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 🙂

 

 

 

Stationed at Slough

Is there anything better than a Victorian station with a stuffed dog?

I hate Slough. I love stations

However much I dislike Slough, it provides a fantastic train artery. If I am sitting on one of its station platforms I am either heading off on an adventure towards the countryside of the West, or East into my old friend Paddington, from where I can access the throng of London and the rest of the country

I love adventures, and this is a route steeped in fond memories. In the eighties I used to finish work at 8.30 on a Sunday night and frantically ‘tube it’ from Bond Street to Paddington to catch the 9.10 train to go home to Bath. One Sunday, a passenger called Solomon sat next to me. He spent the weekend with his family and then worked Monday to Friday in Penzance. We got on so well that it became our weekly routine to seek each other out, and sit together drinking gin and playing backgammon

One Wednesday, as my late-afternoon return train from Bath emptied onto a Paddington platform, an announcement came over the tannoy: ‘Would Mr Brown meeting Mr P Bear please go to the Lost Property Department’

On the repetition it was cut short: ‘Would Mr Brown meeting Mr P ….’

Must have been a new guy. Hundreds of passengers sniggered

But, I digress…

Last Sunday C and I headed to Olympia to visit a customer at a trade show. As we waited for our train to arrive at Slough, C asked if Station Jim was still around, and suggested we go and pay our respects

Station Jim was a sick stray, adopted in the 1890s by the station staff. Taught to cross the tracks only by the bridge, he apparently took the occasional train journey but was always spotted by staff at other stations and sent home. For the most part he was happy just to collect donations for local causes, and he seems to have led a pretty good (if short) life. Upon his sudden death at home one evening in 1896 the station staff and local residents paid for him to be ‘stuffed’ and mounted on display on Platform 5, where he remains, proudly dressed in his collection harness station jimHowever gruesome this Victorian behaviour sounds, he must have been very loved, don’t you think?

One hundred and twenty years on he’s still in pretty good nick and he looks very noble. He has a very prominent spot on the main platform to Paddington, so that new people still see him for the first time every day – not something that a simple plaque could have achieved

And those of us who have ‘known’ him for years continue to visit

 

 

Drenched and Delicious

Strength and beauty in the wake of the storm

I just had to share these poppies I snapped on my phone this morning. Despite their delicacy they have survived last night’s torrential rainIMG_2728

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IMG_2749Some had folded over their silken petals IMG_2745 in an attempt to protect themselvesIMG_2736

IMG_2751The bees fed wellIMG_2756Next year’s legacy is assured