Well. That’s a big “well” followed by a big deep sigh. And a bit of a shudder. You see, this post – that I’ve been composing in my head since we began building in August, was going to be one of absolute delight and excitement …
… and there still is an element of that. But there’s also been a lot of forehead slapping, cringing, amazement, horror, tears. And a good dose of shame. I do believe this last one is a valuable emotion to experience because it makes me do better next time.
We’ve been dreaming of our own chickens for years. Back in August, we decided that if we waited until we had plenty of money to build the perfect chicken coop, we would be waiting for ever. So we decided to do what folk used to do – use what we could find. I had my copy of Storey’s Guide to Chickens open every night. I had read hours of information on the different Australian Department of Primary Industries websites, local government ordinances, RSPCA and backyard chicken keeping forums. I had contacted so many chicken breeders. We had talked about why we wanted to keep chickens and what was important to us. I felt informed.
So, I spent a few weeks gathering useful and appropriate hard rubbish (it’s amazing what builders throw out) and one sunny winter morning we laid it all out, Julian stared at it for a very long time, to sort out what was useful and what he could do with the curious assortment of materials before him, and we started building our chicken coop.
Meanwhile, I scoured the listings for chickens for sale and as mentioned, spoke to lots of breeders. Friends had spoken lovingly about their Isa Browns (specially bred layers) that were cheerful and gentle family chooks that laid plenty of eggs and were easy to source and inexpensive. Aunty Cate even suggested we adopt Isa Browns from a rescue organisation that gets them from battery farms. But I had my heart set on Orpingtons. We even put in orders that never arrived. Pure breed chooks were hard to find. Wee little chickens -much easier – but we didn’t have the set up for raising them. We needed bigger girls. Things ground to a halt and with Christmas holidays coming up, we put our chicken plans on the back burner.
Fast forward to last week’s cherry picking adventure. On our way to the cherry farm we noted a sign that said “Local Honey” – I love real honey – so told Abby and Sacha to look out for it on our way home. They did, we pulled in to a lovely farm driveway, bounced along the potholes and when we pulled up, not only was there honey, there were chickens. Beautiful toasty red Isa Browns strutting about all over the place – peering out at us from old corrugated sheds, standing on old ploughs, gathered next to an old tractor – it was picturesque. As was the farmer – an elderly gentleman who when he appeared, the chickens came running and plonked down at his feet to be picked up. Which he did.
I’ve since hung the feeder and waterer – so as to reduce the amount of dirt the girls chuck in!
And guess what – he had point of lay hens for sale. Well – my Orpington dreams flapped out of my head quicker than you could say omlette and with my honey tucked under my arm, I wandered the farm with him, meeting his girls and listening and taking careful note of his 50 years of experience raising chickens for eggs. He reminded me so much of my grandad, with his gentleness, cheerful nattering and stories of long ago.
Just last week, we listened to Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall opine on the importance of getting acquainted with real farming folk when you start your small holding – people in the know who can lend a hand and tell you how it is. I thought I’d found the chicken version.
And he is – well sort of. Abby, Sacha and I were back on Saturday. We’d bought our feed, feeding and watering troughs, bedding, and Julian was at home putting the finishing touches on our chicken coop. Following the farmer’s advice on what to look for, I picked out our four chickens. We popped them in the big Christmas tree box in the back of the car and brought them home.
Julian was just about done. I helped finish the fence – star pickets and steel compost heap panels and as the sun vanished, we gently lifted each of our girls out of the box and into their new yard with coop, complete with a lovely heavy branch – knotty and barky – screwed into each end of the coop for roosting. Plenty of room for all. Big old trees for shade. Two metre high fencing on two sides, with chicken wire dug in around the bottom. The sewing shed on the third side. Our picket and panel fence on the fourth.
At this moment, the bubble of joy burst. Julian looked closely at the hen in his arms. Then at each of her sisters. “You’ve bought debeaked birds?” Open hole of horror, shame and stupidity and let me climb on in.
I was amazed. I hadn’t noticed. I’d been on the farm for the best part of two hours on two different occasions and hadn’t noticed. I’d talked with the farmer about their age, general health and prospects, and about their immunisations. I’d seen his set up. I’d read the books. Debeaking hadn’t even featured in my novice, city-slicker chicken world. I didn’t even remember that the practice existed.
I’ve seen Food Inc. I’ve watched documentaries on the horrors of industrialised chicken farming. I’ve read so*many*books. I’m sure the inhumanity and cruelty of debeaking has flashed before my eyes and I bet I’ve even nobly lamented its practice, but did I think of this last week. Nope. They looked such happy, healthy, free roaming chickens.
What a dolt. So thoughtless. Such a good lesson. Abby’s amazement was accompanied by “But we try so hard to do the right thing?!” Yep. But as Yoda would say, “Try not! Do!” And I didn’t.
Our poor wee girls. They have such stunted little beaks. I’ve since read terrible things about debeaking – both the acute pain and terror, as well as the lifelong chronic pain and difficulty feeding. Our girls seem to cope fine with their pellets, but only Benny and Letty can catch bugs – poor old Souffie and Nog’s beaks are especially short. They haven’t been able to eat the corn cobs I gave them this morning as a treat – they even struggle with greens.
However, they do seem to enjoy pecking about the ground and display all kinds of good chicken behaviour. They’ve even laid us four eggs already. One on Sunday, a teeny wee one yesterday (I imagine it was the very first egg for one of them) and two today. Today’s first egg was Benny’s – Abby and I were in the run with the other three – having a cuddle with Letty who’s very snuggly – and we saw Benny sitting on the nest, squawking away in the most operatic fashion. After she hopped off and we checked – yup! An egg.
How extraordinary. We treat them so harshly and with such little respect and yet continue to take advantage of the richness they offer us in return. We take those eggs and bake them, fry them, poach them, turn them into cakes and custards and pies and quiches. Without them, our kitchen is rather barren. And yet, in return, we chop off their beaks. I don’t think we’re particularly deserving of the livestock (note the first part of that word … LIVE) that sustain us.
I was so sad Julian suggested taking our girls back to the farmer. But I can’t do that – in fact, how dare I! Mum will nod knowingly at this point. I’m famous in my family for being the passionate advocate for the unfortunate. We brought our girls home – and we have a lovely home for them. We named them – carefully noting their individual features … Nog has the smallest comb, Souffie is the tallest by far, Benny has the darkest collar, and Letty’s collar is speckled with white. We accepted responsibility for their wellbeing – for their very lives. When the weather cools down a little, I will make them warm mash with milk and veggies all squashed up. We will love them, care for them and be grateful for their eggs.
I have learnt a very valuable lesson. Things are not always as they seem. So keep notes ON PAPER (not just in head which has a tendency to be a bit sieve-like at times). Be extra cautious. Don’t just trust that people will do the right thing and support what you support just because they are nice and friendly.
We’ve started a noticeboard of all the things we need to remember about our chickens – little notes with important reminders. We’re hopeful this knowledge will become part of who we are.
:: yet another deep sigh ::
So that’s our chicken story. An unfortunate introduction, but I am hopeful it will grow to be a rich and merry story. That’s all we can do, isn’t it. Hope and learn.
p.s. there’s a few finishing touches to put on the coop – some weighted waterproof canvas to flap over the top (that closest panel of laser light lifts up) to keep out the rain but still let us open that part of the roof. And I want to paint it red :-) That will be lovely and cheery – and definitely bunting. Special chicken bunting!