents gently to our “inner sanctum” – a big cage inside our chicken shed where the hens can sit undisturbed by other hens who want to lay their eggs in the same barrel. By moving the hens we ensure that there’s no fighting, no eggs get broken and the eggs all hatch at the same time. That gives each chick the best possible chance of survival.

Once the chicks are hatched we keep them inside the cage for about a week to make sure they’re well fed and they learn to respond the their mother’s calls to feed and hide under her wings when told to do so. We sometimes have to move them out once the next batch of chicks are hatched to prevent fighting either into a covered chicken tractor or into the big wide world – a very dangerous place for a little chick.

As well as the dangers from stoats, snakes and the obstacles on the terrain itself, birds of prey take chicks and it’s heartbreaking to walk down to the chicken shed and find several writhing on the ground having been dropped by the birds. Keeping them inside or outside under a cage helps reduce the inevitable losses.

Chickens love to take dust baths, they are essential to the well being of your chickens to help rid then of external parasites and dead skin. If, like ours, you hens free range leave them a few corners of the garden but protect your plants and seedlings otherwise they’ll break your heart !

Dust baths are especially appreciated after a hen has spent three weeks sitting on eggs and the first thing she’ll do with her new chicks is to look for somewhere to take a dust bath. If you don’t have room in your garden, a paddling pool filled with dry, riddled soil will do the job. The substance used must be fine enough to clog the breathing pores of the chicken’s parasites.

I’ve tried using Diatomaceous earth but noticed that my chickens’ eyes were being irritated by the powder, so I’ve stopped using it and I don’t use sand for the same reason.

You’ll have to replace the soil regularly because the chickens wriggle their way in to the the dust and cover themselves with as much as possible then shake out an impressive amount of dust all over the place.

Protecting the vegetable plot from free range chickens

The weather’s getting better and we’ve had quite a few sunny, warm days. It may be because we’ve had more chickens than usual this winter or because there’s been very little growth of grass and weeds around the house
but the chickens have really pecked down every single thing that they can find to eat and the vegetable garden looks like the aftermath of an atomic attack !

If I don’t do something to protect the perennial vegetables and self seeded Parsley and Coriander coming through they’ll be destroyed, so covering everything has been the priority for the past few days. I can normally just lay a few sticks across the seedlings but the chickens aren’t finding much to eat elsewhere so they’re particularly determined and a light hand just won’t work.

To protect larger plants like Rhubarb and Artichokes I normally use old fruit boxes or make bamboo criss-cross frames but last year we cut down a lot of trees suffering from Horse Chestnut Canker and so this year we’ve loads of Chestnut whips growing from the stools. I decided to use them to make lots of plant supports and for weaving around raised beds and they’re perfect for making cages for protecting the new growth and certainly more aesthetically pleasing than old wooden boxes.

Our friend and lodger, Laetitia has started her new job just a few kilometres from here at Montagnac la Crempse just next to Villamblard. She’s hoping to start learning how to make chestnut furniture and garden supports with the association “Les Enfants du Pays de Beleyme” so she got a bit of practice at the weekend and gave me a hand into the bargain.

Update two weeks later….


Chickens feasting on the Amaranthus Gangeticus (Elephant Head Amaranthus)

This summer has been another extremely dry one – with a lot of very hot days up until a few days ago when the temperature outside was 30°C. There’s very little grass anywhere and we’ve been supplementing the sparse grazing for our sheep and goats with hay for the past few weeks. The geese are going further and further away from their normal circuit to find something to eat and we’ve been giving them extra corn to keep them in condition and build up their fat reserves for winter.

With the lack of fresh vegetation around, I suppose it’s inevitable that the chickens have started pecking food in the vegetable plot which they normally leave alone. A week ago they started eating the remaining courgettes and then pecked away the leaves until each plant has almost disappeared.

I don’t mind them eating the courgettes, everyone is fed up with them anyway and they’re hard and tasteless at this time of the year especially since it’s been so dry.

The chickens normally start to peck the veg towards the end of October when there’s very little for them to eat after a hot summer but this year they’ve started early, snipping off the lower leaves of the sweet peppers and Aubergines when they’re still plenty of fruit left on them. I’ve noticed them pecking the new growth of Globe artichokes, they’ve even started to peck out the Foxgloves and they’ve almost totally destroyed the leeks I planted a few weeks weeks ago !

Thankfully, I had a lot of Amaranthus self seed last year and this variety “Elephant head” have been really rich and beautiful this year growing alongside Cleome Spinosa which also self seeds freely. The chickens love the Amaranthus, so I’ve started pulling up a plant or two to let them eat the leaves and seed heads. They peck away furiously at each one for about two days until there’s nothing left but the stalks.

I’ll keep giving them a few plants each week to give them something to squabble over and keep them of mischief until the rain (hopefully) encourages the grass and weeds to appear – and I mustn’t forget to save a few seeds for myself for planting next year.

This chicken had 17 chicks…

….Pyke our new Border Collie ate four of them.

When we got new ducklings, Bonnie one of our Dachshunds killed four of them while we were looking on. Fabrice immediately picked her up by the scruff of the neck and shook her whilst holding a dead duck in his other hand and she never did it again.

Pyke and I have spent a while looking at the hen with her chicks through a wire cage. I thought it was safe to let the hen and her chicks out in the garden in the early evening to let them have a grub about not too far away from the chicken house before it was time for bed. While I was tidying up the garden Pyke disappeared.

I went to look for him and caught him with a chick in his mouth. I screamed at him, grabbed a stick and hit the metal sides of the chicken shed and he ran off and dropped the chick into a bucket. Fabrice came because he heard all the noise and held Pyke while I showed him the dead chick and smacked the hard plastic bucket with a stick and making as much noise as I could, screamed “No” in his face then put his face into the bucket so that he could see the chick again.

Then we ignored him for about 15 minutes and went down to see how the hen and chicks were. When we came back up he was very shamefaced but we had a cuddle and it was forgotten.

We’ve had 13 chicks for three days now, I’m sure he’s understood that the chicks are not to be touched.

When Pyke came at first he was very strange. It took him two weeks before he looked me in the eye. When I tried to talk to him he’d ignore me and even when I held him, he wriggled away turning his head from side to side. He pulled constantly on the lead and didn’t come when he’s called. He doesn’t seem to know any commands apart from sit and give a paw. He bullied our little Dachshund Didi and jumps up on anything he can – including people. We sorted him out about Didi by telling her that she could fight back and she did!

We knee him in the stomach when he jumps, make him sit to have his dinner. We’re having to be very strict with him and the poor dog doesn’t know what’s hit him. He becomes extremely nervous when we speak to him seriously and he’s been hit by sticks in the past because he’s very wary when you pick one up.

Now, after a month here he’s settling down and “smiling” more. He has more stamina because he’s getting a lot of exercise and he’s starting to look at us and want to be with us. he really enjoys going out and doing the rounds and he’s learned a lot of simple things like waiting until a gate is open properly and we’ve got through before jumping over to push it open. He’s not at all motivated by food but by praise and he knows when he’s a good dog and understands “No”.

About a week ago I had the perfect opportunity to watch Pyke and see how he reacted to Didi protecting her mole from a Cheeky cockerel. You can draw your own conclusions about his behaviour.

I was curious to see what happened after Pyke had settled down on the terrace, so I kept filming…

Spring daffs with Wisteria ready to bloom and early morning chickens

The rhubarb is now uncovered and is doing well and the Globe Artichokes are transplanted.

I liked this view from the top of the potager as I walked back up to the house for a cup of tea early this morning.

Hen with seventeen chicks – this is a record number of chicks for us!

Hen with seventeen newly hatched chicks
Hen with 17 chicks, première mise en ligne par hardworkinghippy.

We heard cheeping from the hay bales yesterday and found this hen with 17 chicks!
We moved her and her brood to the hen house where they’ll be safe from magpies for a while.

We’ve another hen who has started sitting in the past few days, a large black Marans hen. She’s chosen a shotgun powder barrel which is what we offer our hens for egg laying. We get the barrels from a neighbour who works in an armoury and they’re an ideal size and shape for some straw, the eggs and the hen. We cut the plastic lids to make a lip to hold the contents in.

When we know the hen’s sitting, we move the barrel gently into a big cage inside the chicken shed so that she can be left in peace and not disturbed by the other hens, who often creep in beside a sitting hen to lay.

If we don’t control this, the chick inside the egg doesn’t get the necessary 21 days to hatch and dies inside the egg. If the hen is a particularly good mother and waits until all her eggs are hatched before moving from her nest, the older chicks go further and further away from her and are very vulnerable. Once the late chick hatches and leaves the nest, he’s expected to join in with his older siblings, just can’t keep up and often dies.

Yesterday I got a lovely present of a dozen really dark big Marans eggs. I wanted some pure Marans eggs this year because our Marans have been crossed with our last cock George who was a Bramah and of course his offspring don’t lay the dark brown eggs which are so pretty.

In this photo you can see the difference between our red hens’ eggs – that’s the light egg, our cross Bramah/Marans – the spotty egg on the right and the pure Marans egg – a dark chocolate brown. The next time we’ve a hen who starts sitting I’m going to practice our own form of genetic engineering and swop her eggs for the Marans.

Promising new cockerel Feb 2009

Promising new cockerel Feb 2009, première mise en ligne par hardworkinghippy.

He came here as a gift egg and for a bit of genetic engineering, we slipped him under a sitting hen who became his doting mum.

I’ve been thinking for the past two months that he was a really big hen, then about a week ago I saw him in a new light. 🙂

This is his first girlfriend – one of my favourite hens :

The big brown chicken only hatched one chick

I’ll be keeping my eye on this cockerel because he’s huge and such a lovely colour.

I must be going through my orange phase at the moment. 😉

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