Yesterday was a big day.
I collected three new hens from the British Hen Welfare Trust, who had intervened to prevent them becoming pet food (or baby food, or soup).
The new ladies started enjoying their freedom straight away. Bessie immediately lay down in the soil and started flicking it under her feathers, and Beaky rapidly followed suit. They've been in cages for around 18 months so they'll never have dust bathed before, so it's lovely to see them enjoying themselves.
Bessie is the largest, and has the most feathers. She was the first to dust bathe, and the first to jump the temporary fence into Mildred and Maud's territory. She was the first to try the food, and the first to try flying up on top of the temporary shelter to roost.
Beaky is the second largest, with a bare patch on her chest. She's the scruffiest, and like Mildred (who was the scruffiest of the previous batch), seems to be making up for her lack of feathers by bossing the others around. She quickly followed Bessie across enemy lines and started a fight with Mildred and Maud.
Rusty is the smallest and quietest hen. She's darker than the others, with a bare patch above her tail. Beaky keeps pecking at her whenever she passes, and I've made sure there's three bowls of food so they all have equal access (although when I was there earlier, Rusty did nothing but eat whenever she had the chance). She's clearly at the bottom of the pecking order, and I'll keep a special eye on her.
Mildred and Maud don't seem too impressed with their new pals so far. They've done a lot of shouting, and a good deal of glaring through the fence. They didn't take kindly to this afternoon's accidental invasion into their space, and engaged in quite a dramatic battle with Beaky and Bessie which involved two pairs of chickens flying into the air and dramatically bumping chests, and Mildred ending up with a mouthful of feathers.
Mostly they're ignoring the newcomers though, and just delivering an occasional peck through the fence to show who's boss.
We only have one hen house, so they're all sleeping in together, which took quite a bit of arranging last night. I had to wait for Maud and Mildred to go to bed, which was later than usual as they were pacing up and down complaining about the intruders until long after dusk.
Eventually they went to bed though, and once they'd settled, I gently placed the new (rather confused) ladies into the hen house with them.
There was quite a bit of fidgeting, and a bang and a squark - one of the new hens had perched on the partition between the nest boxes, which wasn't really designed to take the weight of a large hen, and which had collapsed onto Maud who was sleeping the other side of it. When I opened the door, Maud looked very bewildered, so I evicted the new lady from the nest box, put Maud back in next to Mildred, and waited til all went quiet.
When I peeked in again, all five ladies were on the perch in a row - and the same happened this evening too.
So I'm hopeful that they can learn to live together, in spite of initial squabbling. I'll be in the chicken run in my pjs at dawn again tomorrow to make sure there's no fighting in the hen house and to supervise breakfast, but I hope they'll settle down soon. The new ladies need to be kept in the run for a few days to learn that it's now home, but Mildred and Maud can come and go as they please, and I hope that by next weekend they'll be showing Bessie, Beaky and Rusty where the best dust bathing spots are.
Well it's been an odd few weeks, and I haven't really felt much like posting here with everything in such disarray.
Our chicken ladies have been living in my study while they recover (and while we fully stoat-proof their run), and this has not been a satisfactory arrangement for anyone.
It's been awful to see Mildred and Maud so traumatised, but slowly, over the course of a couple of weeks, they started eating again, wandering around again, making a noise again, and by last weekend were a pair of menaces again.
Once it got to the point where having two chickens living in the house was as annoying as you might imagine it to be, we felt comfortable letting them wander outside unsupervised. Before that, we'd been out with them, but they were cowering every time a blackbird flew over and spending most of their time hiding in the coal shed.
Now though they are wandering around as normal, dust bathing in the sunshine and playing in the compost.
We have been covering their run and house with quarter inch mesh. Their run is eight foot tall, with wire dug into the ground, and hopefully completely fox proof, and this extra step should ensure that nothing larger than an earthworm can get in (and any self-respecting chicken can make short work of an earthworm).
They mostly seem fine now, but two chickens does not really make a flock, and so we are collecting three new ladies from the British Hen Welfare Trust tomorrow. The new ladies have been living in cages, so are likely to be more threadbare and scared than our previous ladies, who had been in a large barn (they'd still never been outside though). It'll be a big change for them, and a big change for Mildred and Maud, who are likely to be extremely bossy (especially Mildred - Maud is a bit more relaxed about things generally). We'll have to supervise interactions to start with.
Speaking of supervising, our existing ladies have been keeping an eye on our chicken run renovations, to make sure they meet the required standard. They don't seem remotely bothered by all the banging and hammering - a sure sign they're back to normal. In fact they're often found standing on a hammer, or trying to peck at whatever I'm trying to hammer.
This is Mildred yesterday, inspecting the quality of my work. Not sure she's impressed.
This is one of my favourite photos of Hermione, taken just last Sunday when she picked up a shopping list I'd dropped in the snow and carried it around for a while, before deciding it wasn't quite to her liking.
On Tuesday morning, the ladies were uncharacteristically quiet when I went to let them out. Normally there's a kerfuffle, jumping off the perch, squabbling about who will come out first.
That morning when I opened the door, none of them came out.
Fearing the worst, I stuck my head in the hen house. Hermione and Luna lay dead on the floor, and Maud and Mildred cowered at the back with blood on their necks.
I tried to tempt them out, but they wouldn't move, so I ran back to the house for Peter to bring a box. We brought Maud and Mildred inside to see how injured they were, and I went back outside to see if I could figure out what had happened to the other two. The hen house was still locked - the only gap is the air vent, which is less than an inch high. Surely nothing could get in there that could kill a chicken?
I spotted the culprit as soon as I went back outside - the white stoat I'd been excited to see the week before was sneaking around the two ladies I'd left on the bench. I chased it off, and brought them inside too.
Not many vets know about chickens, as it turns out, so we trekked for 20 miles to see a lovely man who confirmed that Maud and Mildred, while badly shaken, only had superficial injuries. He advised us to keep them warm and comfortable, and try to get them to eat and drink something.
Birds in general are quite vulnerable to shocks - you often see them keel over if they fly into a window. But apparently chickens (and pigeons, as it happens) are quite resilient, so the vet was hopeful they'd recover in time.
We set up a temporary hospital wing in my study - and you have no idea how grateful I am that we have that room available. We plied the ladies with treats, but they mostly just stood and stared. It's awful seeing them like this - they're normally so inquisitive and pesky.
The following morning they were still alive, and the room was unsurprisingly beginning to smell. We shifted the makeshift hospital, removed the old curtains we'd thrown down the day before, rolled up the rug, and put down several inches of chicken bedding. Things are a lot more fragrant in there now (although I won't be working in there while they're still using it).
Each day the ladies look a little brighter, although they're a long way from normal. They mostly just stand still, usually next to each other. They will eat out of our hands, but don't seem to touch food when we're not there. Maybe we've become honorary members of the flock (or maybe they just think we'll be on look out duty).
I don't know how long they'll be living in there for. As long as it takes. I can't in all conscience put them back outside while they're still like this. If the weather clears over the weekend we'll take them out for an hour, to see if they regain some enthusiasm for scratching and pecking, but if they're just going to stand and stare, they're much better doing it inside where they can be safe and warm (apparently warmth is the best thing for a bird in shock).
Longer term we'll have to get them some friends - chickens are much happier in a flock. But we won't be doing that until we've fully stoat-proofed the hen house and run, and until these two are showing more signs of life. Initial chicken introductions can be savage while they work out the new pecking order, and that isn't what these pair need right now.
We buried Hermione and Luna among the fruit trees. They were out there just last week, making a nuisance of themselves, scratching around in the mulch and jumping into holes as I dug them to pull out the worms.
We knew there was a chance they'd be eaten eventually, but always figured it would be when they were out roaming free, which they did most of the time. These ladies spent the first 18 months of their lives locked in a barn with thousands of other chickens, and had never even seen daylight when they came to us. They'd reached the end of their commercially viable life and were destined to become pet food. We didn't want to fence them in.
It never occurred to us that they'd be killed overnight while shut 'safely' in the hen house. We'd seen stoats, and knew they might take eggs, or even chicks, but even the local farmer said he'd never heard of one killing a fully grown chicken (although now we know it does happen we've seen other accounts of it too). At any rate, we didn't think anything would be able to get through the tiny air vent.
At least they had five months of freedom and sunshine. RIP little feathery pals.
Sit down and make yourself comfortable. I'm Jenni, and I write here about our new forray into country living, which includes growing food, knitting, baking, wandering around the fields, and seeing which local cafe serves the best cake.