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When I got my hens last year, I spent a great deal of time – and money – building a predator proof run. It is about 12 feet by 22 feet, has a large, roomy house under a clear polycarbonate roof to keep their feet dry, a layer of small diameter weld mesh to keep wild birds & predators out, plus an extra layer of chicken wire around the bottom just in case. The ground is covered in bark chips, I have put up all manner of hanging ‘toys’, branches to roost on and baskets that I can dangle vegetation from…

Little did I know, the biggest problem would be the hens themselves.

About two months after we bought them from from Edinburgh Chickens our Light Sussex called Beauty died after a few days of illness, I think because she ate a piece of bark. To replace her, we ended up with a younger white Sussex, a Bluebell and a Speckledy, to join our two friendly Isa Browns and Bovans Nero.

Alas, one of them was a feather pecker

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Seven months after they arrived, every single one of our hens has a bare bottom, with Elizabeth – the friendliest, most tame brown hen – having feathers missing from her chest, bottom, legs, neck and tail. Everywhere.

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Every single one of them has nearly bare legs, bottoms, bases of tails, you name it, they pull it and EAT IT.

Yes, those insane chickens eat them. In all this time I’ve found fewer than 7 discarded feathers. They seem to particularly love eating the soft downy ones.

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I have tried *everything* I ever found recommended.

1. Changing feeder & drinker – apparently bell drinkers & feeders tend to encourage bullying & feather eating.

2. Anti-peck spray; this stuff smells like the worst ash tray you can possibly imagine mixed in with creosote from a 70s fence in summer. NB; wear an overall, a face mask, cover your hair & wear double gloves. It takes AGES to get off your skin & clothes…

3. Purple spray: designed to disguise the enticing red flesh and protect from infections. NB my hens must be colour blind.

4. Beak bits: fitting these supposedly stops the too & bottom closing too well so they can’t pull the feathers. Erm…

5. Ivermectin drops: not officially used for hens but they are available for other species of birds (pigeons, parrots, etc) to treat many pests including feather mite. These beasts burrow just below the surface of the skin at the shaft of the feather & the bird very reasonably tries to get them out (losing feathers).

6. Minerals & vitamins: I’ve added all kinds of amino acids, vitamin supplements, oregano extracts, apple cider vinegar…

Not a single one has made any difference, although I suspect the anti-peck spray came closest.

I’m now on my final option: adding an extra outdoor run. My veg garden will largely be sacrificed, so that my girls get more freedom. Even though this is an extra £££, the electrical netting is about the only option we have, given our fox problem. I’m trying to balance their safety and their quality of life, so this is pretty much the last resort.

My aunt gave me a 50m fence which sags because the posts are too far apart so there’s extra ££ for a gate & additional posts, plus £££ for the mains energiser. I hope it works: my girls are worth it, faithfully laying an egg every single day even in winter.

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Finally got a minute to quickly post – this year is flying past & the garden is making a sort of progress, at last.

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I’m really happy with the pre-mixed bulb selection I planted from *whispering* Homebase.

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The combinations are pretty, the bulbs have coped with mice, inclement weather & fairly inept planting.

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My seedlings from the delightful & charming Higgledy Garden are doing really well too, again in spite of not much time.

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And finally, the north facing border is ready to plant, once I paint the trellis on the side facing the garden. The pond will be finished once I wash off the Scottish pebbles & plant up the native plants we chose.

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The Nelly Moser clematis can’t wait to be planted – she’s already flowering! So guess what I’m doing this afternoon?

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Things are finally moving in the garden, after the coldest march since 1962! I noticed today the huge difference that just putting down bark mulch has had on two neighbouring borders.

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This has been weeded – rather fiercely! – but not mulched before the cold months of February to April.

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This side was weeded then had a good 7cm of mulch put down. I used shredded bark, mainly because the planting here is so incredibly sparse it just leaves room for all our favourite weeds. Pretty amazing difference.

Now I need to put the picket fence for Wee Bear’s garden in place, finish weeding and start sowing. Yes, it’ll be a short season this year! But who knows, maybe it won’t be as damp as the last!

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Gardening Guilt

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Basically I’ve done nothing to the garden for months. Between Christmas, colds, weather, school holidays… And I feel guilty. The bulbs are poking their heads through, the snowdrops are gently nodding and my mind turns to this year.

My goals are more modest this year: mulch the borders I’ve (mostly) weeded; tackle the border of doom that is basically couch grass & a terrace collapsing over a retaining wall; make a better attempt at my vegetables & flower seeds; plant my fruit bushes.

To that end, I’ve ordered two giant bags of mulched bark from Forth Resource Management, who are a great local company. At £50 they are reasonably priced & will mean my weeding before the weather turned is not in vain.

Expect more frequent posts now the sap is starting to rise 🙂

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Puir wee hens

This week my hens have been laying a lot less, their wee stomachs are bare & the laying has gone down a lot. One, Violet, is really broody & poorly looking, while three others are doing very watery poo, with white pieces (I lost all fear of discussing poo when my daughter was born: the only thing that worries me these days is vomit). After a quick look at the poultry keepers forum, I (of course) got worried & called around for a vet.

Then I realised: I have no insurance for them. At £30 for a simple consultation, it would be cheaper financially just to wring their necks & buy two more! However: I’m a vegetarian, I have given them names, spent a lot housing them & we are, after all, keeping them mostly as pets with benefits.

I found a vet called Retford Poultry who are a) friendly & b) do poo analysis by post – genius. Some really revolting sample taking later, I got a call with the test results: spirochetes suggestive of Brachyspira (notoriously difficult to clear up), bacterial infection and two types of worms, even though I’d given them flubenvet when the last girls arrived in early October.

I ordered the treatments through Retfords & started flubenvet again immediately: to work out how much to add, I measure out three feeders full – roughly 10kg, then in a clean tub, add some vegetable oil & mix it up: my brother used to do this with the pheasants & grouse he reared as a gamekeeper. Once the pellets are a bit oily, sprinkle 10g of flubenvet over the feed & mix up wearing gloves at all times! This will last them for about 7 days, although I can easily mix up more.

The water is being treated with Denegard first of all: I add 2ml per litre of water & make up 2 litres. I have toads that I’m at home all day & visit them several times, so I can make sure they are ok.

After seven days, they will get a five day course of Nystan: again, 5ml per litre of water & made fresh daily. This will be followed by a course of good probiotics & supplement , Enterodex, to replace the gut flora lost to the previous treatments.

All this means we will be without our eggs for at least a month (28 days after last treatment with nystan): it will be strange to buy them, although we use a lot less during the nativity fast anyway (we celebrate Christmas on 7th January ).

In spite of all that palaver, I wouldn’t be without them – I really recommend hens as garden pets, as long as you can keep them secure from foxes and are aware of what to look out for.

This afternoon I sneaked out for a short break & planted my bulbs. All 100 of them!

It sounds like a lot but they were a mixed selection of tulips, allium, iris, narcissi and some very small Hellebore Niger (nine), three Heucheras (purple emperor or something), three Astrantia and six plantlets of ‘Snow in Summer’ – I can never remember the name.

I have no idea how many will survive – its freezing, literally, my hands were so cold my fingers stopped working & I was crying with the pain (hey, hardcore gardening or what) but they are in!

At the moment it looks like this:

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But I can’t cement the rocks along the front back in place until the temperature rises above freezing – who knows when that will be! Fingers crossed everything stays put until I can do the work to stop the soil sliding onto the ground, along with all my plants.

As usual, I took out handfuls of couch grass roots – it’s absolutely endemic in the further reaches of this bank, along with those tiny bluebell bulbs, so I’ve not planted too much along there and will cover it with plastic, weighted down, to try & kill off the worst of it (and everything else).

Now I can dream of spring and drifts of colour nodding outside my window, as I sit with the doors open to enjoy mild breezes amid the April showers.

November Blooms

I expect to hate winter. It’s freezing, invariably wet, dark from 3.30pm and just awful. I have to drag my body around & just concentrate on surviving until about March.

This year, I’m doing better. I still feel like I have leaden limbs but part of the change is the garden. I’m about to plant up a border with hellebores niger, heucheras & a massive number of tulips. The soil is like solid freezing wet clay but I don’t care. I’m outside. I’m digging. I’m hearing the birds. Best of all, I know I will see results in only a few weeks. Come January, tiny green noses will push their way upwards. One day will look out and see a tiny snowdrop, bell like & fragile, being buffeted by the frosty wind.

Even before then, I can enjoy the remains of this year. There are flowers struggling through the ‘prairie’ border overrun by couch grass – to the extent I think I’ll have to just lift & replace the top soil, as I’ve grave concerns about using glyphosate near my herbs.

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