Month: May 2014

One thing a hen-keeper should never do

In March one of my legbars, Masala, fell ill, stopped laying, and – only days after I took her to the vet (Lady Dane, just outside Faversham) – went and died on me. Now the Lady Dane veterinary centre is fantastic and I love the receptionists, who always ask you the name of your pet – but a session there costs more than the bird itself.

So feeling a twit and a failure I decided the only remedy was to replace her – possibly with two birds. Legbars lay blue eggs, so they are pretty special. A carton of blue eggs makes a terrific present. Crested legbars also have wonderful topknots behind their combs, which makes them look like a dowager duchess. This beauty is Missie – more of her later.

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But legbars are not easy to find. Dudley Mallett – of Highdown Poultry and where I bought my hybrids – used to breed legbars, but had retired. None of the people my hen-keeping friends recommended had any, so I chanced it. After a few hours browsing online I found a place within driving distance that had a couple of pullets. Were they vaccinated? “Oh, yes,” a jolly sounding woman said. The place rang a bell, but I was in a hurry. An hour later I chose an entrancing little POL legbar (Grable) and handsome Betty, the buff Sussex. Looking back I’m pretty sure it was the place the author, colleague and hen-keeper Martin Gurdon warned me against.

It was only when I arrived back home that I noticed Grable was sneezing and had a squeaky Marilyn Monroe-like voice. Was this a reaction to the oil-seed rape in full flower in the surrounding fields? Or dust from the new coop? Or something more sinister… Betty had black marks on her beak and seemed not quite with it. I took this to be stress from the move.

I don’t have a separate coop, so I let them run with the others that evening.

And that’s when it all started to go wrong. Grable, who was mercilessly bullied (especially by Missie) never got better. She wheezed and gurgled and struggled to breathe. I took her to Lady Dane. Chest infections can be picked up from anywhere said the vet. “Keep an eye on her. And try Mintamix Respiratory Conditioner.” Mintamix, which you drop into the drinking water, didn’t help. Grable grew weaker and thinner and finally my neighbour  R. put her down. A couple of weeks ago Missie (she’s there in the picture), started wheezing. She died on my lap just a few days ago. Betty also started sneezing, and took to laying eggs with no shells in the middle of the night. Then the fox took Vindaloo.

“Don’t be sentimental,” said R yesterday. “You can’t introduce more birds while the existing ones aren’t right. I’d do away with them all, clean out the coop, then wait a few weeks.” Kind R. wrung Betty and Madam’s necks, and I carried my last two hens to the top of the field to bury them.

I have to wait two weeks until I can restock. It feels like a long time.


If you are a newcomer, the best starting point is The Poultry Club , which lists approved hen breeders. And do read Martin Gurdon’s book Doing Bird. It is the best book I’ve ever read on hen-keeping.


It happened so fast

Wow! 9am, gazing out of the back door, I just caught sight of a blur of black feathers whip past the paddock gate. It was Vindaloo, the black rock hen, moving at speed. Here she is a couple of days ago, scaling my anti-hen defence – a bamboo cane across the top of the paddock gate that’s supposed to stop the chickens from power jumping into the garden where they are NOT allowed. It never stopped Vindie.

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She’s always been an athletic bird. I bought her, with three other POL hybrid pullets last spring from Dudley Mallet in High Halden. So, Vindie moving at speed? I didn’t think too much about it.

Still, I wandered out, coffee in hand to see what was up. I could hear Madam, the bluebell – pictured here behind the legbar’s tail, and Betty the buff Sussex, breaking off their morning egg-laying song and clucking in alarm.


But no sign of Vindie. I opened the egg-laying boxes; a single egg, but no hen. Nothing round the back of the pen. I checked by the veg patch – and there, by the fence, lay a pile of black feathers. Just a few – so it was possible she had been caught, but got away not too badly harmed. I climbed behind the compost heap (where they love to hide) – nothing. A trail of feathers, leading to further up the paddock up to the hedge gave it all away; it must have been a fox dragging her off.

She’s the second hen taken by a predator, and it’s hard to describe the sense of loss. You learn how to take care of hens the hard way. It’s great to see them free-ranging around and about, but they’ll only ever be safe in a pen, and even then, it’s hard to ensure against a hungry fox.

I need to restock: with only two hens left I’m running low on eggs – and I’ll come to that next.