Well, we’ve had chickens for a week now – and what a week it’s been…
Seven days ago, we set off with two cardboard boxes and two very excited children, to pick up our first chickens. We came back very happy with a Light Sussex, a white part-Leghorn, a grey Bluebell and a brown Rhode Rock. For their new home, we tidied up the end of an outbuilding that already happened to have strong fox-proof wire over the windows. As it’s a good, safe space with plenty of air, we didn’t bother with a coop as such – we built perches in there instead, and filled it with straw – somewhere safe for the chickens to go at night after free ranging during the day. After a bit of a flap getting the new arrivals out of the boxes, they seemed surprisingly unruffled. They must have felt reasonably at home, because surprise surprise, that afternoon we found two perfect eggs waiting for us in the straw.
The eggs tasted wonderful – fresh, free-range eggs, with zero food miles. In a way it’s a bit daft us having chickens, as eggs are the one thing you can buy in our village (there’s a huge free-range chicken farm here). But we also want other yields – great compost, bug-hunting in the veg garden – and that good feeling of sharing our space with other living creatures that we have a symbiotic relationship with.
And for the first few days, it was great. But it’s been a very a steep learning curve, chicken-wise. Sadly, after apparently settling in well, we found the smallest hen badly wounded by the two dominant hens; she died shortly afterwards. A certain amount of tussle is to be expected as new hens sort out their ‘pecking order.’ But there is a risk that, if the pecking draws blood, the bright colour can apparently cause the other chickens to attack in a bit of a ‘feeding frenzy’ – in the same way that they will rush to the same spot to peck at a bug or bits of corn. Most of our experienced chicken-keeping friends told us they’d come across incidents like this – though we were really unlucky for this to happen in the first week. It’s amazing how attached you can get to another creature in just a few days – and it’s been hard to look at the ‘culprits’ in the same way. But it’s also a good reminder that, despite the appealing feathers and fluff, chickens are a ‘law of the jungle’ sort of animal.
Our kind breeder gave us much sympathy, advice, and a new hen – another grey Bluebell. So now we have two tribes – the gentle grey giants and the feisty white hens. They range together well enough in the day, but we haven’t been brave enough to put them back in together at night. One tip we’ve been given is to put all the hens in together when they are asleep – after gently smoothing diluted vinegar onto all of them. Apparently, if they all wake up smelling the same, they are more likely to accept each other as part of the same flock. Right. I’m off to smear vinegar on a chicken (not a sentence I’d ever expected to write). Wish me luck.