Chicken dinners

From the top: One and two – Edith and Dahlia having a go at the cabbage. Three – Dahlia and Lavender making sure they don’t waste any bits! Four – the ladies gather for a photo, minus Iris. Five – thinking about taking afternoon tea in their chalet.I know you all like hearing about chickens, so I’m handing over today’s blog to my partner in crime writing, Julia.

I haven’t rambled on about my hens for a while, so Joanna said I could give you an update this week. I introduced five new hens back in October and you can never be sure how they will settle down and whether there will be bullying. I always think a flock of hens is very like a group of people – sit and watch for half an hour and you will see many human traits you’ll recognise (mostly bad!) and will soon understand where the phrases ‘hen pecked’ and ‘pecking order’ come from.

The three buff orpingtons, Dahlia, Iris and Lavender, and the two cream legbars, Edith and Bunty (all named after characters in our novels!), have settled in very well. Far from being overwhelmed as I’d feared, my two old hens, less romantically named Dino and Specky, who had looked ancient (Specky is 6 and Dino an amazing 9!) have both rallied. Chickens tend to moult in Autumn and both the old ones were looking moth eaten, but the arrival of their new companions has galvanised them into action and they both have beautiful new feathers and are even acting ‘young’ again. Just like us humans – nothing like a bit of competition to make you go and get your hair done or nip to the gym!

My previous flock had a bully in its midst and I’m afraid it made life hell for some of the others. The bully died last year and I was determined that when I introduced new hens it would all be harmonious. Several hen keepers I’d chatted to online had told me how to deal with any future bullies. And no, it doesn’t involve a cooking pot! You isolate the bully, keep them out of sight of the others for about a week. The main flock will then settle down and a pecking order re-established. You then reintroduce the bully who will very probably find herself at the bottom of the heap – and she will then behave herself! Can’t we all think of instances when it would be handy to do this in real life?! 

This time of year it is all rather muddy and the hens can get bored with no grass to peck at or insects to chase. The lovely people I bought the cream legbars from, rather cleverly hung cabbages on string from trees. The chickens can then peck away at it and, as it moves about it, gives them a bit of a challenge and keeps them interested. I had a hilarious 10 minutes recently, watching Dahlia and Lavender standing either side of a suspended Savoy cabbage. One would peck, the cabbage then swung toward the other hen, and she’d lunge to peck it, and back it swung – I swear it looked as if they were playing ‘swing ball’ with great enthusiasm! 

The buffs are very gentle natured, but they are big birds and they do like their food! The cream legbars, Bunty and Edith, are faintly hysterical (they remind me of that character Mavis in Coronation Street!) and paranoid, so they will only approach the cabbage once the buffs have had their fill. They manage a few pecks but are, of course, frightened by the swinging vegetable as it is clearly ‘out to get them’ and they tend to run off screaming.

When we introduced the cream legbars, they were younger than the others and needed to be kept separate and given different food, so we searched eBay and managed to buy a second–hand coop for very little money. It is rather twee and looks a bit like an alpine chalet! Bunty and Edith liked it and would fuss around inside like two old maids bickering over the housework.

Now, the hens all live together in the main coop, but the chalet is still there inside their run. We have noticed that most afternoons, the five new hens go Gossiping inside the willow structure before going in for a WI meeting in the chalet.and stand in it, apparently for no good reason other than to have a bit of a gossip. You can hear them making contented ‘pock pock’ noises like a load of old gossips at the WI. It’s interesting that the older birds don’t seem to be invited, so perhaps there’s a little bit of girl power in action but fortunately, it seems to be no more than idle gossip! Let’s hope it stays that way!

 

 

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Some Boxing Day musings…

Well, it will be Boxing Day by the time you get to read this post, and I do hope you’ve all enjoyed a lovely Christmas Day and are looking forward to the New Year… resolutions or not!

We have been snuggled up with my girls and gorgeous granddaughter Grace, having a very ‘family’ Christmas, which has been super.

Partner in crime writing Julia, and myself, got together to pose for this daft Christmas shot a few days ago – so much for snowy scenes to go with our antlers, it’s been positively balmy down here in Devon with all sorts of things in bud in the garden. Who knows, a cold snap may yet come along and catch us all out! 

And so, to matters literary. Julia and I have made a start on Swaddlecombe book 3, but we’ve both had a few hiccups along the way with work, families and life in general getting in the way of fiction(!) – so we are really going to start writing in earnest in the New Year. We have our plot, we know ‘who dunnit’ and we also have a title, but we aren’t going to tell you just yet – we don’t want to tempt fate! Let’s just say some feathers might be about to get ruffled…! Watch this space… 

Health and happiness to you all and here’s to a peaceful 2015.

Joanna

 

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Excitement in the hen house!

Top: The new girls arrive! Second down, left to right – Dahlia, Iris and Lavender. Third down, there’s safety in numbers…! Bottom – Edith, left, and Bunty on the right.There’s lots of activity in the chicken coop this week at my hen pal and partner in crime writing, Julia’s house. She takes up the story…

I’ve kept chickens for years, even though I don’t much like eggs – weird, I know! But I do love hens and their companionable cluckings and burblings add an extra dimension to working or sitting and relaxing in the garden with a cup of tea. Their eggs are lovely to cook with as the yolks are bright orange. They are also a great bartering tool in exchange for plants and vegetables, and they also make a popular gift when visiting someone who normally only gets supermarket eggs.

My flock had dwindled to two very old specimens – ‘Specky’ a six-year-old Speckled hen and ‘Dino’ a nine-year-old Barnevelder. The latter, poor thing, was christened ‘The Dinosaur bird’ by my cheeky godchildren as she does have a bit of the pterodactyl about her. 

When rebuilding the flock I specifically wanted Orpington hens, as they are big, fluffy and very docile. The three I’d had previously had all been delightful and laid well. I also wanted some more Cream Legbars. These attractive little hens lay blue eggs and have a very distinctive character. The last one I had was expert at screaming, slightly neurotic and bit of a bully, but she laid the most wonderful blue eggs, right up until she died, aged eight.

After many emails and phone calls, I tracked down some young Orpingtons about 30 miles away. I set off, intent on buying two. These beautiful birds had been bred from a buff coloured cockerel and a red coloured hen, resulting in a vivid apricot colour. Somehow, I came home with three – how did that happen…?

Next, I found some Cream Legbars, 40 miles in the opposite direction… Devon is a big county! This time I had my Other Half with me, so sneaking in an extra hen was never on the cards. We picked two very lively girls, of slightly different colouring and, after a bit of a tussle, put them in the carry crate in the car. While there, the poultry breeders showed us some of their more ‘fancy’ fowl –  Frizzle Polands and Silkies. We had never seen the like! They looked like creations from the Muppets! 

The Cream Legbars squawked, shrieked and trilled all the way home (the Orpingtons had been silent!), but now they are all in the run together and seem to be getting along quite well. There is always a degree of bullying – people are often surprised at how savage chickens can be towards each other – but so far, all is going well. Dino is definitely keeping her ‘top bird’ status and keeping the young pretenders in their place.

I have decided to name the new hens after characters from our novels. The Orpingtons are named after the Drew triplets, so we have Dahlia, Iris and Lavender, while the Cream Legbars are called Edith (the dark one) and Bunty (the pale one).

Although chickens tend not to lay much in winter, we are hopeful of a few eggs before it turns really cold and dark. I’ll keep you posted… and if we get some eggs, I’ll pass them over to Joanna so she can use them to produce an amazing cake or two!

Aren’t these the most amazingly exotic little beauties…?

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Eat your greens!

As the sap rises and the garden blooms, hen pal, and partner in writing crime Julia Wherrell, has been pondering her chickens again…

Last year, we had a bit of a disaster. On a very windy May day, the gate to the chickens’ run blew open and they escaped. There was no road kill or fox massacre, they simply strolled into my veg patch and ate every pea, broad bean and lettuce in sight creating their very own version of carnage. I was not impressed, but the hens were chortling merrily and happily stuffed with greenery. My partner felt sage and onion might have been more appropriate, but I restrained him.

A typical bowl of chicken scraps with rotten bits of fruit, wilted rocket and ends of vegetables.Chickens are omnivores so they’ll eat, or at least try, just about anything and spend much of the day scratch the ground looking for insects and worms. Any large insect, like a butterfly, foolish enough to drift through their run will be hotly pursued with all sorts of acrobatics and excitement and generally not come out alive. They love cheese rind, pasta and they have slices of brown bread every day and yes, they are spoilt.

They are also exceedingly fond of their greens. Any scraps we have – the bits you cut off the end of your vegetables, corn on the cob husks, wilted lettuce – they fight over. For entertainment, my farmer friend Greg will eat an apple and then lob the core into the run and watch the ensuing rubgy match as chicken after chicken grabs the core, runs off chattering happily, puts it down to eat it, whereupon it is instantly stolen by another hen and off they go again… A kindly neighbour regularly gives us the discarded outer leaves and stalk of cauliflowers which, to the hens, is about as exciting as receiving a box of chocolates!

Cauliflower leaves – better than a box of chocs!Of course we give them ‘proper’ chicken feed, including corn and things called ‘layers pellets’ but, just as we do, they love a varied diet. But greenery seems to play an important part in making their yolks rich and yellow. As a result, our hens’ egg yolks are a stunning deep rich orange and taste delicious. I rarely eat eggs anywhere but at home as I find their paleness unappetising. Sponges and quiches all look gorgeous as they have a naturally golden hue and they really do taste wonderful.

Now that my veggies are well advanced, the hens will be getting even more treats. Bolted cabbages, rocket and lettuces disappear down their greedy beaks in seconds. They won’t thank you for an onion or a leek though. And this year, my partner has adapted the door to their run so that it swings shut, even in the strongest gale, so I can be sure the greens they get are the ones I decide to give them and not the ones they steal!

 

 

 

 

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A heart-felt calling…

Needle felting as a craft is growing hugely in popularity at the moment. When we met to work on the latest chapter of our new book, Julia mentioned that there was a felting studio near where she lives and she volunteered to go and check it out for the blog. Here’s what she found…

Bellacouche – which means ‘beautiful resting place’ – is the studio of Yuli Somme, a hugely talented half-Norwegian lady who makes wonderful things out of felt. The range of things she makes is startling – from quirky fun tea cosies to burial shrouds – no, seriously!

Yuli says: “Wool is my raw material, which is made into felt, and from this is crafted a unique range of lovingly hand-made products including bags, tuffets (seat pads), tea cosies, woollen insoles, hot water bottle covers, hats, little decorations, wall hangings, felting kits and Leafcocoons – a unique soft wool eco coffin, designed for natural burial.”

The pieces are all hand made, motifs are either sewn or needle felted in and dyes are always natural resulting in gorgeous subtle shades.

“Dartmoor is where I live and work – a beautiful and wild landscape – and this is a great source of inspiration. I am deeply mindful of our environment and the preciousness of nature, so everything I do or make bears this in mind and I keep my impact on the planet as small as possible.”

The needle tool she uses on the felt (pictured) is very sharp and each needle has small barbs on it so, as you plunge the tool in and out of the felt (taking care not to stab yourself in the process!), it tangles the felt fibres and enables you to join, or graft on, other colours and shapes. It’s incredibly simple and is a way of creating clothes, shoes and decorative items that go back thousands of years.

Yuli’s studio is housed in an old chapel that is somehow the perfect backdrop for the beautiful things she makes. Her tea cosies and hats are sold widely and are wonderfully warm and tactile, as well as beautiful. It was really inspiring to look around the Aladdin’s cave that is her studio, with beautiful things hanging up, draped over sofas and in the process of being made. Her small shop area is crammed full of lovely things, her chicken tea cosies being a firm favourite of mine. She even has a felt chest of draws – yes, seriously!

Yuli also creates and sells felt kits so if you feel inspired, visit her website and perhaps have a go at making something? I haven’t ‘felt’ so enthused by anything for years and will definitely be having a go…

 

 

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