Chickens with Beef

It’s complicated

Despite the title, this is as far as possible from a recipe. The only beef is the rivalry between chickens

This is a drama, an epic love story, a ‘Game of Thrones’-type saga (I’ve actually never watched it, but I am told it has all the same basic ingredients. Power, love, loyalties and betrayal, chickens. Except the chickens, that is). I was prompted to write this after recent events, and I hope you’ll pardon me for yet another chicken-flavoured post

Original all-female cast:

Babs and Floella – two Polish chickens, with feathery hats like ladies at Ascot

Phoebe – a Lavender Arucana

Audrey Henburn – a Cream Legbar. Quite short and squat. Margaret Thatcher looky-likey

Gertrude Rose – a Cream Legbar. Tall and necky. A bit scary (can’t stand white feathers)

Lola – a Frizzle (covered in fluffy white feathers, not much bigger than a pigeon and very bouncy)

Coco – a very pretty Chocolate Orpington

In June 2013 we became the proud owners of seven chickens, having pre-constructed a fox-proof run at some considerable cost and effort

Baz had found a ‘reliable chicken lady’ in Dorset so we collected them on the way back from a  weekend away. Seven point of lay (PoL) chickens travelled home in cardboard boxes – all girls, as specified, so as not to disturb the neighbours too much. The car smelt pretty funky for a few days after

They were all around sixteen weeks old and already they were showing character traits. Audrey was definitely in charge, and Gertrude was a strongly nurturing little thing, always the last to go into the coop when everyone else was safe

It became apparent fairly soon that the two Polish ‘girls’ were actually transvestites. The crowing after a few weeks kind of gave it away. Our neighbours didn’t mind, but we still had a problem…

In a small flock such as ours, the boys are incredibly competitive and Babs, the smaller of the two, quickly became power-crazed and dominant, while Flo was all gooey and enamoured with the very beautiful and elemental Phoebe. He would not go anywhere out of sight of Phoebe and spent his entire time courting and dancing around her, like a lovesick fool. Phoebe for her part enjoyed his attention, and the two of them would settle together on a perch or feed close together. They were ‘mated,’ though in chicken politics she was still Babs’ girl. Phoebe was a worldly older sister to the others and the first to lay an egg, the most incredible shade of blue

Babs, certainly regarded Phoebe as part of his harem and he insisted on mating with her often, though this distressed Flo into a state of insane jealousy. He would desperately try to head Babs off from her, but Babs became maniacally aggressive, regularly attacking Flo – who struggled to see him coming though his increasingly-droopy hairdo – and even knocked him completely unconscious. We feared for his life and tried to keep them apart

We called the woman who had sold the boys to us as girls. What were our options? we asked

She offered to take either one of or both boys back and replace them with girls, but intimated that they’d be culled. We were very bonded with them both anyway by this time, and getting rid of them was out of the question, so she suggested instead that she could give us two more girls and that this might help redress the balance

Of course, we came home with three more girls

Enter:

Tilly and Fudge – (the gingers) Blacktails, almost identical, though chalk and cheese

Rochelle/ ‘Rocky’/ ‘Rock chick’ (and any number of other derivatives) – a Rhode Rock

Tilly was immediately a terrifying psychopath, a true warrior with a cruel glint in her eye. She loved to peck the others, to draw blood. And she wanted Audrey’s job, though she never dared actually attack her. Punished so many times with the water pistol, I soon only had to move towards it for her to scuttle off and hide, because she was the only one who ever got squirted. Her sibling, Fudge, was in contrast the gentlest of chickens, easy to handle. Fudge got on with everyone

Rocky was skinny and a bit pathetic. Her neck was scrawny, her feathers were sparse and she was bullied by everyone. I used to lure her away from the others so that she could have some treats in peace. The others were onto me, but I protected her. There was something very special about the way she looked at us. It melted us all

Now, where was I?

Oh yes,

We knew Auds was not herself at the first New Year, and we drove miles to get treatment for her. The lady vet told us that Audrey was basically a bit of a runt, her reproductive system wouldn’t produce eggs, her heart was weak and we should expect her not to live very long

We didn’t tell Audrey, who was still a true force of nature, and the heart and soul of our flock. While Auds was ‘resting’ indoors for a few days Tilly seized the opportunity to become the new chief, but as soon as Audrey went back to the coop she attacked Tilly and returned to her rightful place as top girl. She would remain on top of the coop until after the others had all gone to bed, and Baz would go out and shove her in through the coop door late every night. This was a barometer of her health, as she could not manage to get up there if she was off-colour. She lived another 18 months and remained in charge throughout

In summer of 2014 Flo had accepted his low status (though he and Phoebe remained inseparable) until Babs started having ‘episodes’ where he would walk around in circles, and look very dazed. The balance of power quickly shifted, and his larger brother, Flo, capitalised on this. It’s not mean, it’s just what chickens do. Flo was by now very strong and Babs stayed out of his way. Except when he thought he could grab a girl, sometimes even daring to jump Phoebe

But Babs’ behaviour was becoming more strange. His circles became tighter and more frequent. He would run them instead of walking, then fall over in an exhausted dizzy heap. It stopped being funny to watch and the vet – himself a chicken keeper – was mystified. Babs was also now terrified, quite rightly, of Flo and we had to stand guard whenever they were free-ranging, to prevent Flo from pinning Babs down and finishing him off

Our solution: to build an entirely new fox-proof kingdom, right next to Flo’s, and separated by a wire fence. Baz put a huge amount of physical work and money into this and we were against the clock

We divided the girls. My little Rock Chick and the lovely Lola (‘Lolly’) moved into the new ‘Camp Babs’ so that he had female company and they had a bit of peace from the bigger girls, but the others stayed with Flo, who loved his newly-acquired top boy status and right to crow, though he used to lose his voice and we transferred to mentholated bedding for his asthma

Yes. I said asthma

Unfortunately, just a few months after moving into his safe new world, Babs suddenly lost the use of his legs. The vet again confirmed that there was no injury and no contagion, but said that he had some ‘faulty wiring’ somewhere. He offered to euthanize but we refused and took him home. He lived quite contentedly in a washing basket in the living room for the rest of his days – about six weeks – where he was cuddled and fussed, and had periods of lucidity when he would chatter to us, though he never recovered from the paralysis. He finally didn’t wake up on Remembrance Sunday and we buried him, all in floods of tears

Meanwhile, all the ‘big girls’ who lived with Flo would roost on top of their coop at night. We think it was on one of those nights that Coco fell and broke her leg. Despite lengthy and difficult treatment she finally succumbed after weeks of indoor care, just before Christmas

We questioned if we should ever have started this. Perhaps we were doing something wrong? There was just too much drama and loss

Enter:

Rachel and Monica (two tiny sister Sulmtalers)

Rachel and Monica AKA ‘the pigeons’ came to keep Lola and Rocky company. Following their arrival Rocky became head girl in their run and she blossomed completely

What we hadn’t realised about Rocky was exactly how much she liked eating. She was a wonderful prefect to her small group and a fantastic best friend to Lola. We called the two of them ‘Hinge and Bracket’ and the two of them would snuggle up in the coop, but what she really loved even more than Lolly was food

Rocky became a chubby little girl. Incredibly heavy to pick up, but absolutely enchanting, her coy expression also charmed the neighbours and won her extra treats. She was my fine little beauty, immaculately preened right up until she passed, just a few weeks ago from sour crop, and I marked her by planting a fabulous peony in full bloom

We tried to join the two groups together, but it became clear that Gertrude had developed an intense dislike for Lolly, probably fuelled by the fact that she is pure white (Gertrude would not tolerate a single white feather on Flo and would systematically peck them out of his head). When cornered, Lola stands up defiantly to Gerty, fluffing herself up in an effort to look big even though Gerty is three times her size and could take her anytime

Phoebe, Tilly and Fudge all went within the first few months of 2016. Chicken-keeping is not for the faint-hearted. You either distance yourself or you cope with losses. They all hurt

In December 2016 DEFRA announced that all birds were to be kept under cover to ensure that bird flu was not spread by migrating wild birds. They were in their small runs for several months, and the day we let them out to free range again was a joy

Sunday morning two weeks after the loss of Rocky was sadly Flo’s finale

Losing Flo was the close of a chapter for us. He had been a gentle giant, and had never aggressed any of the girls. He liked sweet soft fruits and early nights, always giving his blackberries away and tucked up in bed before anyone else. The intense heat of that Sunday morning took him very rapidly, no doubt due to the asthma, leaving only Lolly, Gertrude and the two pigeons

So, the politics were once again very complicated. The two pigeons and Lolly are in their area, while Gertrude remained alone in hers. Chickens hate to be alone – even the marauding Gerty – so in a perfect world they would just agree to an amnesty and we could let them all live together, but Gerty has demonstrated that she will not settle for anything but full annexation, so instead they sat near each other through the fence and discussed their sworn self-imposed animosities (chickens swear a lot, I find)

Chickens are stubborn. We needed a new besty for Lola and some new victims for Gerts to bully

Whatever you think – and many people assume that chickens are stupid – they are brave and feisty creatures with a complicated set of politics and an impressive sense of survival

Yesterday we came home with six new chickens of 21 – 22 weeks old, already the size of Gerty:

Mabel (a friendly barred Leghorn, who immediately came over to meet us through the fence and was destined to come home with us)

Rhubarb (‘Ruby’) and Custard, two Bluebells

Betty, a fine pure black amazon Rhode Rock

Cleopatra (brunette) and Racquel (redhead), two British Blacktails

Our plan was to put Betty in with Lola, but she’s too big and strong for her, so we will look for some bantams soon, I hope. The new characters are all settling in with Gerty, who is loving the company and has explained how things work, that she is boss. We’re just over 24 hours in and Mabel and Gerty have already formed a bond, having been spotted sitting together under the coop – most unexpected

And so our story has too often been punctuated by loss, but a new chapter starts with the introduction of these new arrivals bringing our little flock back to ten chickens

And just in time for blackberry season 🙂

 

 

 

And I’m Back in the Room

A whiff of spring and goats cheese

‘You’re so disruptive. We didn’t have any of that noise while you were away’ said Baz

And indeed the washing machine – whose spin cycle was disturbing his enjoyment of a television programme – had been completely untroubled by anyone in the five days I was in France, jumping to life only because I needed to thoroughly de-pigeon everything, all my clothes, as soon as I walked in

Back home I am now adjusting, albeit temporarily, to a world where a mild and harmless addiction to goats cheese somehow incites abuse and criticism from my nearest and dearest

At least Ebay was glad to see me

Having been thinking hard about the impending creation of our first bathroom (whoop whoop!!), there was a brief spike on my Ebay activity at the weekend. It’s over now – or so I tell Baz

And suddenly the seasons feel as though they are changing. There has been sunshine and a real feeling of spring. The brambles were already dipping their toes, hoping to set down new roots, and bulbs are poking their heads up everywhere. I removed so much debris from the border in front of the house that I had to borrow a second green bin from a neighbour, and I even discovered that there is another foot of wall to paint at the bottom of part of the house! Ha ha! Who knew?!

My Mum told me recently that her partner bought some lovely plants from a Pound Shop, and sure enough, I found boxed roses and shrubs on a shelf for a quid. The bare root season is almost over and they will no doubt be chucked away if unsold, so I grabbed a couple of pink roses, a red climbing rose and a pink honeysuckle. There’s something so appealing about the resilience of ‘rescue’ plants and they all show signs of life (the red climber, perhaps only just). I’ve stuck them in small pots to start them off and I hope they will soon be relaxing into their newfound homes. It felt good just to be planting something after the winter

My next project at home is the front garden, where I need to dig over enough ground to create a small vegetable plot. I may no longer have an allotment, but there’s no reason why we can’t grow some beans, tomatoes and mange tout alongside the strawberries. And it gives me an excuse to spy on the girls (once they are finally released from their long DEFRA-enforced house arrest – hopefully at the end of February, though it could be longer still)

So, I know what I am doing this weekend, and it involves painting, clearing the greenhouse in preparation for planting seeds and generally being outside, topping up my Vitamin D

Oh, and popping over to collect my latest Ebay purchase …

Framed at Last – ‘Our Auds’

a story and a collage sparked this post

I finally bought a frame for the little collage of Audrey that C made last year. The picture is SO Audrey, I just love it. It was hard to get a decent photo in situ, so please try  to see past the reflections to find her in the bottom left cornerIMG_9973

Yes, Audrey was a chicken. We lost her in August 2015

You might think that ‘a chicken is a chicken is a chicken’, but ‘our Auds’ was a special kind of gal

We had ten chickens in 2013, various breeds, but Audrey and Gertrude were the only legbars. They could not have been more different, both physically and characteristically. Auds was top girl of the flock from the beginning. Not in a bullying kind of way, but in an ‘I’ll take care of this’ sort of way, and Gerts was her hench-chicken

Yet, whereas Gertie has grown to be tall, upright and necky, with a signature rockabilly quiff, Audrey was always very low-built and purposeful, and, I thought, looked a little like Margaret Thatcher. Her disapproving mannerisms and discourse somehow exaggerated this resemblance

Her instinct to roost was all-powerful and she would stay out on top of the coop in any weather, so Baz would go out and put her to bed at night. Sometimes some of the others would join her, but this was intermittent, whereas she was constant. When we were away our lovely neighbour Sue would ‘tuck Audrey in’ for us

Audrey first got sick in the New Year of 2014. The vet said she was beautiful but basically inferred that she was a bit of a runt really. An x-ray showed a growth, possibly a tumour, in her stomach and a serious heart murmur was diagnosed. Realistically there was nothing much they could do, so she was given antibiotics and came home with a short life expectancy. It was a shock. We set up camp for her in the living room so that she could keep warm and we could administer her meds. That first evening as the sun started to sink she caught us all offguard by flapping out of her enclosure and up onto the back of a chair. She just wanted to roost – even indoors!

She would sit calmly on our laps, watching telly and chattering to us – always a very vocal chicken – and she came to work with me for a few days, where we set up a holding pen for her in my office, but she sat on my lap much of the time. You see, we’d never had a sick chicken at that stage and we just could not imagine losing her – or any of them. I remember that we found ‘the Secret Life of Chickens’ online for her and she watched it with intense interest on a laptop

When she was boxed-up in the car and we reached about a mile from home, she would make very urgent and specific calls, as if she had reached the distance where she regained contact with her flock. We noticed this near the same spot on outward journeys as well. After a few days we took her out to visit the other girls, where Tilly, a thug strong and fearless pirate of a Blacktail (also the complete opposite in character to her own sibling, the sweet-natured Fudge, and no stranger to being disciplined with the water pistol) had established her dominance. Audrey was weak and tiny, but she feathered and flustered herself up to look bigger, and she demanded that Tilly back off. And she did. Auds was back in charge and wanted to be with the flock, so she went back out to the coop that day, though she took a few days off roosting. It’s a very high coop to get onto but we put a small table in the corner of the run to break the climb and it wasn’t long before she was back on top each night

And that became the marker for her health. If she couldn’t get up to roost we would keep a closer eye on her, but she was fully aware of this and was an accomplished actress – chickens are very resourceful – and Baz continued to put her to bed every night so she wouldn’t get cold

She had further illness in 2014, and we took her to the vet several times but she was so plucky and determined that putting her to sleep was never an option. In the meantime we lost two other chickens, brave little Babs on Remembrance Day after a stroke, and Coco after a badly broken leg that wouldn’t heal

In early spring 2015 Audrey became terribly sick and the huge doses of antibiotics seemed to be doing as much harm as good. She had to come indoors and by the Friday morning after the last dose of meds she was no more than a handful of feathers in the corner of the travel cot. Baz said a final goodbye to her before leaving for work and I stayed home to deal with the inevitable. I put the telly on for her and kept chatting to her as I loaded the dishwasher, then turned around to see her waddle over to the water bowl for a good drink before eating some grit, and then some treats. Incredibly, Auds was back in the room

So we accepted that she was ‘different’ and allowed her to live the life she loved – outside, telling other chickens what to do. There was never any trouble, no-one ever picked on her like people say they will, and Gertie was always watching her back. At the age of two and a half, while we were on a weekend away, Sue was herding them back into their run when Auds had a little fit and was gone. When I saw Sue’s number come up on my phone we all knew what was coming, and she was as devastated as we were

So, yes, Audrey was more than a little bit special to us, as plucky a character as can be. If you are still reading this, I thank you for your time. Even I think that writing an obituary for a chicken is a bit mad and hugely indulgent, but it was the timing that caused it. You see, I am enjoying a lovely summer-sky story about a character named Audrey on Our French Oasis, and then I put the picture up last night. Things, they say, come in threes, so this post makes a trilogy
Audreynotwell.jpg‘Our Auds’ during a rest spell indoors. See the resemblance to MT? It’s uncanny