Our garden had been planned to some extent…an outdoor kitchen, a herb garden, a pergola, a grassy space to lie down upon and watch the clouds scud by. The old over grown bramble patch been reclaimed by pasture and with mowing and tree pruning, the structure of the garden was on its way. But. You read a blog post. The post makes you smile. You reed some more, you casually mention the blog to your husband that evening over dinner. Not only does he become animated, he is beyond enthusiasm. Of course we should have chickens. Should we? Well I suppose we could. Eggs, fresh daily, how lovely…yes we should. Husband is scribbling on our planning notepad coop designs….its seems we would be having chickens.
For an hour during our “bedtime slowdown to cure insomnia” time, we talked chicken. The garden actually needed little alteration. The wild flower garden would move towards the silver birches and grassy area, to make room for our coop and pen about ten metres by five metres and in the madness of the moment, I added three geese to the troop. Why not. Always adored them. They can honk at all the neighbours and I can walk them up to the pond once a week. Fun, fun, fun.
Our French home is to be a happy place. We don’t have children. The garden needed life and two legged seemed a good start.
So in March we ordered Rhode Island Red hens. No rooster. Not ready for offspring just yet. I have only ever had cats. I always wanted a dog. But with the barn uninhabitable, having pets hadn’t crossed my mind. But having poultry seemed dooable. Fun and practical. We wanted fresh eggs and these girls could lay over 200 each per year. One more item ticked off our list to reduce reliance on supermarkets. Chicken manure great for the garden and we had also been struggling a little with depression. The time taken to get straight and the long winter had taken their toll. Now with my mother ill and me having to return to London, I think Tony needed companions. We are quite alone where we are and in times of feeling low, pets and very likely chickens from what I had read, are good for the soul.
Making mud and moon rockets
We had a month before lift off. Coop to build, fencing to install and a wire fence to put round the entire garden as we wanted the chickens to have access to the forested part and eventually allow the geese to flip flap along the herb garden to join the chickens there too. The grass was also becoming a bit of issue with me and my back problem. Geese would help with that, so the second grassy area was surrounded with a picket fence, to be painted primrose yellow in time and a big pond installed for the three geese to splosh about in. The week we had to do the pond and fences it poured. The place became mud. We slipped and slithered about. Our neighbours thought we were insane. They just stuck rough wire between old trees and some rabbit hutches stacked with plastic thrown over would be sufficient. Err not on my planet.
I headed for London, and Tony sent emailed updates on progress. I am little nervous when away and the coop seemed to look a little like a moon landing space module. Two metres by three metres on legs to give the chickens shady, dry feeding area beneath, it looked huge. I kept calm. He knew what he was doing. A week later I returned. It was huge. An edifice to chickendom. In other words I needed to paint it quick. A soft green would do it with some soft grey to match our workshop. Two days later, the moon rocket looked smaller. Tony had added some terracotta tiles over the egg boxes and entrance and I varnished the main front panel and huge ramp to the coop for some contrast. A exhausting push to finish painting the fences, wire it all, rake the ground, add branches, perch, rocks and finally along one side two herb beds with lavender, mint, chives and rosemary – all within chicken beak pecking distance. The perimeter fence was tucked below ground level between concrete blogs to stop any critters digging through. Although in our part of France, the locals every Sunday, shoot everything. There are no foxes who would dare to come our way, even for a tasty chicken!
The coop has four large egg boxes we can access from outside. The floor of the coop is easy to remove to clean and we put windows in the rear to give some light – not only to assist the girls on waking up but also at sunset – when dark chickens have little sight and finding the perches and egg boxes proved a little difficult till the window went in. The ramp to the coop is huge. It turned out to be good decision. The girls use it as a perch but also at bedtime it avoids queues or a chicken bottleneck. Some chickens are slow and others want to hurry up and get their spot for the night. A quick overtake and problem solved.
Arrival and snuffly noses
The big day. Down to Gouzon to pick up a cardboard box. The box wiggled and once in the van a couple of times a little beedy eye appeared. Once home, we quickly opened up the box to let the girls out in the pen. A bit of a shake and they all tumbled out, a mass of soft feathers and rubbery feet! One poor chicken appeared to have been stuck at the bottom of the pile. A little bedraggled she seemed listless. The others trotted off round the pen and quickly found the grain and water. A welcome tray of tomato, seeds and grass made settling in a breeze. There didnt appear to be any Number One Chicken – top of the pecking order. That evening with a little coaxing up the ramp, seven chickens all snuggled into egg box one. Being young, about 16 to 18 weeks old, I dont think they understood the perch. But from the chicken singing coming from the coop, it seemed first night was a success. Except for Goosgog.
The chicken at the bottom of the box was very quiet. Then we noticed the side of her face was swollen and her eye shut. Taken into quarantine – a cupboard box in our little house – she was kept in overnight. The next day she was quite snuffly, so off to the local vets. Maybe a little cold, the weather had been freezing lately and we didnt really know where they came from. Preparing myself for a huge vet bill, London fashion, I heard the word sixty or was it sixteen. In London likely sixty. I pulled a few twenty euro notes out and the receptionist put up her hand. No, no. Just a euro. A euro? Yes, total cost for antibiotic sixty cents…not even a euro. Speechless I told her to keep the change and Goosgog and slightly dazed new chicken owner drove home.
Syringing medicine into a chicken is a breeze. Chickens are docile and trusting birds. The last few weeks have made me feel as guilty as hell for ever having eaten an egg that could potentially come from a battery hen. These girls are marvellous. I get eggs. I owe them a happy safe life for that.
Goosgog rejoned the flock with a red band round her foot, so we could keep an eye one her, after a few doses of medicine and for good measure, the rest of the flock were given some over three day period into their water. Still no pecking order, the girls settled quickly and every evening bedtime was a simple up the ramp and everyone into egg box one. Yes it was a tight fit, but not one got left out.
Chicken number one and characters
If there was a chicken number one, then maybe it was Plumb. She would be last into the coop at night – making sure everyone was tucked up inside. Larger than the rest with a dark red plumage, I became aware at feeding time, she would be first into the food and quacked like duck – hence plumb..plumb sauce..sorry. With her big feet and ability to launch scratched soil onto every chicken in her way, Plumb dominated worm searches and trecks to newly turned stones to get bugs and other creepy crawlies. Depositting buckets of compost into the pen, Plumb would get stuck in, shuffling her feet, scratching and flinging debris. The other chickens rallied round and let Plumb do all the donkey work.
We then decided to get four more chickens to make dozen. Same trip, cardboard box, home. Greeted as long lost friends, the new four settled in straight away. No feather pulling or tail pecking. Identifying who was who now became an issue. I wanted to use their names. They were all so different in character.
Tony had to make some finishing touches on the fence. If you could say there was love between a person and a chicken, on that day, Pickle and Tony found love. All day Pickle shadowed. Perched often on Tonys shoe, she found this meant worms. By evening that chicken must have had about twenty and even now, we just have to call Pickle and she is the 100 metres sprinter extraordinaire. Poor Collette was about to take her worm. The dizzy, slightly tarty chicken who liked to sit on Tonys lap and sing, was too busy thinking about the worm. Just as her beak opened, a streak of redish brown from the far side of the pen appeared. Sloop!! Worm gone! Collette wide eyed surprised. Pickle looking smug. Champion worm eater. Eats worms as quickly as I use to eat dairylee triangles as a kid – straight down, like oysters. Yummy.
Collette likes attention. First coop cleaning Collette helped. Well not with brush, but the bicarbonate of soda water sure tasted damn good! She hopped from plank to plank as I tipped and shook off the straw bedding and then got very much under my feet when trying to scrub them. Now whenever we enter to pen, Collette likes to have a hug.
One chicken, lighter brown than the rest, is Apple. At feeding time she sits patiently aside whilst the others push and shove. I put out two trays so they can all fit, but little Apple was too shy to barge in. But she lost out on food. Thats no good. The next feed, Apple was placed first by the food and repositioned as each chicken pushed her. We even fed her separate for a few days, in her own little wire pen. She looked important. Plumb tried to get in too. Now Apple isnt left behind – the plan worked. And why Apple? Pipped at the post.
We swapped the “I am sick” red leg band on Goosgog to a green one and tied other colours on the rest: Amelie, Eloise, Rosie, Teezle, Apple, Pickle, plumb, Collette, Poppy, Gertie and Pumpkin. But no sooner as done, Plumbs dark band was pecked off. Pickle assumed it was a worm. Eloise was chased ..the white band obviously made her a target. The band came off. Amelie’s yellow band got muddy and so plan B needed. Finding chicken bands isnt easy. I had to get some plastic manacle ones from America via Amazon to get 10 colours. I dont like them. They are hard . I need some rubbery spiral ones. More searching required.
More snuffles and trouble at bedtime
The chickens generally seem to pair off and you find them snuggled up amongst the stones when the sun is out or together sharing a perch. But at bedtime there were some sudden issues. We kept finding in the morning four chickens stuck out on the terrace of the coop. Eight chickens would head to bed, no probem, but Poppy was blocking the entrance and stopping the last three from entering. A few cold snaps and nightly we would have to carry the chickens to the entrance and push them in. Poppy stubbornly wouldnt go. The other chickens were nervous passing her and she even started to peck them. Having none of that, bedtime had to be sorted.
Poppy caught a cold. Mucus nose. Vets once more, and a stronger medicine given and a night at our home in a box. I cleaned her nose with warm water and syringed in the medicine. Chicken hospital nurse again. She snuffled, snored and sniffed all evening but by morning seemed perky. As we cooked breakfast she bobbed her head about curiously watching us and then ate a hearty bowl of mealworms. A few stretches later, half a tomato and she was ready to go back.
The previous night all chickens had got to bed. With Poppy I had brought along sprouted barley. The chickens loved it and I think Poppy believed she was an instigator. She fluffed and strutted. At bedtime there were squabbles again. But I had to return to London again and left Tony to be arbitrator. Apparently she is being a real pain and although not an issue in the Summer, we cant have any chickens pushed out at night in the freezing winter.
I need to find out what’s happening and find a way to resolve. Poppy must realize she isnt chicken number one. I would be very sad to loose Poppy so early. But if she upsets the flock, well then we may have to let her go. I have already grown to love these girls and feel a responsible mother hen. Its a big learnng curve…I have a growing pile of chicken books to prove it. Numerous blogs have helped too – including Backyard Chickens an American forum site full of worried chicken owners.
It seems the chicken world fall into two parts – those who have chickens that just happen to have eggs and those who have chickens to obtain eggs. I am the former. I count having eggs as a bonus.
Well there is my introduction to my new family. A post soon about feeding chickens and another about other livestock and food in France. Now its getting late, so better head up the ladder and into my cosy coop. Goodnight.
A small issue about chicken combs. Very light pink and sometimes floppy when first arrive and few days after settling. Stress. Now should all be waxy, stiff and a good healthy red. Noticed some beaks a bit sharp but will keep an eye on that, as free ranging will smooth those out quite a lot. In battery premises they clip the ends..very cruel. In the perfect world we could go and choose our girls but if they end up a motley imperfect crew, well I don’t mind. As long as they are happy.