We have kept chickens, on and off, for the past 15 years. Our first trio were a gift from an old farmer in a Derbyshire village, and they travelled in the back of a van when we moved north of the Wash for a few years. The cockerel was a source of amusement when they were fed and watered at service stations as he kept crowing - and you don't hear too many cockerels in the middle of motorway stopovers!
Those three lasted a good few years, and when we moved down the road, we liberated half a dozen ex-battery hens from a nearby farm. They had come to the end of their commercially-productive lives, and were being flogged off for £1 each. Poor specimens they were, too, but they soon learned to perch, scratch in the garden and continued to lay eggs for several years.
When we came back to the Fens, we lived in a town and didn't really consider hens again for a few years. The longing to have some friendly chooks in the garden did come back, though, and we started off with some young Light Sussex bantams. We thought we had bought a cockerel and four hens, but it soon became evident that we had more cockerels than hens, so the good people at Two Pots Bantams, near Cambridge, exchanged the excess cockerels. Those bantams really did free-range around the garden, and so enamoured of the sight of them happily mooching in the garden was our neighbour that he went and bought some for himself - result!
We added some Bovans Nera hens to the collection and the egg production really stepped up. For a couple of years, then, we had about 12 of them in an average sized town garden - and the back of the garden opened up onto fields so we were sure to shut them safely up at night to keep them out of the jaws of the local fox.
We thought about moving again, and we passed some of them onto some friends who were interested in keeping hens, and moved to the latest establishment with a reduced flock. We HAD a cockerel, but one of the neighbours here objected to his wake-up calls and I got a friendly threat from the Environmental Health officer that I should do something to "abate" the noise, or she would be round to listen and if the complaint was upheld, I would be in court and made to get rid, so that cockerel is now happily running with a flock of happy hens within sight of Ely Cathedral.
We have been here for four years now, and have now just had to register with DEFRA as we had got to the number at which registration is compulsory (50). These chickens get addictive, and where we started with three, we now have about 43 - we sold some bantams shortly after registering with DEFRA. The situation now is that we have seven large fowl as laying hens - four are Orpington crosses and three are hybrid hens. We then have a pet Dutch bantam who is so friendly she will perch on your knee and fall asleep in the sun. And then the rest of the numbers are made up of the grower flock.
The grower flock are being raised for the pot. They were bought as 5-day old chicks and raised under a lamp in the garage before being moved out onto grass, and then into a larger run. It may seem harsh to some people and one of my sisters has already said that she couldn't eat a chicken she had looked after, but why not? I know that these have had a good life, free to scratch and peck and have the kind of life chickens enjoy, free from any kind of pain and suffering. They are a special breed from France, called "Sasso" by the hatchery, and most of them are white, which apparently makes for an unblemished skin when they are plucked. I'll have to report back on that after the middle of October, when they will be about 16-17 weeks old and ready to be dispatched to the freezer.
Bearing in mind their original cost and the feed costs over their lifetime, we estimate that they will have cost us about £5 each. Yes, that is more expensive that your average "cheap" deals in the supermarkets where it has recently been possible to buy 2 for £6, but we are looking forward to eating a better quality chicken, and hoping to be able to taste the difference. Guilt will not be on the menu as we know that the chickens' welfare has been the best I could possibly achieve.
If this first experimental flock make it into the freezer successfully, we will then have to decide whether to do it all again.
Without a cockerel, hatching more chicks off for the laying flock is more of a challenge - plenty of the hens (and the bantams which we had until recently) go broody but the eggs are not fertile, of course. In the past, I have bought fertile eggs from friends, but this year that didn't work - one family were on holiday when my bants went broody and another friend has stopped poultry-keeping. So I resorted to ebay. I was doubtful about buying eggs through the post, so I looked for eggs being offered nearby, and found two ladies who would allow me to pick the eggs up in person, and I bought two lots from each of them. One lady has Light and Buff Sussex large fowl and the other has Orpingtons. We have 10 young birds from these hatchings. One final bird went broody and I thought I would try something different, and risk the post as well, so I bid on some Scotch Dumpy eggs, but didn't win. Barnvelders ("Barneys") were the next I tried and I won - so a dozen eggs came our way, very impressively packaged. We have managed to get three successfully hatched, so I am a little disappointed, but I think that at least two of them are hens to add to the laying flock. The cockerel will be grown on until he starts crowing and some one makes a complaint and then I shall have to put him in the freezer - maybe for Christmas!
In the garden today, I have picked a good basket of fine, green beans which are now in the freezer. The weather here has been showery all day and so we haven't done much else outside. I am hoping to get some winter lettuce seeds sown before too long - and maybe spring cabbage as well.
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