I was going to tell you about winter pruning this week, and I shall be sharing my love of pruning with you in due course – which will doubtless leave you all completely breathless with excitement – but an even more exciting story about chickens emerged this week. Eagle-eyed Facebook friends of ours that are blessed with any sort of short term memory will have noticed that we have diversified into a large agro-business, um, smallholders, that is, some people with a lot of vines and a few chickens in the last couple of weeks.
When we first bought the land we had big plans for the parts of it that we did not intend to plant vines in. We immediately fenced off a piece of it that was very nearly the size of our bathroom (fencing is quite expensive, and we were spending every available penny on the vines) a mere quarter mile from where we were living (I don’t recall why we didn’t do it by the front door) and planted some food crops in it. Safe in the knowledge that we would soon be completely unaffected by the spike in food prices that had people rioting in Africa at the time. Fast forward three months and our colossal vegetable patch hds disappeared under a huge pile of weeds and I couldn’t find it. We have tried growing things closer to the house in a larger plot, only to discover that weeding isn’t exactly the thing after a long day spent tending the plants on which we depend for a living.
You will imagine my surprise and delight when Lucy* found someone who was literally giving away a chicken coop and arranged to pick it up. It was looking very sad indeed when it arrived, but unabashed, for only very nearly the price of buying a new one, I was able to patch it up and get it back to working order. And it would very likely have spent the next five or six years sat there, waiting for one of the children to take an interest in it, had Lucy not found another person who was giving away perfectly good chickens that were still capable of laying some eggs.
Now I can’t say for sure as I have no real evidence, but I suspect that Lucy secretly raids those clothes for the poor boxes on the way to work and goes around like a homeless person, looking for kindly people to take pity on her and give her awesome stuff for free.
What an absolute result! We were playing at being proper farmers! Lucy and I were happy because of the extreme low price that being farmers had cost, the children were happy as they had something other than the dogs to chase around and the chickens were happy because they had acres of countryside to roam in and only some rabbits to worry about. Which they could no doubt peck into submission if they tried to steal their food. Our perfectly happy chickens lasted for exactly five days. I was busy putting up a wind turbine and noticed that one of the chickens was sort of head butting the fence around the garden, attempting to fit through a gap that was much too small for it.
I was immediately suspicious. The chickens had been wandering around for days and were well acquainted with the garden, specifically where the gate was, so I went to investigate. Something, probably something quite a bit larger than the accursed rabbits, had murdered the other three chickens. Worse, they hadn’t taken more than one head to eat from three chickens, which seems rather a lot like vandalism. The remaining bird spent the next few days cowering in the coop and resolutely refused to lay any eggs. As luck would have it, Lucy managed to acquire yet another gratis chicken (more tatty clothes), so we are now back up to two, and the original one – which we are calling Survivor – seems much happier. And all we have to do now is convince John (who has just turned three) that we only ever had two chickens and that there are none missing when he asks where the other ones are and we are all set.
Surely this must be the end of the chicken flavoured excitement? There couldn’t possibly be any more! But wait! There is!
As we were keen to finally make the small holding thing work, we went out and bought quite a lot of fencing to make a run for the chickens that would allow them a free range lifestyle with battery hen levels of security. And they appeared to be having a good time, going around pecking the ground and eating things until one of them escaped yesterday while Lucy was at home alone with the children. I knew that the new chicken (henceforth known as Lightning) was trouble the moment that it started terrorising Survivor and pecking away at the executive gate that I had installed in their run (two pallets lashed together).
When I arrived home, it was dark and Lightning was still on the loose. We couldn’t possibly lose yet another chicken and show our faces in the pretend farming public again. Not even one that is a trouble causing bully, so I grabbed my torch and resolved to find her. I walked around and around, through weeds and over hills, looking and listening for some sign of Lightning. I even stalked a rabbit and a raven for a while before working out that chickens don’t live in holes or at the top of trees. I was just about to return, dejected, when Lucy suggested taking Tilly, our youngest and stupidest gun dog to help track our escapologist chicken.
And do you know what? It was absolutely thrilling. I told Tilly what I expected from her and she went straight off into the woods behind our house, with me in hot pursuit, convinced that Lightning would be back in the fold and providing us with tip top eggs in no time. I went up and down hills, along pathways and through a seemingly endless supply of prickly holly that Tilly was astonishingly good at leading me through. It was on our third lap of the same half acre of woodland that it occurred to me that Tilly was under the impression that I was taking her for a walk and that we hadn’t actually trained her to track things. I extinguished our last hope of finding lightning along with the torch and headed for home, contemplating just how appropriate Survivor’s name now was. I was just about to get home and tell Lucy to dig out her homeless costume again when I tripped over the chicken that Tilly had just walked past, missing it by inches, without spotting.
If you are wondering, at the time of writing, we still have two chickens, exactly how is anybody’s guess…