Hens I Have Known
Since I began writing these articles, I have come to realise just how much my parents influenced my life, particularly my dad. One of my very early memories (I must have been three or four) is of us walking to his allotment, which was a good 15 minutes away from home, to tend to his garden and his hens. I busily helped by digging up worms and thoroughly washing them to serve to the chickens. I could never understand why they seemed very perplexed with my offering and less than enthusiastic to eat them. I wasn't aware at the time that hens are very suspicious of already deceased unwriggly worms and that they certainly prefer them dirty and alive.
Some years later, when dad had given up his allotment for reasons I can't remember, the rag and bone man, a regular visitor in those days, was doing his rounds, and I dutifully went along with some rubbish we wanted rid of and was rewarded with three live chickens. It was sometimes goldfish, but on this particular day it was chickens which we kept in a box by the hearth for a couple of weeks. Fortunately, my uncle, who still had his allotment, relieved us of them. I was sad to see them go though.
A fabulous Silkie cockerel
My next episode in poultry owning was after I was married. We had eccentric neighbours, 'he' a reputable artist and professor at the university, and 'she' a very intellectual and stunningly beautiful librarian. They had been on the edge of the Bloomsbury Set in their youth and brought lots of ideas with them, genius, borderline alcoholic, talented and zany.
She decided that she wanted a nanny goat in her garden. She rather fancied making goat's milk cheese, so we were asked to take her along to the livestock sale nearby. To cut a long story short, we came back with a goat, two geese, and a brood of chickens, which included a magnificent Silkie cockerel. The chickens were for us.
We rapidly adapted a shed at the bottom of the garden and fenced off an area as a hen run. The cockerel wasn't with us for very long as he had a bad habit of waking up at about 5am and would crow about it, waking us up, and more importantly, all of our neighbours - not a good way to win friends and influence people. So he became Coq au Vin and very tasty too.
After a few months of peace in the hen run and regular egg production, we were robbed of our chickens - not something that we had even considered would happen, but to report such a petty crime to the police seemed ridiculous so we presumed that that was that and redesigned the hen run.
A year later, a police car stopped at our house and my husband was asked to accompany the officer to the police station to identify some property of ours. Well, seeing that the offenders had actually already admitted to the crime, we presumed that the chickens shown to us must have been ours. Who can tell after a year? They were a bit bedraggled and certainly not laying, so they finished up as Hen au Vin.
The goat turned out to be a billy so we never did get to try any cheese. So all these years later, I find myself keeping hens and revelling in digging our garden in France.
We bought our current house over 20 years ago on a whim and only visited during holidays from work with never the intention of adopting France as our permanent home, but when we retired, we were able to spend longer periods of time here, in fact, the whole summer, and decided that hens would be a good idea.
We went along to the local market and bought four at point of lay. We were rather distressed at the way they were handled by the stallholder and made the decision then that we would buy our next ones from someone who treated his birds with respect.
We kept them in a large run and they were good layers. When we returned to the UK, we donated the chickens to our French neighbour who had a smallholding... there was never a plan to have these young, healthy birds on the menu.
The next year, we carefully selected the vendor. He had a couple of hens on his stall and he was stroking them, which told us something about his attitude, so we came away with five of his brood. Boy, did these hens have attitude! Wonderful, feisty creatures, which were a joy to have around. They were totally at home with people and would know exactly where we were and what we were doing, especially at meal times. We gave them their liberty and they took it with enthusiasm, visiting our neighbours down the road for breakfast, the farm across the fields, defying the dust cart and terrorising anyone with red-painted toenails... they loved red things.
They were, however, totally reliable and would come if called. They would appear from nowhere each time we sat down for a meal in the garden and would settle quietly under the table and sit on our feet. They always came back to the chicken run at night. On top of this, they kept us very well supplied with eggs. The same farmer friends took them on when we returned back to the UK.
We were chickenless for several years after that. We were seduced eventually into coming permanently to France, bought the adjoining house, and busied ourselves with lots of bricolage. Hens occasionally popped into our minds but bird flu was rampant at the time so we thought better of it.
When the dust settled and the workmen had gone, a like-minded friend of ours who had just found a wayward hen of hers sitting on a clutch of 16 chickens, and wedecided that it was high time to re-involve ourselves, so we were given eight of her chicks. Five turned out to be cockerels and they refused to live together amicably, so three were dispatched, one magnificent creature handed over to our neighbour where he still holds court in his run, and one which we kept.
After various broodiness on behalf of the remaining hens, which we allowed to hatch their eggs, we finished up with a troop of eight beautiful black Marans and a very handsome cock. We let them roam freely and they were a delight to see.
Not the best egg-layers in the world, but stunningly beautiful and the flash of sunlight on shot silk black plumage was breathtaking. The magnificent cock, strutting his stuff and 'minding' his hareem was an absolute joy.
One sad night, however, ONE of us forgot to lock the hen-shed door and we woke up to total carnage. The fox had taken them all.
The hen run was very quiet for a long time after that, but we, being totally hooked, eventually bought more. We now have three, not beautiful but friendly and productive, hens. We have just extended their run as they had eaten all the grass, but they do keep escaping. Work to be done to solve that one! But the reward of relaxing in the garden to contemplative clucking from happy hens is a joy.
Chapter 6 coming soon
© 2018 Sylvia Teale