31 October, 2010

Happy Halloween!

I wanted to grow my very own Halloween pumpkin and it all started really well... The seed germinated and the seedling was pampered indoors. It was then moved to the cold greenhouse and eventually planted in the raised bed with lots of manure. In no time at all, the foliage was taking over the bed and I could see tiny round things popping up everywhere. I had to chop most of these baby pumpkins off to give the selected few a chance to mature, and not long after this they suffered a major slug attack. I was left with some very lacy leaves and one measly pumpkin. It's tiny and there's not much to eat, but I'm sure the chickens will appreciate it.

Happy Halloween!

30 October, 2010

Extending the run

Image from http://www.omlet.co.uk/ - KIT A

I was lucky enough to find my eglu second hand (as they are quite pricey) and close by (as it had to be collected). I've had the girls for almost a month now and I've already been thinking about making the run a bit longer. I measured the distance from the end panel to the raised bed and there's definitely enough space there for a small extension. Adding one metre to the run will leave me just about enough space for opening and closing the run door, and pottering about with the feeders and drinkers. I might not be able to change the run bedding without poking the rosemary with the end of the rake, but that's hardly the end of the world.

I thought it was a long shot, but I had a look on Ebay and  found a second hand run extension for sale not too far from where we live. Yesterday, I was biting my nails (figuratively speaking, I didn't want my taste buds anywhere near my fingers after handling all those chillies), waiting for the auction to end. The result? The girls are going to have more room to stretch their legs soon!

29 October, 2010

Bath time

Chickens are funny creatures and they do lots of silly things, but the thing I enjoy watching the most has to be dustbathing.

Before getting the chooks, I bought a few flexi tubs and as one of them is shallow enough (and happens to match the eglu), I decided to fill it with playsand and compost (and sprinkling of diatom) and turn it into a dustbath. I can't imagine them not having one now because of its many functions. First and foremost, it is their safe haven and if anything scary happens, they can be seen flapping off to the dustbath, where they will wait until the danger passes. It also functions as a roosting bar (although not a very good one, the tub handle being a bit too bendy) and finally, what it is meant for, a place to get bathed.

I've seen Cissy enjoying a good roll in the bath and kicking the sand about, but it seems that whenever Bella decides to have a nice dusty bath to relax and de-stress, Cissy won't let her. Whatever Bella wants to do, Cissy wants to do. Poor Bell is trying to lie down, while Blondie keeps pecking and kicking her, trying to prize herself between her mate and the edge of the tub.

So far I haven't managed to get a picture of them dustbathing as they get up as soon as I open the back door in the hope of getting some corn or mealworms.

Hot stuff!

They might not be the biggest or prettiest, but they're my first home grown chillies, yay! I've already made lots of chilli jam, so I think these will be destined for the freezer. I haven't got a clue what variety they are (bought the plant on a whim and lost the tag), but I've saved some seeds and will be growing them again next year. Lots of them.

The gorgeous red chillies are on the plate for illustration purposes only, to make mine look even more rubbish!

28 October, 2010

Simple supper #2

This healthy soup is ridiculously easy to make and one of my favourites. The recipe is borrowed from Fay's Family Food, a lovely cookbook that's responsible for quite a few of our family favourites.

Butternut squash soup

1 butternut squash, cut in half lengthways and the seeds scooped out
olive oil
vegetable stock

Preheat the oven to 180°C and roast the squash for an hour or until soft. Scoop the flesh and rosemary in a pan, blend until smooth and heat it up, adding vegetable stock to get the consistency of your liking. That's pretty much it. Fay suggests to sprinkle grated parmesan on top, but I usually have it as it is or with a dollop of creme fraiche.

(The original recipe tells you to discard the seeds and orange stringy bits, but I just couldn't bare to throw them away... Pumpkin seeds being a natural wormer for chooks and everything. They loved it!)

The worming begins

Today's the day I start worming my girls. As I said, they seem fine, but the common practise seems to be to worm chickens at least twice a year, especially if they are allowed to free-range as they might pick up all sorts of things while pecking the ground. I doubt mine have been wormed (was much too giddy to ask), so I decided to go for it, just to be on the safe side.

As soon as I woke up I went out to get the chicken feed and measured 2 kg of pellets with our not so reliable scales. I put a small amount in a big bowl, mixed it in with a level scoop of the worming stuff, Flubenvet, added the rest of the measured pellets and gave the lot a good mix.

It's still dark, but soon I'll go and let the chooks out and give them their medicated pellets for breakfast... The exact same meal they're going to have for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next six days. I shouldn't give them any treats while they're being wormed to make sure it's effective, I must resist!

Hope it works!

27 October, 2010

Testing the nest

I think Bella might be getting close to laying. Her face is getting redder (and not just because she's splattered tomato on her beak) and she's got some wattles (small ones, but wattles nevertheless). The comb doesn't seem to be growing or getting any redder, but she does like going in the coop and testing the nest every now and again, only to be followed and kicked out by Cissy who hasn't got the faintest idea what's going on.

Whatever happens, I doubt this pale lady will beat Bella to it!

26 October, 2010

Keeping the chooks warm

It's cold, wet and dark, but at least I now know that the chickens are going to be alright. I'm still keeping a beady eye on them and my fingers crossed, but as far as I can tell, they seem to be doing absolutely fine. Yay!

They enjoyed another little outing yesterday (I sit out with them most days and hand-feed them corn, even Cissy is eating out of my hand now) and are getting braver and braver. My herbs won't be safe for much longer! I was trying to get some little jobs done while the girls were pecking the grass and it seemed that as soon as I turned my back they made a beeline for the sorrel. I had to stop turning the compost or filling up their feeder and run to shoo them off the raised bed. It makes me laugh now, but I know I'll be in trouble later. I think I really will be needing that netting.

The grass is slowly turning into mud, thanks to all the rain, and it can't be long before we get some proper frosts. I had a taste of the joys of chicken keeping in winter already, in the form of frozen water. I thought apple cider vinegar was supposed to help to keep the water from freezing. Apparently not. I have to start either emptying the water out on frosty evenings or de-freezing it the first thing in the morning.

I know the eglu is well insulated and should be warm enough for my girls, at least until the temperatures drop below -8°C. The chooks snuggle up side by side in the coop at night, so they should keep reasonably warm, but it worries me that there's only two of them in the coop. So what's a panicky hen keeper to do, order one of these?

It's a heat pad for pets, it can be heated in the microwave and in the case of chickens, put under the roosting bars to keep their fluffy bottoms warm. It should release heat slowly and keep the coop warm up to 12 hours. It comes with a lovely cover, which is probably wasted on the chickens as I think I'd rather use the pad without one, for cleanliness issues. I might even wrap the pad in a sheet of newspaper to make sure it stays clean.

Call me weird, but I don't want any chicken poo in my microwave!

21 October, 2010

Healthy chickens?

They eat, drink, poo, scratch the ground and walk about with a twinkle in their eye. In other words, they appear very healthy chooks. Despite this, I keep spotting (or imagining?) things like excessive preening, droopy tail feathers, pale faces, odd poos and scruffy knickers. Just to be on the safe side the chooks are still being fed all the possible tonics mixed with their food and water, and given warm oat porridge in the afternoons to keep them warm at night. They've been sprayed against lice, mites and every other sort of creepy crawlie known to man (and chickens) and I'm still in doubt. Should I be doing something else for them? To cover all bases, the king of the wormers, Flubenvet, is on the way.

I think the best thing to do is to stop reading the Chicken Clinic!

18 October, 2010

First free-range

After much panicking and what-ifs my girls finally got to explore life outside their run. We let them out for a little stroll in the garden before it got dark. I was imagining lots of flapping about and maybe even an attempt to escape next doors, but instead they calmly pottered about for a while, pecking and scratching the grass before making a bee-line for the run after their treat bowl. I think I feel a bit more confident letting them roam free in the garden now that I know they'll dive straight back in the run after their beloved mealworms.

Hope the weather's nice tomorrow, me and the girls are staying out!

15 October, 2010

The chooks are settling in!

The girls seem to be settling in well and are used to their little daily routine. I let them out of the coop about sevenish in the morning and take them their grub with fresh pellets. I've been mixing a spoonful of garlic powder and poultry spice into their food to help them to get over the shock of moving house and to keep them healthy in the cold weather. I also make sure they have clean water spiced with apple cider vinegar. In the afternoon I take them their treat bowl with a bit of mixed corn or mealworms and some fresh food like bits of grass or sorrel, a couple of over-ripe cherry toms or autumn rasberries, or whatever I have handy and needs to be eaten. As soon as the chooks spot their treat bowl they are lining up at the door and can't wait to get stuck in. While the girls are munching away, I'll do a quick clean in the coop, which usually means just tipping the poo tray onto the compost and covering it with a fresh newspaper and a sprinkling of aubiose. In the evening, the girls find their way to the coop before seven, and I'll go and lock them in just after, making sure I take all their food in the house with me to prevent getting rats in the garden. That's the minimum of the daily chicken chores.

There are other things of course. Being new to chicken keeping is very nerve wrecking and on the first couple of days I could be seen running into the garden after hearing any noise just to make sure that the dog (or anything else) hasn't scared the chooks. Right from the start, Hound was assigned half of the garden and the girls the other half and Hound would just glare at the chooks, until he decided to go and say his piece to the invaders. Now the chooks tend to make a calm but quick escape to the coop as soon as Hound is let out, eventhough he wouldn't dare to go anywhere near the coop. I think they've found mutual respect, as long as the chooks stay in the run, that is.

I might have mentioned earlier that one of the chooks was getting pecked by the other, so one night we had to sneak in the garden after dark (as there is no chance in hell we'd be able to catch Bella in broad day light, we've both tried and failed once), armed with Purple Spray. We managed to a) get the right bird and b) do a few good squirts near the tail feathers, and I was quite happy to go to bed knowing that I've done something to resolve the pecking issue. Next morning, we saw two birds coming out of the coop, one speckled and one half gray and half purple. It did help with the pecking, but I'm not sure Bella likes her new look.

Then there was the hail storm, during which both me and Hubby ran out to save the chooks. We tried to shoo them in the safety of the coop while being bombarded by what felt like little pebbles. We managed to get the girls in after scaring them half to death with a rake...Only to find ourselves trying to get them back out into the sun twenty minutes later. Experience tells me now that if the chooks wish to shelter from a storm outside the coop, the dustbath is a perfectly acceptable option.

There are lots of things to worry about, but sometimes, when all is well I like just making a cuppa and sitting down for a minute to watch the silly birds and enjoy the last of the warm weather.

Apple cake

I normally use this recipe for a rhubarb cake, but since I've got all these apples I thought I might give this version ago.

Apple cake

1 egg
3 dl sugar
3,5 dl cream and milk (half and half)
6 dl plain flour
3 tsp baking powder
100g soft butter
apples, peeled, cored and sliced
a few pinches of sugar and ground cinnamon to sprinkle on top
(flaked or ground almonds)

Whisk the egg and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the cream and milk mixture, baking powder and flour. Mix the soft butter in with the rest of the ingredients and pour the mixture onto a baking tray lined with baking paper. Place the apple slices on top (they will sink slightly) and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. You could try sprinkling flaked almonds on top or add some ground almonds into the mixture before pouring it onto the baking tray. Bake 200°C/30 mins. Lovely served warm with vanilla ice cream or cold hidden into a lunch box to brighten up someone's day.

07 October, 2010

The first day

We managed to get them in the run without problems and I spent the next few hours sitting in the sunny garden, watching the chooks and going in only to make a cup of tea or a sandwich. Hound took the presence of these invaders quite well, only jumping up from his sun bed when they were getting particularly noisy or flappy.

I was getting quite nervous as it got darker, as I wasn't sure how we were going to get them in the coop for the night. Bella had already checked the coop out on several occasions during the day, but I was sure poor Cissy didn't have a clue what that red plastic thing was for. Well, I was wrong. After watching them try to roost on the handle of the flexitub (a.k.a dustbath), Hubby proudly announced that it was HIS chicken who found her way to the coop first. We watched them then trying to decide between the tub handle (too bendy) and the coop (no high perches), one chicken going in while the other was already out for a good ten minutes. Eventually both of the chooks managed to stay in the coop long enough for me to tiptoe in the garden and close the hatch. Phew!

Apple's the word!

We went to B&Q on the weekend and while Hubby was looking at what I call boring stuff, I sneaked to the garden bit and the trolley was filled with green leafy things in no time. I found an apple tree (Discovery) to replace our cherry tree (that got offended by very wet feet and was finished off by a well aimed shovelful of icy snow), a fig tree (Brown Turkey) and two blueberry varieties I didn't have yet (mail ordered Nui, Chandler and Herbert got new friends called Goldtraube and Northland). And I only went for some playsand for the chooks' dustbath!

It will take a few years before we get any apples (provided that the tree survives that long) and I really wanted to make some more of that delicious jam, so I placed an add on Freecycle asking for some apples and boy did we get some! We came home from this lovely lady's house with a big flexitub full of gorgeous tangy apples. You can see the bounty in the picture above. I used just over two kilos of apples to make some jam (result: the best jam so far!) and the tub still looks full. I think I'll have to find some more apple recipes sharpish!

Another thing on my to do list is to plant the apple tree. I was going to train it somehow, but I can't decide what would be the best way. The label suggests to plant it at an angle of 45°, so maybe I should follow that advice. I've never seen a tree planted this way though and I keep thinking that to everyone but a fruit tree connoisseur it might look like someone's planted the tree after a very long night in the pub! Anything to save some space, I suppose.

Anyone grown apple trees in big pots?

Here come the girls!

They're finally here (just in time to celebrate egg week apparently). We drove to Barnsley on Monday and came back with two girls, a Bluebelle and a Speckledy. The journey went well, although it did get a bit whiffy in the car as one of our new pets decided she needed a poo right after leaving the farm. Hubby wasn't impressed with this, but I couldn't help sniggering. Too late to complain now!

I chose the Bluebelle, she was the only completely grey bird as all the rest had a reddish brown patch on their chest. She's a beauty with bright eyes and very fluffy knickers! She's definitely the tamer of the two and I'm hoping it won't take too long before she's eating from my hand.

I let Hubby choose the Speckledy and as soon as we got home I regretted that decision. He can't see there's anything wrong with her, but I don't think she's as fluffy as the Bluebelle and her feathers look a bit ruffled. And she keeps pecking 'my chicken'! They both seem perky so maybe I should stop worrying. I'll do my best to keep them well fed and hope that the poor looking one starts fluffing up.

It took us a while to name them, but in the end we named them after the Black sisters (I trust everyone's read their Potters) as they seemed to suit them best. The beautiful Bluebelle is called Bellatrix, or Bella for short and the speckled chook is called Narcissa (because she thinks she's all that), or Cissy (sissy more like, she's a right Miss Panicky Poo and scarpers as soon as we get too close).

Sorry about the poor quality of the photo (not the first or the last one in this blog, I can assure you), but I didn't want to disturb them too much while they're still settling in.

01 October, 2010

Courgette cake

I wish I had tried this recipe sooner. Just a while ago I was drowning in courgettes and now after having just used my last one, I'm contemplating the idea of actually buying some (oh horror!) to make more of this lovely, moist cake. I think I need to raid the freezer to check if I have some grated courgette hiding somewhere.

Courgette cake (adapted from a recipe in The Edible Garden)

1 medium courgette, grated and drained in a sieve to get rid of some of the moisture
100g softened butter
150g soft brown sugar
2 eggs
100g plain flour
50g wholemeal spelt flour
50g ground almonds
3 tsp baking powder

Whisk the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Mix in the eggs, then the flour, almonds, baking powder and grated courgette. Bake in a well greased tin 180°C (160°C for fan assisted oven) for 40-45 mins.

A must recipe for next summer.