We made a very conscious lifestyle decision to live in the countryside. In May 2016, we chose to rent a house on a farm in the bottom of a little-known valley.
The house wasn’t available for sale, it belongs to the farm, and the farm wasn’t for sale either. So we rent it, and this means there’s a lot we can’t do to the house or the surroundings, although if we want to do anything or if something needs doing, it is generally done.
The free range farm is a very busy, very hardworking family business, overseen by the patriarch/matriarch farmer and his wife. They have three grown-up kids who all have families of their own, but who still come and work the farm around their day jobs.
There’s just us and them, here in this valley.
Livestock on the farm includes cows and sheep but no pigs. The cows are indoors at the moment, the sheep are allowed to roam – and it’s almost lambing time. Domestic fowl on the farm consists of three geese, two chickens, five guinea fowl and four pea fowl plus a number of mallards and moorhens that live on the river …
… yes, we have a river too. The fast moving upper River Don. The river has wild brown trout and, in season, fly fishermen fish it.
In the surrounding woodland, we also have pheasants and owls. On the river there are also kingfishers. And in our gardens we have woodpeckers, four of the finches, four of the tits, dunnocks, wrens, blackbirds, robins, magpies, wood pigeons and collared doves.
Oh yes, and we have badgers and foxes too …
Life on the farm
Because so much is always going on here, I’ve decided to add a new regular blog feature, life on the farm. I hope readers enjoy reading about it as much as we enjoy living here.
In December we made another conscious decision. We decided to rescue half-a-dozen caged hens who were coming to the end of their commercial viability.
We bought a chicken coop and on 3 December, Lara Croft, Aggie the Agorophobic, Poorly Pauline (“Poorline”), Pink, Blondie and Baldy came to live with us, joining the two farm hens, who we call Madge and Black Betty. Baldy was pretty much “oven-ready” and Blondie wasn’t far behind her. But now both birds have grown brand new feathers and look lovely and fluffy.
The chicken coop went into the front garden, in between the stable and the shed. And then, when disaster struck, and avian flu arrived, we had to buy an additional chicken run.
We’re both confused and disappointed with this whole avian flu business. Disappointed because we’ve received no formal notification from either Defra or the charity we rescued the chickens through. Confused because the Defra legislation says that where there are protection zones birdkeepers should – at the very least – keep their domestic fowl food and water separate from wild birds and – at the very best – keep all the birds on lockdown indoors. Yet the charity and, in fact, the BBC’s Countryfile yesterday say ALL birds need to be on FULL lockdown.
When one of our birds was poorly (can you guess which one?), I asked our local chicken farmer about the lockdown. They have 200 chickens and they’re all classified as free range. And she said that they’d received no formal notification from Defra either and had also only found out by word of mouth. But not only will they lose their free range classification if the birds have to be kept indoors for too long, but they also have to muck out the chickens and their chicken barns aren’t fully covered in. So how can they keep their birds separate from wild birds?
There’s a much bigger chicken farm up on the hill too, with something like 2,000 free range chickens. They don’t seem to have anywhere fully enclosed either.
Our resident farmers also haven’t received anything from Defra, yet we are all, apparently, liable for a £5,000 fine AND up to three months imprisonment. And in the eyes of the law, ignorance is no defence.
So not only have we ALL not received any formal notification of the virus, we’re also seeing conflicting advice on what to do and how to cope with it.
If bird flu comes to our valley, then our birds are going to get it, regardless of whether or not they’re kept separate. And if our birds get it, then others will too.
(EDIT: I have now spoken with Defra and they say the whole of the UK is classed as a “prevention zone”, and we come within that. Some places are classed as a “protection zone” while others are classed as a “surveillance zone”. However, so long as we are doing our best to keep wild birds away from the chickens’ food and water, and so long as we have nowhere indoors to keep them – which we don’t – then we are “complying”. But if a walker happens to report our chickens to Defra, Defra are obliged to send us a letter but are content that we are complying.)
When our Pauline got ill (she wasn’t called Pauline until then), we were quite worried. She just sat out in the rain, all her feathers ruffled up, head down in neck, not eating or drinking. We brought her into the garden, where some of the other chickens followed and then pecked at her. I had a chat with our local bird farmer, and she said Pauline might have had an egg burst inside her, and that this was usually fatal. So that cheered us up no end.
However, a quick Google search gave us a few things to try, and one of these was to massage her crop – the big, fat pouch on her front where chickens store food to be digested later. It was possible she had a compacted crop.
The poet did this first, and she made lots of smelly, “farty” noises. Sometimes it smelt of bird food, sometimes it smelt of bird poo. But it got better as the day progressed.
The following morning she was right as rain, and now she’s taken over from Aggie as being the first into the bird house at night and the last out in the morning.
Because we’re in the bottom of a valley, we’re not connected to the main sewage grid. Last week the kitchen drain (the *only* drain from the house) started to slow down its emptying.
A course of bricks around the drain was letting waste out anyway, so the big job planned for the weekend was to check to see if the drain was blocked and to re-lay the bricks …
… and there went the best laid plans, and all that.
The drain was actually solid. And when the poet checked one of the inspection hatches, that was solid too. Ooh eck.
When we moved in we were told that the septic tank usually doesn’t need emptying. It’s so big, and only serves one household (us – the farm has its own), that it’s all soaked down through the filtering system before it needs physically emptying.
But we had to find out how to empty the septic tank, and in an emergency too. And the only way I could find anyone interested was when I said it risked flowing into the River Don …
In the meantime, the poet went down to the farm to see if they had a contract with anyone for emptying the tanks – and their son and one of their daughters were there and immediately said, “Don’t do that, we have rods in the barn. We’ll come and see if we can rod it all first.”
But when we finally accessed the septic tank, it was completely empty. It was the drains that were blocked.
And that is how, on a dull, misty, damp Sunday morning we ended up rodding compacted *foul* waste. Waste that had clearly been building up since last May …
I’ll pause a moment while that sinks in …
It took them a couple of hours, one set of rods and our jet washer (thank you, Dad!) to finally clear the blockage and get our waste flowing freely again. And then the poet had to chop out and re-lay that brickwork around the drain. Until the mix went off, I couldn’t use the dishwasher, the kitchen sink or the washing machine.
Overnight we had a hard frost, so the poet was convinced his brickwork would need doing again anyway … but when I tried both the dishwasher and the washing machine (separately, so as not to overload it), everything stayed contained within the drain without washing anything away.
It does, however, still need another course of bricks, as the outflow from the kitchen sink bounces right over the top of the bricks.
Because of the hard frost this morning, the poet had to warm his car up and drive away carefully down the icy lane (we really ought to get a grit bin installed). And he left the gate open again at the end of the drive.
By the time I got up again (I always get up with him, and then get up again to let the chickens out of their coop and into their run), there was a lost sheep in the garden trying to get back to the rest of her flock behind the fence in the woods and at the bottom of the drive.
So I had to get dressed straight away and then shepherd her back to her flock.
Ee, tis a reyt life here on t’farm.
Last Saturday we drove half-an-hour to Letwell, just on the other side of Rotherham, to collect 6 new additions to the family.
The British Hen Welfare Trust rescues around 50,000 hens a year and around 300 of them were coming to South Yorkshire. These are caged hens coming to the end of their commercial viability who would otherwise be heading for slaughter.
We’d already decided we wanted some chickens, and if we could rescue any, all the better. So we researched it and we bought a small hen house (houses up to 12 chickens).
We live on a free-range farm that has had chickens previously, so we knew that so long as we keep them safe from foxes, they’d hopefully enjoy a long and happy life with us.
The house was sited in a sheltered part of the front garden, with the stable to one side, a hill behind, a big tree overhead and a shed on the other side (soon to include a greenhouse). We’re gated in and there is fencing all around, mostly to contain the dog.
There are only 2 chickens left on the main farm at the moment, thanks to the fox. But there are 5 guinea fowl, 4 peacocks, 3 geese, 2 horses, a few hundred sheep and some cows.
Living in the countryside immediately around us are pheasants, badgers, woodpeckers, mallards, owls, kingfishers.
We have a fast-running section of the River Don where the poet goes fly-fishing. And ramblers regularly use the public footpaths that cut through the land. It really is idyllic.
And so we thought the chickens would settle in nicely and enjoy their new surroundings.
We found an animal feed specialist just down the road where we can not only get our chicken supplies from, but the garden bird food is considerably cheaper too. So we have chicken food, chicken grit, straw, sawdust, a feeder, a water hopper. The extra we’re spending on the chicken supplies, we’re more than saving on the garden bird food.
On the first day, Saturday, we just got the girls home and settled them into the hen house, where we left them overnight. Monkey Dust had a gig on the evening, so we just had to make sure the house was secure in case a fox wandered by while we were out.
They were still all present and correct (and safe!) when we got home. 🙂
On Sunday morning, still in his dressing gown, the poet went out to see them. They’d laid 5 eggs, which we were very happy about. We didn’t really get them for the eggs, we got them to rescue them. But the occasional egg is a nice thank-you gift from them.
When I got up, we went out and we let them out for the first time. They were nervous and cautious and not at all sure what to do. So we encouraged them outside in the sunshine. And that was when I found the sixth egg.
The peacocks, the guinea fowl and “Madge”, one of the farm chickens, came up to have a look at what was going on, and to scrounge the bit of food we scattered on the ground. At first they tried to bully the new arrivals, and we decided not to put food outside again until the new chickens have properly settled in.
By day 2, by the way, the biggest of our chickens was giving as much as she got with the other birds and making sure they all knew which was her territory. They still try to bully them, but if I come out or if our “big” chicken sees them, they start to back off again.
We didn’t leave them out for very long on Sunday as it was new to them and we also want them to get used to going into the house at night.
When we go camping in the summer at weekends, we will have a fox-proof enclosure up – that’s next Easter’s bank holiday weekend project. But for as long as we’re home and can shut them in at night, that’s not really a priority.
As the week progressed, laying went down to just 2 eggs a day, with a possible third being eaten by them for the shell. Today, for the first time since last Sunday, we had 3 eggs. And tomorrow they get their first clean-out.
They’re all settling in very well, exploring their new surroundings, establishing a pecking order. And by yesterday (Friday), they were running to me every time they saw me, pecking at my wellies, and mostly going into their house at night by themselves.
Just now when I went out to see them, at noon, one of them pecked at the empty water dish and then glared at me. Then she waited while I went to clean and re-fill the water hopper, having a massive drink when I put it back. Naughty Diane!
One bird in particular is straight out of the coop as soon as we open it, with another 2 following soon after. Two more tend to take their time and one of them definitely prefers to stay indoors. We’re calling that one Aggie the Agoraphobic.
We also have one that is very, very bald, and while I call her Baldy when I’m talking about her, to her face, or when she can hear, she’s Gail. We also have a Lara Croft – she’s the adventurous one.
We hope their feathers will grow again and that their plumage improves, and we will continue to be grateful for every egg they leave for us. I hope you enjoyed the pictures – perhaps as we take more, we’ll all see an improvement. They’re already looking chubbier.
If you are able to rescue any chickens, the BHWT have collections all over the country.
Our chickens came from a farm in Chesterfield, and the re-homing centre we collected them from rescued around 250 chickens that day, and over 2,500 chickens in the time they’ve been volunteering.
You have to register first and then, if there isn’t a waiting list, you could be collecting your first chickens within days. We bought our hen house from Egg Shell Online, but you can do an online search or the BHWT will point you in the right direction. They’re not the only re-homing charity in the country, either. So do your research and find the right fit for you.
We made a donation of £5 per bird, but this is completely down to the discretion of the re-homer(s). Other charities ask for a donation of just £1 per bird, but again, I think it really is up to you.