Monday 26 November 2007

Planning the concert party at Stalag 57

It is indeed quiet - almost too quiet I would say...every time I go past they either scramble to the net and follow me round the perimeter the whole group of them keeping pace as I pace step for step and when I stop so do they or they stand there and just follow me with their eyes. It can be most disconcerting.
When they did that the other morning I tried running round the pen to see if they would fall over as they hurriedly twisted their necks to keep up but just as I got to the critical point Dear Charlie bellowed out from the upstairs window: “What the bloody hell do you think you are doing? There’s no time for playing silly buggers with chickens! It’s nearly quarter to nine, you’re still in your nightie, you’re wearing my boots, and I’m going to be late for tennis.”
I wouldn’t have minded the telling off but just at that moment Roger our 65-year old next door neighbour appeared and gave me a rather too appreciative grin remarking that it was mighty chilly now!
I gave him as quelling a look as I could and I gathered my dressing gown close about me but since my husband’s wellies are about five sizes larger than mine I was unable to make a bolt for it and had to retreat at a more dignified pace to the sound of my neighbour chuckling and none to quietly either!
One thing I have noted about the chickens is that sometimes if I stop and take the opportunity to look at them too closely they get all skittery and start running around making it impossible to count to them.
I swear there is something going on inside but the only odd thing I have found on opening the hut to check just what IS going on is seeing one of the Burnt Brothers (I still haven't gotten round to doing the dirty and sending them off for the pot) sitting in one of the broody boxes inside rather than using the perch. In general the cockerels always perch rather than nest.
I think I’ll have a closer inspection of that particular broody box tomorrow….
But seriously I am agreeably surprised how in general they seem to be bearing up well and the good news is that as long as we don’t have another outbreak they could all be allowed to roam free in two weeks time!

Monday 19 November 2007

Stalag 57

They’ve dug their way out, they’ve ram raided their way out and now they are ganging up on me in a surge for freedom…my chickens don’t like being caged.
However as a voluntary registered poultry keeper I have done my bit and my chickens are interned for the duration.
The bio-secure cage took two days to build and during that time I fed and watered the flock indoors – this was quite a tricky job as the hen hut is not exactly commodious and nor does it have a solid floor.
After tripping up and spilling the water all over me and then slipping on it rather painfully across the slatted floor into a heap of outraged feathers I decided it would be appropriate to wear Wellingtons and overalls rather than nightwear and slippers for such a job.
The cage is such that no wild birds can enter and nor can the rats. It is supposed to prevent the chickens from escaping as well – we’ve had to make a few modifications…
There is an outer fence about five and a half feet high and spanning that a roof leading to a mid point about six and a half feet high which in turn leads up to the apex of the hen hut at about eight foot. The fence is chicken wire covered with a plastic fruit cage covering being light enough to create a roof without me having to do major works, which I would have neither the money nor time to complete. A new gate is heavy enough to swing shut when I enter and if I say so myself looks OK.
It was such a relief for all when I could at last let them out. They shot through the door, slithered down the ramp and came to a rather stunned stop. I had tried to disguise the fact that they could not wander around as much as before (30 ft square versus 4 acres) by bringing in a load of windfall apples and putting up roosts and a huge pile of chippings to play in but freedom is after all freedom and however many things you are given to play with just doesn’t match up.
It has been pathetic to see them all hunched and miserable, the cockerels’ tails drooping but it seems they do not give up hope. Within two hours the chicks and several of the bantams had escaped by scratching a hole underneath the gate and it wasn’t until I saw Ollie, (my rather large white cockerel) struggling to squeeze himself rather unsuccessfully underneath that I realised we had had a break out.
It seemed pointless running round the farm trying to catch the escapees and so I let them all out in the hope of feeding them all back in later in the day. In the meantime I amused myself by digging the earth out round the door and struggling to lay a large piece of stone at its base. Mission accomplished and it was time to get them back in three hours later and in the dark I gave up.
Strangely enough the following day I was able to feed all the stragglers back in which goes to prove that either chickens have short memories or that their stomachs are bigger than their brains.
There were no escapees until the afternoon when Ollie and Stanley (Ollie’s glamorous half brother) managed to throw themselves at the gate until it popped open. I repeated the previous day’s performance but gave up much more quickly and surveyed them rather dolefully from my office window as they pranced around in the sunshine in the orchard, scratching vigorously at the earth and chasing each other round the apple trees or else walking sedately behind the proud cockerels. My heart was very heavy watching them. Their last day of freedom…AGAIN.
Now the gate is tied with baler twine and so far no escapees… I deliver scraps from the kitchen and windfall apples and they lay eggs and are resigned: I think…but you never know quite what they will do next….

Wednesday 14 November 2007

H5 N1 - it continues

Thank you everyone for your support I have been blubbing, which is silly, as I don't earn my living from them, but they are basically pets and I know them and all their little foibles...
I have been on the phone to DEFRA and getting very het up with them. They hardly tell you anything and it all seems such a shambles and totally ludicrous... I have a flock of about 40 but it fluctuates to over 50 in the summer and reduces somewhat in the winter - natural wastage I call it. If you have more than 50 birds then you have to register so I registered voluntarily to secure my holding number.
I am in the restricted zone, which covers most of Norfolk and all of Suffolk, and it is advised to bring birds indoors. On my way to school today I saw two commercial flocks out and several privately owned flocks out and about.
There doesn't seem to be any consensus on what people should do and if they don't do it there seems to be no fines etc I am not sure if not bringing in your flock is illegal.
So to be on the safe side the flock are under lock and key and this morning I have been trying to construct bio secure havens for the hens that still allow them outside but restrict wild bird contamination. To be honest its laughable. Technically every poultry owner in the whole of Suffolk and most of Norfolk should be keeping their flocks indoors...right like everyone has been notified! No official warning in the papers, no e-mails to registered owners (they do have them - in fact I got a letter today from DEFRA asking if they could use the information they have on me elsewhere all part of data protection/sharing), no TV or Radio announcements etc without that it's a total farce!!!
The news is contradictory (and I think I am ranting).... I start culling the cockerels tonight - a job I usually put off until the Spring so not too difficult. I feel so much for those who make a living from their poultry - so it would be useful if DEFRA could start getting its act together and ACT!
I'm livid!

Tuesday 13 November 2007

H5N1 - the start of all that....

We are less than 10 miles from Redgrave where the H5N1 strain of Avian Flu has been confirmed and now my chickens are under threat.
I am starting to think the unthinkable and am preparing for a rough couple of weeks.
Although I only have 40 or so birds it is impossible for me to restrict their movements and keep them from contamination by wild birds. My home is surrounded by two moats and we have no way of preventing wild duck from landing here. My hens are free range.
Even getting them inside will not help as wrens, blue tits and sparrows abound here. Although I have laughed about bio-security I have taken it very seriously and created an area where the hens can come indoors – the problem is for how long and do I really want to keep my beautiful birds indoors? They have never been restricted – I almost feel it would be too cruel.
Tomorrow we will keep them in the hut and round up the more feral of the group. We will cull all the surplus cockerels keeping just Goat Shed Boy, Ollie, Stanley and Mr Tickle. We‘ll get the other to areas safe and start to move the birds in….I will call DEFRA and see what advice they give … I am not hopeful.

Sunday 11 November 2007

Lest we forget

Eighty nine years ago the family of this house were blessed: all four sons that went away returned – would that had been the case throughout the land….

Thursday 8 November 2007

More about Chickens….

When we first came here we had chickens; the feral remains of a flock that I fear have been living on the farm almost as long as those wild dogs have in Pompeii, Italy, whose ancestors once graced the villas of some long forgotten Roman.
Well the flock we inherited roosted in the trees and bushes around the farm with a tight knit group residing underneath the Wisteria on what was once a very nice wrought iron arch, the DIY welding, baler twine and chicken wire giving it now a slightly lopsided with defiantly bucolic air. It was the perfect roost being south facing and against a wall; warm in winter, a haven for flies and other winged bugs, and close enough to the bay window to alert the humans residing within that chickens need food – now!
There were many havens for chickens dotted about the garden – another favourite haunt was through a bramble infested bux and in among sharp-leaved witches broom and a completely dishevelled black bamboo – talk about jungle!
Most of the chickens slept in the trees leaping up to their perches along a series of well-worn paths over dilapidated sheds and lean-tos. They would hunker on to the branches and cling grim facedly despite all the efforts of the wind to dislodge them. It is rather nerve wracking to watch a flock of chickens being tossed willy-nilly in to the air during a storm. And it is extremely difficult to make you insurance broker behave and pull himself together when you try to explain that you car has suffered chicken damage during the gale.
I think we inherited about two-dozen chickens and they were semi friendly; however, relations did not get off to a good start owing to the fact that our city-raised Jack Russells decided to hone their inherent hunting skills on them. Suffice to say the flock was decimated.
We tried every trick we knew to stop the dogs from chasing and occasionally killing the chickens but it was not until we fenced off the back garden that we finally succeeded. In the intervening years the game of chicken took on a whole new meaning for us, and the flock.
The chickens themselves were a motley crew with an amazing picture book cockerel in charge. So handsome was he, I named him Brad Pitt - his son, Pitt the Younger, was the feisty bantam who killed off Big Boy the Aracna/Legbar cross.
The hens were compact little creatures in a variety of browns and russets with neat bright yellow legs. I could hardly tell one form the other.
During the winter we started to feed them and as got colder we became ever popular. It was our favourite party trick to call the hens to feed and then watch as they would appear from every corner and crevice high and low and either run or fly straight for us; low flying chickens unable to gauge landing became quite a hazard and I always felt whenever we did this that the Dambusters' theme would be appropriate accompaniment.

Go on you know you want to...


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