Valerie O’Connor is in broody form - she’s looking at taking on an avian family.
The change in the weather changes us as people too, suddenly the relentless rain of winter is forgotten and new hope literally springs forth with the sunshine.
As the pretty heads of flowers push through the soil after a cold, long season, we are reminded that we can also take advantage of the warm times to come and get excited about things to plant at home that we can eat and admire.
Having little space outside myself, literally only big enough to swing my killer cat, keeping chickens is something that was always far from my reality.
I’m a guerrilla gardener anyway and will happily plant some rocket or chillies in a public place just to make a point and I have hijacked parts of people’s gardens (with their permission) to grow veggies in the past.
I now find myself with a chance to co-parent a young family of chickens with my like-minded partner in crime who has tons of space and a fenced off spot in spacious surroundings (yes, good things can happen on Tinder!).
While out with my good pal Maggie last week, she was talking me though her brood history — her hens are now laying again and it’s normal for chickens to stop laying altogether in winter which makes the eggs all the more eggciting when they do appear again.
The harem has only one cockerel, a fine fella he is too with great stature and a plump red comb that says ‘Don’t mess with me or my ladies’. But another young cock is now in the brood and has taken up with one of the girls.
The older man, let’s call him Elvis, has no time for some young buck on his turf, so is going out of his way to show him who’s boss by pecking him and kicking him with his muscular cockerel legs.
It’s hard to watch young chickens being bullied especially when it’s only love trying to do it’s thing, so I pitched the idea to the gardener, he who owns the land, if he might consider this young family in need of housing as a start for our proposed chicken project. He said yes.
Keeping chickens is not as tricky as you might think and they are quite low maintenance, saying that, only get them if you know you will look after them. If you get them now you will have saved yourself money over winter by not feeding them and they come to you just ready to lay again.
If you are thinking about getting a few hens here are some things you need; a bit of space is first though you can keep chickens in a backyard, they are happier with some grass to peck from the ground.
You don’t need to get a cock bird unless you want to increase your brood by having some of the eggs fertilised, hens will live and lay perfectly happily without a husband, as in life.
Not everybody wants a cockadoodledoo waking them up in the early hours either, and the neighbours certainly won’t appreciate the farmyard noise pollution.
You can get hens from cattle marts in your area and the things to look for are pretty much the same as in humans; nice glossy feathers and a plump looking cone, that’s the red bit on the top of their heads.
If you want to up your game in the animal welfare department then you can source old layers from commercial egg producers who get rid of chickens after one year.
Chickens are sensitive creatures and don’t respond well to stress so try and make sure you have a spot for them that’s safe from predators. The fox is a legendary chicken-thief but at least he eats the bird for dinner unlike the mink, who just does a bit of mass murder and then fecks off.
An enclosed area surrounded by the aptly-named chicken wire with a hen house is all you need. You don’t need to go mad buying a fancy hen house either, but if your budget allows then go right ahead.
A big dog kennel will do the job as long as you put in a stick for a perch and some straw for a floor and laying space.
For food, hens need grain to eat, ideally non-GM feed which can be bought from a co-op shop or pet shop, and a fresh supply of drinking water, after that you can give them veggie scraps from the kitchen.
Don’t feed them meat, especially not chicken, cannibalism is not to be encouraged. Hens also like oats so give them your leftover porridge from breakfast.
Their feed can be substituted with a powdered seashell meal that you can get to boost their minerals and this will also ensure the eggshells are good and strong.
You only need three or four hens to give you plenty of eggs, most hens will lay an egg a day in laying season which goes on from now until the cold hits again. They will lay for five or six years when well cared for.
Like any pets, hens do need care so you can’t go away and leave them for too long, or else you’ll have to get a neighbour to come in and make sure they are left in and out and have plenty of food and water. To keep lice at bay, they like to roll in some dust so a box of sand or turf dust will be perfect for this.
Don’t feed them outside in winter as avian flu can be passed from wild birds to your hens and this is not something you want.
Despite having a far-away and somewhat vacant stare, hens make lovely pets and have their own personalities, making them great for kids and something for them to nurture.
There is nothing like the taste and texture of a real, home-reared hen’s egg and you will have a new appreciation for the effort that goes into making one of nature’s most important fast foods. Happy hens lay good eggs.
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