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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It’s all in the detail…

It’s all in the detail…Jayne Netley Mayhew is a wonderfully talented artist who first wielded a paintbrush at the tender age of two! All her siblings are artists too and Jayne has gone on to establish a reputation as a first-class wildlife artist and embroidery designer. She has produced a wide range of designs for Joanna Sheen Ltd over the years and her work is always immensely popular. We had a chat with Jayne to find out a bit more about the lady behind the paintbrush…

I think most people would say ‘Exquisite detail’ when they think of Jayne’s work. When she paints animals – big cats being her absolute favourite subject – she paints them hair by hair. “I just love detail!” she says. “If I have to paint a landscape, there has to be something detailed in the foreground or I just couldn’t take it on.”

She paints from real life as much as she can and when this isn’t possible, from photographs that her husband, Ian, takes for her. Jayne at work in her studio in Widecombe-in-the-Moor.

A great animal lover, Jayne has two huge pet dogs – Henry, a Newfoundland, and Dennis a Bernese Mountain Dog collie cross – that share Jayne and Ian’s home in Widecombe-in-the-Moor, in the heart of Dartmoor. She also keeps hens that she finds endlessly fascinating to watch and paint as they roam free-range in her garden. 

“Again, it’s all about the detail,” she says. Look at one of her chicken paintings and you can see every feather individually painted.

Jayne is unusual in that she works across a wide range of different media and is equally skilled in all of them. She was originally trained in oils by a local artist who gave Jayne, and her older brother an excellent grounding in painting. Next, she took up freehand embroidery and thrived on the incredibly detailed stitch work. Publishers David & Charles snapped Jayne up and suggested she’d like to look at developing cross stitch patterns for them. Sid the cockerel immortalised in watercolour.“I found these very easy to design, but drawing all the crosses by hand was really hard work but then, luckily, in came computers and it became a breeze!”

Today, Jayne works in acrylic, watercolour, pencil, pen and ink and pastels using whatever best suits her subject matter be it flora or fauna, big cat or new born chick. “Watercolour was a tricky technique to master as it is so unforgiving. With oil and acrylic you can over paint, but with watercolour it has to be perfect from the outset. I adore the subtlety and, of course, the detail that I can achieve with it,” said Jayne.

Always looking for something new to try, she has recently acquired a felting machine and is busily creating pictures with fibre and wool. “It’s a technique I am really enjoying experimenting with and I’ve been working on some miniatures, it’s really exciting.”

Look closely – very closely – at any Jayne Netley Mayhew painting and you will eventually find a ladybird hidden somewhere within the design. Jayne laughs: “It’s quite funny watching people look at my work as they usually This stunning tiger is created using felt, fibre and wool.peer at it very close up, and then say ‘Aha!’ and I know they’ve found the ladybird. Only then do they stand back and appreciate the painting properly.”

So it seems it’s all in the detail for Jayne’s fans, just as much as it is for her…

To find out more about Jayne and her work on her website.

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Living the good life…

Many of you will know Sandra Goodman as our bright and bubbly Customer Service Manager… but there’s another side to Sandra that you probably don’t know about! To find out about her ‘other life’, read on… 

Sandra met her husband, Charlie, in 2011 and they set out to fulfil a lifelong dream – running their own smallholding. With property prices sky high in Devon they headed west to Cornwall. In the wonderfully named village of Polyphant they found their dream home – an old barn once used as a potato store and now converted, in a rather rustic way according to Sandra, into a two-bedroom house.

Sandra says: “We knew instantly that this old barn, set in a picturesque valley with a couple of fields, was where we wanted to settle.”

Charlie, having been raised on a farm, has in-depth knowledge of not only livestock but wildlife and the countryside in general. Sandra’s background is in craft, interior design and floristry and she has a love of flora and fauna and all things country. 

Their aim is to be self-sufficient – yes, totally! To date, they have 20 chickens, soon to be 40, and are about to take delivery of a pregnant Oxford Sandy and Black sow, followed by two ‘Lowline’ cattle. These gorgeous ‘mini’ cows are bred to be about a metre high at the shoulder, they are easy to handle and docile and ideal for the ‘small acreage’ farmer, which Charlie and Sandra definitely are with their four acres having to produce a lot of food to sustain the two of them!

As well as livestock, they have also put up an impressive poly tunnel (in Polyphant – sorry!) and, when I asked Sandra what they were growing, I couldn’t write it all down quickly enough, but the list included: Carrots, onions, parsnips, potatoes, beans, peas, tomatoes, kale, cauliflower, butternut squash, aubergines, cucumbers, melons and lots more that I missed!

So far, Sandra says everything is germinating and growing really well in the poly tunnel, so she’s optimistic for good crops this year. Their next project is to prepare the outside veg beds and get even more produce underway.

Charlie and Sandra are keen to be as eco-friendly as possible and are looking at ways to generate their own power through a small wind turbine and solar panels. The River Inny runs through their land and they are permitted to take water from it to irrigate their crops as keeping overheads to a minimum is really important.

Sandra stays up in Devon three nights a week and then travels back to Cornwall where Charlie is based full-time. It’s a tough regime, but her enthusiasm when she talks about her Cornish life is so infectious, you just can’t help believing they will make a great go of it!

 

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