First of all, don’t panic! This is NOT going to be some great philosophical debate about which actually did come first, more a personal account of my journey toward chicken keeping. For me, it was the egg that came first. Boiled and with dippy soldiers. It was in the 1970’s for sure, and at a time when food still tasted like it ought to. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that I started to notice the difference between shop bought eggs and fresh farm eggs. The flavour and the colour of the yolk being so much better in a fresh farm egg. At that point I went right off shop bought eggs, and have struggled to eat them ever since.
Saying that though, when we bought the land that is now known as Axe Head Farm, I wasn’t particularly excited about having chickens. Perhaps all the years of shop bought eggs had clouded my view of them. I knew that as a farm we needed to have chickens, but for me, they just produced eggs which were going to be the first product we could sell from the farm gate and build up some regular customers, and over time, we would add more products to sell at the gate. They were just a way to get started.
When I started putting the posts and poles into the ground to make the chicken run it was without much enthusiasm. Comments that came in from friends included: ‘Are you making a boot camp for pole dancers?’ and ‘I’m loving your post and pole farm!’. The comments were more amusing than the job! But, I stuck with it. A farm was not a farm without chickens, right?
Quite a few months in to the process, and after returning to my work following a few months off due to injury and then breast surgery, I got back on with the run. It was still without any real enthusiasm. I decided that I needed to visit my friends up the road who already had chickens, to make sure I wasn’t making any great errors, and to see how they were set up. It was late afternoon on Sunday 13th December 2015, with only 30 minutes of daylight left, that my love affair with chickens began. Whilst I was visiting Gavin and Mandy, they decided that they need to move their electric fencing to give their hens some fresh grass to scratch. As each new bit of grass was exposed, the hens went in to scratching mode and I was completely mesmerised by their cute little scratching dance. It was after a good while that I realised that I should be helping them move their fence, not just stood staring at the wonder of seeing hens scratching about in the grass foraging for a nice tasty snack.
It’s fair to say, my enthusiasm for building the chicken run had been found. By Christmas Eve the 6 foot enclosure of the chicken run was starting to take shape. If I was sat reading you could be sure it was a book about chickens. As a girl who likes to fix things I bought the Haynes Manual for Chickens, I bought eBooks about keeping chickens. I read the magazines that Adrian had left laying around about chickens. I researched the breeds of chickens that we might like. I dreamt about chickens, and right now in the present day, about the only thing I post on my Facebook account is pictures of my chickens, or the eggs from my chickens. I am now more than a little bit obsessed with my chickens!
As January 2016 was drawing to a close, the 6 foot enclosure was all but finished, and the first of the two orchard runs was finished, all but for the gates. Adrian had done most of the research on breeds of chickens, and it was down to me to source some hens and make the final choices. On one of our Facebook chicken groups we saw an advert for French Black Copper Marans by Guy Baldwin at Redruth Poultry, and as Joyce at Bubbles Laundrette in Helston had advised us of the merits of Black Copper Marans, we made our first order for hens. They hadn’t been on any list previously, but their colourings looked so interesting, and as they laid dark brown eggs, we added them in to the equation. Through two other breeders we also sourced some Light Sussex, Welsummers, and Wyandottes. We are still seeking some Cream Legbars and Lavendar Araucanas!
So, why did we choose those breeds and not just start with some rescue hens? Well, I guess the honest answer is… we made the decisions with our business head on. Yes. We could have spent less money on some rescue hens and have felt the feel-good factor for doing so, but as a business enterprise, we needed to think about the future of our flock and how we could actually make some money from the girls. The dark brown eggs from the Marans would look lovely mixed with the near white eggs of the Light Sussex hens. The yet to be sourced Cream Legbar and Lavendar Araucanas lay eggs that can be blue, green or olive in colour. The Light Sussex is also a good dual purpose hen, good at brooding, and could provide us with some chicks with the right cockerel to look after them. With all the hens we could source arranged for collection on the 20th February, I had a deadline to work towards. After all, at the point of ordering the pullets, I still hadn’t erected their coop, let alone finished the runs, built any gates, or even ordered the electric fencing!
Like so many of the jobs I’ve done since starting on the project of building a smallholding on bare, empty fields, it was another case of ‘I’ve never built a chicken run before’, ‘I’ve never built a chicken coop before’, and ‘I’ve never fitted an electric fence before’! With the deadline fast approaching (just 10 days to go at that point}, I followed up on yet more of Adrian’s research. This time it was to phone and order the electric fencing. I had a phone number, a name and no real idea of what I was about to order!
That said, when I made that call, I could never have imagined the experience I was going to have. At first, it was all a bit intense. Leslie at Electric Fencing Direct couldn’t locate the information on Adrian’s quoted price and I was feeling well out of my depth. However, as the conversation continued, and from the print out that Adrian had left me with, Leslie and I managed to work out what we needed. Of all the times I have had to part with hard cash for something to fulfil a part of this massive and expensive project, spending the money with Leslie was one of the easiest purchases I have made. Leslie not only led me through the buying process, but was a mine of useful hints and tips on setting the run and the system up. I came off the phone feeling safe in my purchase, and to be perfectly honest, like I’d made a friend. If you need any electric fencing for any purpose, then I highly recommend Electric Fencing Direct (Click on their logo above to get straight on to their website). It will undoubtedly be one of the best experiences of spending money you are ever likely to have!
In the week leading up to the 20th February and our collection date for our hens, I had the company of our eldest son for the half term week. Finn had homework to catch up on, and a computer to build, and no waterproofs to speak of, but still managed to fit in a little time to help me with the last of the jobs. Without him there is no way I could have built the chicken coop on my own (there is a limit to what one woman can do, no matter how many sets of clamps are in her possession!). Even on the day of collection there were still jobs to do! Although all the fencing was up, one of the orchard runs didn’t have the wire stapled in place, there were no gates built at all, and I hadn’t even got to the point that I could put the electric fencing up. When Adrian returned with the first 3 Light Sussex hens and the Light Sussex cockerel, all we could do was put them in to the coop and keep them shut in, which very handily, was exactly what we were meant to do!
Just after lunch on the 20th Adrian set off to collect 5 more Light Sussex hens, 2 Welsummers and 2 Gold-Laced Wyandottes. I was still busily blocking off the gates in to the orchard runs and building the main gate in to the 6 foot enclosure. By the time Adrian got to his destination, one Welsummer and one Wyandotte had been taken by a fox, so we ended up with two Blue Marans as replacements. I had to go and collect the 9 Black Copper Marans myself from Redruth, but I was an hour later than arranged as I was still building the main gate! We both got back at around the same time and put the rest of the girls into the coop with the cockerel and 3 hens from earlier. As I was leaning in to the coop to open up the boxes and let the newbies out, I had the cockerel right in my face telling me to get the heck out. It was an exciting day in so many ways, but to hear a cockerel doing his thing was probably the memory that will last the longest. Especially when he’s doing his ‘thing’ at you and right in your face!
The next morning, all 3 of us were up super early to go and let the chickens out for the first time. Nobody wanted to miss the culmination of all our efforts. We did shoot some video of them coming out, but as yet we haven’t got round to editing and posting it on here or on YouTube. We will get round to it eventually, but Mother Nature or some other factor, always seems to come along and change your list of priorities!
So, the chickens had arrived, but in truth, the actual run they are in is far from finished. From the first night we put them in to the coop, until the Wednesday evening 4 days later, there was still no electric fence up to protect them. This couldn’t be fitted until I’d put two foot weld mesh all around the 93 metres of the run and various other jobs had been completed. For 4 days I barely left the hens. Anyone who knows me knows that I would feel personally responsible for the deaths of any chicken killed by a fox if I hadn’t done everything in my power to protect them. The Wednesday in question was also my 10th 12 hour shift in a row trying to complete the chicken run, and although I was seriously starting to flag come lunchtime that day, when a fox poked it’s head out of the hedge at the back of the orchard, my energy levels went through the roof and I ended up finishing the power connection to the electric fence in the near dark!
Our beautiful flock has now been here for 24 days and the run is still far from finished. The main gate is still only half built and is held shut by two of my very precious clamps. The run and the coop, with the chickens all tucked up inside, have also experienced 70 mph winds, and thankfully all survived intact and unharmed. For me and the hens it was a very long night. Although I was panicked that something could have happened to the hens overnight, there was absolutely nothing I could do until daylight broke. When the first light was up, yet the winds were still howling around us, I was straight out to check on my babies. We were lucky. Our friends up the road, who’s hens had given me the enthusiasm I was previously lacking, had a much worse experience, with sections of their chicken shed roof coming off, a window being blown out and the door to the shed blowing open and the hinges buckling in the winds.
Amazingly, in the 24 days that the hens have been with us, they have laid a staggering 139 eggs. I say it’s staggering because, to be perfectly honest, we hadn’t expected a single egg for the first 2-3 weeks, giving them plenty of time to settle in here. The 139 eggs does not include one that the first 3 hens and the cockerel were sent with, nor does it include any of the shell-less eggs that have been laid. We have had about 6 mini-eggs, and one absolute whopper of an egg yesterday (top left of the 6 opposite!). We’ve sold some of our eggs already, and from the feedback we’ve had from Mark Fletcher at Relish Street Foods, they are very well received by his customers. We have used the eggs to make 5-egg omelettes, frittata, cakes and dippy eggs, and all it has done for me is remind me that I was absolutely right to go off shop bought eggs all those years ago. Our eggs come with an authentic brown farmyard stamp, rather than the red ink of your shop bought eggs!
It’s also fair to say that the chickens have really added to my working day. I’m the sort of person that really likes routine, and I enjoy very much that the chickens require my attention at various parts of the day. At the beginning of this venture to build a smallholding, the thought of having to sit and watch my chickens for half an hour a day to check them over and get to know them, sounded a lot like a drag. Now, going in and sitting with girls is a time when time simply slips away. I could probably sit in with them all day and get to know their beautiful characters. It is the case now, that whenever I walk between the caravan and the container in which their feed and grain is stored, they see me, the clucking begins and then they all run/kind of fly down to that end of the enclosure. It’s a beautiful thing! Opening the gate is an issue, as they are all there behind it trying to be the first at the food. Walking down to the place that I hand-feed them their grain is also awkward, as they all know where I am heading and are running alongside, in front and underneath me!
So, along with finishing off the chicken run, I also need to get our gate farm shop sorted! The signs are made, and thanks to the generosity of our friend Lorraine Field, we have some fabulous slates to use, a supply of off-cuts of wood, and the cutest little cupboard to do up and stick out in the parking area. This is great for me, as I get to do some crafty creating! For me, that’s a win win win!