Farewell Doris

Keeping chickens is lovely, they are highly entertaining to have about the place and the eggs are amazing. Sometimes they drive me mad, damaging my plants when they manage to sneak out though microscopic chinks in their fence or squawking at the tops of their voices for no special reason when I’m trying to have a lie in and cleaning them out isn’t exactly pleasurable. Despite all that, I love having them, hearing their comforting clucks from the bottom of the garden, sounding like a bunch of old ladies gossiping.

I’ve kept chickens for five years now and I’ve got quite good at basic chicken husbandry and first aid, and can identify and deal with a range of basic ailments. Some people cull their hens once they’ve stopped laying and whilst I’m happy for mine to live out a comfortable retirement in exchange for all the eggs, eventually they get too ill or too old and then it’s a one way trip to the vet for the chicken.

Today is Doris’s turn. Although I’m quite pragmatic about the need for them to be humanely dispatched when the time comes, I can’t help but feel sad at the same time. I don’t see them as pets in quite the same way as I do my cats but it’s impossible not to become fond of them, especially when you only have a few hens. They are all such characters and such fun to have around. Doris hasn’t being laying for some time and I’d suspected that she had egg peritonitis, which is something wrong with their egg production system that causes unlaid eggs build up inside them. Without going into detail as the evidence is pretty revolting, my diagnosis was confirmed this morning.

Here is Doris, a Copper Black Maran and layer of enormous dark brown eggs in happier times.

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Pecking order

Despite being domesticated for thousands of years, chickens still retain their wild instincts. Most of the time, they potter about the garden, burbling and clucking away in a very gentle fashion, but sometimes their behaviour can be quite shocking. The term pecking order, now used to describe any kind of hierarchy, was first coined by German researcher Torlief Schjelderup-Ebbe in 1921 after he observed the way that chickens asserted dominance by pecking those further down the order. I’ve just had a demonstration of how aggressively they can do this.

We got two new chickens a couple of weeks ago to add to our ageing flock of four. The newcomers were gradually introduced to the others to avoid arguments and I thought that everyone was settling in well. Yesterday, all of them were sitting in a row together on their favourite perch, catching some late afternoon rays.

However, this morning, I went down the garden to open up the gate to their larger run and was horrified to see that Florrie, the top chicken, had cornered Emmeline, one of the new arrivals. Emmeline had her head buried in the ground and Florrie was viciously attacking her. She’d pulled out a chunk of feathers, had drawn blood and was pecking furiously - I’ve never seen such a concentrated and determined attack. The others were all honking furiously and Florrie didn’t let up even when I shouted and banged on the side of the run as I fumbled with the catch to get in and rescue her victim. Chickens have a crazy response to blood and will sometimes kill other chickens if they catch sight of an open wound so Emmeline is lucky I happened to go down the garden when I did.

Emmeline was kept away from the other birds for a few hours while everyone calmed down a bit. I treated her wounds with gentian violet, a bright purple solution that was once widely used in human medicine as an antibacterial and antifungal treatment, particularly for skin conditions such as athlete’s foot, eczema and impetigo. It’s still used on poultry because as well as its medical affects, it masks the sight and smell of blood and so discourages further pecking. At 20 weeks old, Emmeline still has some of her adult feathers growing through so these should soon cover up her bald patch which is unlikely to grow back fully until after her first full moult next autumn.

Before I let everyone back together, I also fitted Florrie with a bumper bit. These are small, plastic loops that clip into the bird’s nostrils and form a barrier around their beak so that they can’t use the sharp tip. I’ve used them on bossy chickens before and they look very undignified but don’t hurt them in any way or prevent them from eating. It’s usually only a temporary measure until harmony is restored. Florrie is shaking her head a bit and looks a rather miffed, but at least all the birds are sharing their run nicely again. As you can, Poppet has been keeping an eye on the patient too.

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Dinner from the allotment

Mr Greedy Gardener made some cracking chips from the King Edwards I lifted yesterday to go with salmon fillet with a green fennel seed and parsley dressing, rocket, pea shoots, burnet and chervil salad and a few San Marco tomatoes with garlic, balsamic vinegar and basil on the side. Apart from the fish, some olive oil and a lemon, all ingredients home grown. Eaten in the grade with the sun setting behind the trees.

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Sunny and breezy day at the allotment, one of those days that feels like you’re at the seaside, even though you’re landlocked. Spuds are lifted, onions drying and I cut back all the dead stems from the artichokes and seakale. Lovely

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Dottie, Emmeline and Lionel like to relax in the garden on Sunday afternoons

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Yeast dissolving into blackberry wine

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Mini San Marzano tomatoes at various stages of ripening

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Late summer in the garden

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Iceplant - Mesymbranthemum crystallinum

This curious, sprawling plant with succulent leaves is in the same family as the Livingstone Daisy. The underside of its leaves and stems are covered with tiny bladders that sparkle in the sun, hence its name. It has a juicy, crunchy texture and a mild, slightly salty flavour.

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Golden purslane

This fleshy leaved leaf has a mild flavour but adds a real crunch to salads. When it’s small, you can eat the whole thing, including the stems, but as it gets a bit bigger, you’ll need to strip off the individual leaves. Pinch out the shoots and eat them whole to stop it from flowering.

I grew it in a container in the polytunnel last year, then over the winter, I cleared out the compost and put it on this bed where I later planted courgettes. What I didn’t realise was that the purslane had set seed in the compost, so I was rather surprised when it popped up in between the other plants. Purslane doesn’t like full sun so as the courgette leaves have grown bigger, it has formed a shady under storey and the purslane has thrived. Seeing as my lettuce has all bolted in the hot weather, I’m very glad of it.

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