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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Potentially harmful garden plants

Top to bottom: Autumn crocus, Lily-of-the-valley, Delphiniums, Lobelia and Chrysanthemums.My granddaughter Grace is really getting the hang of this walking lark! As a typically doting granny, this has set me thinking about her toddling around the garden this spring, with me pointing out my favourite plants. And then, being an eternal worrier, I started thinking about harmful garden plants and whether I ought to start digging things up!

After a quick scoot around the RHS website, I had calmed myself with the knowledge that, fortunately, serious poisoning by plants is very uncommon in the UK. Some garden plants do present a hazard, but the risk of severe poisoning, skin reaction or allergy is low.

So, what are the hazards?
Some plants may cause digestive upset or discomfort if eaten. Obviously, children are most at risk as we adults tend not to go around stuffing garden plants into our mouths or up our noses! A small number of common garden plants are more toxic and could cause severe poisoning. Obvious ones that I think we probably all know include Laburnum, Laurel and Yew. Less obvious nasties include Autumn crocus, Lily-of-the-valley, Delphinium and the innocent looking Bluebell!

Other plants cause problems when in contact with the skin. Irritant sap can cause a burning sensation and sometimes blistering of the skin and anyone can be affected if you get enough on your skin. Some unexpected candidates include Daffodils, Lobelia and Chrysanthemum.

What to do if there’s a problem…
If you think a child or adult has eaten part of a doubtful plant, seek medical advice immediately from a hospital Accident & Emergency department. Do remember to take a sample of the plant with you. Do not panic and DO NOT try to make the person sick!

If you think an animal has eaten a poisonous plant, get them along to the vet as soon as possible and, again, remember to take along samples of the plant concerned.

Better safe than sorry:
Really, as I said at the start, the chances of anyone poisoning themselves in this country are very slight, so please don’t be concerned! In addition, if you follow these few simple guidelines and all should be well!

  • If it is not a food plant, do not eat it!
  • Teach children not to play with or eat growing plants
  • Use gloves when pruning or weeding and keep skin covered
  • Do not leave prunings or uprooted plants in reach of farm animals or pets
  • Check plant labels for toxicity warnings (sometimes stated on label)

Plant poisons information
The RHS website www.rhs.org.uk has an extensive list of harmful plants, so I’d suggest you refer to that if you want to check out your existing plants, or are considering buying new ones, and you have a young child or wayward pet!

For information about particular risks presented by potentially harmful plants, try the following contacts.

RHS Gardening Advice Service – tel: (0845) 260 8000, 10am to 4pm

Kew Gardens – tel: (020) 8332 5000

 

 

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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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Meet Ellen Jareckie – the talented artist behind House Mouse!

Ellen Jareckie at work in her studio.You’ll know their names and their wonderful designs, but what do you know about their backgrounds and sources of inspiration? Joanna has been chatting to some of the top artists whose original and stunning artwork is transformed into craft products and featured on her website.

In this blog Joanna talks to Ellen Jareckie, the talented artist behind the House Mouse designs. 

1. Ellen, where do you get your ideas from – what inspires you?

I’ve always loved mice, ever since I was a little kid. I find them fascinating because of their small size. I had a pet mouse, named Tiny, who was the inspiration behind the line of mouse characters.

2. What do you enjoy most about your career?

I enjoy many things about my career, and I feel very lucky to be able to do something fun as a career. I work at home, which is very relaxing, and I also take in Just one example of Ellen’s many lovely designs that we featue on the website.orphaned mice occasionally, so I spend the day creating the artwork as well as tending to any orphans. I really enjoy making a needy creature feel warm, safe and well fed, and I love creating new images too.

3. What do you like the least?

What I like least is doing any kind of bookkeeping, but I make myself do that, since it’s necessary to keep good records.

4. Are you a night owl or a morning person?

I’m definitely a night owl. I get up a bit later in the morning than many people do, and work until late at night. But if I’m tending to a critically ill orphan, I have to get up in the middle of the night as well as early in the morning because it’s so important to be vigilant with an orphan that arrives seriously ill or starved.

Pipsqueak, the orphaned piglet, that Ellen hand raised.5. If you could go back in time, what would you do differently?

If I could go back in time, the only thing I would do differently is start riding a motorcycle earlier in life than I did. I started riding at age 48, I think. Other than that, I would not do anything differently. And Barry and Nicole are my agents, and I would keep them, too. They are great people, and I could not do what I do without their hard work. Barry’s marketing skills over the past years were what really helped launch the designs. 

6. What is your favourite childhood memory?

My favorite childhood memory… there are lots of them, mostly very funny ones, so it’s hard to choose. I think that Pipsqueak, the orphaned piglet I hand raised, was my favorite memory. She was at a pig farm, dying of starvation (too many babies in the litter) and I asked the farmer if I could buy her. He said, “She’s going to die anyway, so I’ll sell her to you for a dollar”. Since I was only 14, that was an affordable price for me. I brought her home and bottle-fed her and she lived on our property. I love pigs! They are sweet, intelligent, and have a great sense of humor. 

Pipsqueak, my piglet, tilling the soil while Muzzy the mouse sits on her back.7. If you had to choose just one of your designs as your absolute favourite, what would it be?

It’s hard to choose a favorite design, but maybe that would be the picture of Pipsqueak, my piglet, tilling the soil in a garden while Muzzy the mouse sits on her back. This was years ago and the design was featured in the 1999 calendar!

8. Who do you think has had the most influence on you?

In the book, “Charlotte’s Web”, there are some incredibly endearing illustrations by Garth Williams. It is those illustrations that inspired me the most. There’s a picture of Fern (the girl), holding Wilbur (the piglet) in her arms. Also, a hilarious picture of Templeton, the rat, after he’s eaten too much garbage at the circus – I love that illustration, and that character

9. What was the last gift you gave someone?

The last gift I gave was to a friend of mine who just had a birthday yesterday. I gave her a box of fresh tarts from the bakery along with some hand soap that smells like freesia flowers, and other fun items.

10. Do you have any future plans you’d like to share with us?

In the near future I plan to do a little more animal rescue work, and I also plan to expand on some of the Wee Poppet, Gruffies and Happy Hopper images too. I also hope to get over to the UK to see your beautiful country, and if I do, I hope to be able to visit with some of you. To all of you who are viewing the blog, thanks for all your interest, support and enthusiasm for the designs. And thanks to Joanna Sheen, and to everyone who works with Joanna. You are all fantastic! Thank you!

Thank you Ellen! We are sure you don’t need telling, but you can find lots of House Mouse products in our craft shop on our website. We’ll be featuring more of our wonderful artists in future blogs!

 

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Looking forward in 2014…

I always love the first few days of any New Year as there’s so much promise in what could happen in the next twelve months. If I look back over the past year many things have happened that I didn’t have a clue about this time last year, so there is always the excitement of what could be round the corner.

I know we have to take the bad times  as well as the good but I am going to try harder this year to make more good things happen. So often it’s the little things that make me feel good rather than the big things – I tidied my craft room over the Christmas holiday and that’s making me feel really good.

I’m going to give myself some ‘me’ time regularly this year, and I invested in some more scented candles and I’m going to enjoy nice perfume and maybe a book, a game or just some time cuddled up on the sofa with Wellington, whose days I know are numbered but while he is here, he is lovely to cuddle!

I’m also looking forward to finishing my second novel with my ‘partner in crime writing’, Julia. It should be finished in April or May, we are about a third of the way through at the moment. Although there’s a lot of head-scratching and plotting, it’s also exciting as the plots starts to unfold as you are never 100% sure how it is going to turn out!

Sometimes the things that make you feel good can take you by surprise, doing something that benefits someone else can be really uplifting.

On a more down to earth note I am aiming to declutter a room in my house each month this year, I don’t have twelve rooms that need decluttering but I am building in a ‘fail’ for some of the months when work gets too busy or other things grab my time and attention.

I would love to tell you that I intend to succeed spectacularly with my diet this year, but all I can do is try and be kind to myself if I falter and then fail as I have so many times before – but the trying is always the thing that counts. So my resolution for this year and the thing uppermost in my mind is going to be just that saying – the trying is always the thing that counts and who knows what will have happened by January 2015!

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