Friday, 30 November 2012

Beautiful Blue Bottomed Girls!

Sutton with blue raddle paste everywhere!
It’s official! My beautiful little sheep are pregnant! This is my first experience of breeding sheep and I am so excited. Lilly and Lucy have lambed before but it’s Pipin’s first time so I am hoping that Lilly and Lucy will show her how it’s done. 

I don’t keep a ram so this year I borrowed a gorgeous little Ram lamb called Sutton from a breeder nearby. Sutton was born in March this year and, despite his youth, has made a big impression at a number of breed shows this year, including the annual sheep fayre at Masham.

Lilly showing a flash of blue bum!
He is very handsome, placid and a good example of the breed, so we agreed with his owners that we would give him a chance to prove himself with my ewes this year. Once his youthful enthusiasm had died down and he had stopped chasing them around the field waggling his tongue. Well, what woman would respond to that approach? The girls soon got used to his presence they began to come into season.

Letting Sutton prove himself with my little flock of ewes will give his owner a chance to see the quality of lambs that he produces, without putting him under too much pressure to perform. We smeared his chest with Blue raddle powder when he arrived and then put him in the field. Within about a week, all my little Ryeland girls had beautiful blue bottoms!

Pipin ruminating
Ewes cycle every 17 days so I changed the colour of his raddle powder to red after about 14 days, in case his first attempts had been unsuccessful. It’s now well over that date for all three of them and, although he is clearly happy to offer the ewes his services at a moment’s notice should they be required, it’s evident that they are not.

It’s such an exciting time for a shepherd, counting the days from the ewes’ cycle and waiting to see if your flock are all in lamb.  Once they are, the excitement is replaced by the anticipation of scanning them in a few weeks to see how many lambs they are carrying.  If everything goes to plan, the ewes will give birth to their lambs over the Easter Holidays, which means that the lambs will miss the worst of the winter weather.

In the meantime I can get on with preparing for their arrival and getting on top of my other jobs around the farm. The ewes can concentrate on building up their nutrition levels and Sutton can take a well-earned rest for another year! 

Monday, 26 November 2012

A Wet Weekend

What a wet weekend! The rain finally stopped here at lunchtime on Sunday so, like the nutter that I am, I jet washed the two hard-standings where my coops go. We have such a sandy soil here that luckily we don't get flooding or poaching on our plot. However, mud, moss, rotting leaves and high pressure water made for a very messy afternoon.

A big softie!
I have a bunch of shed panels all creosoted and waiting to be assembled, so I wanted to clear an area for the new shed coop to go. I was fighting the daylight to get it finished, and the water spray put the hens off going to bed. This lead to all sorts of confusion and culminated in Rowlie, the white rooster, sitting on top of the main shed. I had to offer him a branch to perch on, then lower him down and carry him to his own coop. The silly softy! This meant that I was finally clearing up by moonlight!

I then sat writing this with my laptop on my knee watching the Formula One!

Thursday, 22 November 2012

The moral of Naughty Nelly!

Naughty Nelly!

When I bought my coloured Ryeland lambs earlier this year, I was picking them for type not for personality.  Standing amongst a small flock of frightened lambs, trying to decide which ones to take home, is a little stressful for both the novice shepherd and the lambs. So it doesn’t really allow the lambs’ personalities to shine through.
The first two lambs that I selected, who I named Alice and Charlotte, were easy to pick as they stood out as being of a good size and shape with thick fleece. Choosing the third one was a bit harder, but in the end I chose one with a soft spirally fleece, who became known as Little Nell.
Little Nell has always been a bit more timid than the other two lambs and was the hardest to win over with the sheep nuts. Gaining her confidence was further impeded by the fact that, shortly after arriving home, her soft spirally fleece had got clogged up with droppings at the back end, and had obscured her vision at the front. This meant that she had to be restrained and have a much needed hair cut and clean up. It’s fair to say that, although she was eased, she defiantly wasn’t pleased!
As a result of all this unwanted hairdressing, Nelly was very reluctant to engage with me or learn new things. Sheep, like all animals, learn by association, repetition and by watching others, so instead of trying to engage Little Nell, I started with one of the others. Charlotte, my largest lamb, is the leader of the group and is confident and determined. Charlotte has her own ideas and likes to follow them. Alice too, is confident, but happy to go along with someone else’s ideas (usually Charlotte’s). So I started with Alice.
I took Alice out of the field and did some halter training with her along the track which runs beside the lambs’ paddock. Because Alice is happy enough to be separated from the flock and keen to follow a leader (especially one who has a cup of sheep nuts and shares them freely), she was walking along happily beside me and standing in front of me for treats within a few minutes. 
After Alice and I had done a couple of laps in front of Charlotte and Nell, they were itching to have a go at ‘follow my leader with treats’ themselves, and the rest is history.  
Charlotte and Nell
Once Nell understood that responding to my calls and actions resulted in treats, she became much easier to engage. She quickly learnt her name and found the confidence to try new things and to lead the others. She’s a smart little cookie and now that I have won her over, she is keen to explore and investigate. She is bright and alert and can hear the rattle of sheep nuts in a bucket, or the sound of the slide bolt on the feed room door, no matter how far away she is.
Sheepish Nelly!
In fact, the bolt on the feed room door has become a recent source of interest for her. Or rather, she has become interested in her ability to slide the bolt open and scrape the door ajar with her hoof.  If I catch her doing it, I call her name to get her attention and make full eye contact, and she stops.
Yesterday, however, I slipped into the feed room to make up the lambs’ evening feed and closed the door behind me to prevent them all coming in to raid the feed bins. I heard Nellie mouthing the bolt and when I tried to get out, I discovered that she had locked me in!
I would still be stuck there, were it not for my resourceful use of the wooden spoon that I use to mix the raddle paste to assist my escape. 
So the moral of my story about Naughty Nellie is...? 
Well, it could be that the quiet ones are always the worst - or best! Or that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But I think I’m going to go for, ‘be careful what you wish might get it!’

Monday, 19 November 2012

In the company of cheerful felines

Toby as a timid feral kitten

No matter how cold, dark, damp or gloomy it is when I get up to tend to the animals, I am always encouraged by the cheerful companionship of Polly and Toby, our two farm cats. Once they have been fed first thing on a morning, they sit by the door and wait for me to pull on my boots and set out to feed the sheep and chickens. They love to bound along beside me, and accompany me to and fro across the yard as I scatter corn, fill up water buckets and check the sheep.
Their most popular pastime is to sit on the fence posts like a couple of carved stone lions, overseeing my work. Polly sits motionless and still, stoically supervising the proceedings and occasionally remembering to blink. Toby, however, gets impatient and usually begins mewing and fawning about on his post until I put him over my shoulder and carry him about as I finish my chores.
Once my tasks are all completed, the cats come bounding back to the house with me for a second helping of their breakfast (and some of mine!) before going about their important business of snoozing by the fire or persecuting small animals.
Polly on her post
The cats are a recent addition at the farm, having arrived here as strays last August. They were skinny, parasite ridden and fearful when they set up home under a conifer tree. Toby, the weedy little kitten, took months to tame. His journey from a terrified feral to the most affectionate, playful, responsive house cat was a long one, but well worth all the patience and hard work on my part and on his.
Toby and I share a very special level of trust and mutual understanding, and enjoy spending time together exploring and investigating. I have great fun learning from him and showing him new things, and our ability to communicate with each other gets better all the time. Today he helped me to collect the few remaining apples in the orchard by climbing along the branches that I pointed out to him and using his body weight to lower the branches enough for me to reach.   
Polly too has progressed from being only as friendly as she needed to be in order to be fed, to recently sitting on the furniture with me. She now very occasionally, even sits on my lap. 
It was Polly’s reserved but relaxed attitude with me that persuaded Toby to give me a chance. Cats learn so much from watching each other and as Polly’s behaviour did not reinforce Toby’s early fears, that helped me to create a link between me and his food and slowly build up from there.
Like Toby, I too learnt a great deal from Polly and mimicked the calls, body language and behaviour that she used with her kittens in order to engage with Toby. Ironically, it is now Toby who is leading by example and giving his mum the confidence to establish an even greater level of trust and communication with me, which is really exciting. 
It may be true that you can’t teach old dog new tricks, but maybe you can teach a cat?

Toby as an adult farm cat

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The 10 secrets of chicken whispering : Part 1

He's telling you something

Communicating with your animals, understanding them and finding ways to help them to understand you is what the term “whispering” is all about. The approach that I take to whispering with my animals is very much like the approach that I take to teaching and developing people. Many of the same principals apply.

The first secret that I want to share with aspiring whisperers is the importance of understanding your subject. Take time to observe the bird’s behaviour. What they do and don’t do, when they do it and why. So, in the words of Steven Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Successful People, seek first to understand and then be understood.

Contentment - Dodger chilling out at the bird bath
My starting point when working with animals, or people for that matter, is to look, listen and learn. Understanding, habits, behaviours, drive, motivation, fears and social structures, as well as methods of communication, influence and reward, are an essential foundation to any future development.

By understanding how animals communicate with each other, and the messages that they send, we can identify how to communicate effectively with them. In order to get them to engage with us, we must first establish our credibility by gaining trust and rapport.

Understanding cockerel behaviour
 Trust and rapport can only be developed once our animals have learnt to feel safe and familiar with us. It can take a long time to reach this point with some animals and birds. Once we have it, however, and are able to comfortably engage with our animals through eye contact, touch, and food rewards, then we both have a basis to communicate with each other. As we learn the animal’s language, we can show each other what we want and what we don’t want, and our desires and theirs can be understood and respected.

Happy Whispering!

What’s ailing Eileen - an update

Although Eileen started off eating and drinking well in her infirmary coop, she soon began displaying anxiety at being separated from her friends. She had started to look much perkier and less hunched up and cold, but by her 3rd day of confinement, the stress of her isolation was causing her to feel depressed. She took to spending her day in the coop and refused her food.

Here they are enjoying the late afternoon sun    
As I was now sure that she wasn’t diseased and a danger to the other birds, I decided to put one of her friends in with her for company. Rose would benefit from a little weight gain before the worst of the winter weather sets in, so I intended to keep them in their own coop and run for a week or two and feed them up a bit.

Despite being a little underweight, Rose has a good appetite and once I placed her in the coop she started helping herself to the corn and chick crumb. This soon had Eileen out of her bed and snacking on chick crumb too!

Eileen seemed much happier and relaxed once Rose was with her and the two of them were instantly cooing and chattering to each other. After a couple of days the two girls looked much perkier and seemed to be gaining a bit of much needed condition. Today I decided to let them out of their convalescent coop to catch up with the rest of the flock.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Bothered by a broody

One of the most common questions that poultry keepers ask me, is how to deal with a broody hen. A determined little broody can be a fantastic asset to a breeder but a real cause for concern to a newbie or a keeper who doesn’t want to hatch any more chickens. 
If you have a broody hen and are not sure what to do with her then here are a number of options that you can consider.
Three hens and a Muscovy duck - all choosing
an old sink as a broody nest!
a) Let her sit it out even if she has no eggs, or the eggs that she is sitting on are infertile. She will stop eventually, but it can take longer than the normal incubation time and she may start again fairly soon. The down side to this is, of course, lack of condition (because she won’t eat), lack of production (because she stops laying) and lack of space in the nest boxes if she is brooding in the main coop. Her broody behaviour may also stimulate the others to go broody too. If your hen is one that doesn’t go into a trance-like state then you can give her treats and snacks by hand while she sits on her nest to avoid her losing too much condition.
b) Remove all the elements that a broody hen would require in order to incubate. So, placing her in a dog crate or something similar with a perch, food and water, but without nesting materials and on a cold floor in a well lit open space will tell her that this is not a place to raise her babies. This usually takes about 4 days. Unfortunately her desire to reproduce will mean that if she then returns to all the right conditions for incubating, she may soon start all over again. An alarm bell is ringing in her little chicken body clock...she can’t ignore it!
c) If you don’t keep a cock and don’t have fertilised eggs, but like the idea of more hens, you could buy fertilised eggs from a local breeder and put them under your broody hen. This will mean her basic behavioural needs are being met and all her wonderful maternal instincts are put to a useful purpose. If you don’t want any more hens (not to mention the cockerels that will be produced) then choose a table bird that you can feed up and eat, or a breed that would be likely to sell. Do remember, however, that finding good homes for unwanted cockerels is incredibly hard, even for pure breeds. So you need to decide how you will deal with them humanely and responsibly before you hatch them.
d) Lastly, if your poultry plans really don’t have a place for a determined little broody then it might be kinder to give her to a friend or to a kind and loving keeper who can make use of her talents. I gave a fantastic little Sussex broody to a friend a couple of years ago and she has raised a number of batches of chicks each year. It’s great to get photos of her with her latest batch and see her doing what she was born to do so well. 
A pair of broody hens in a trance
An option that I wouldn’t recommend for a beginner is buying in day old chicks. The Croad Langshans that I breed are great with chicks and often mother each other’s, but some breeds, such as the Sussex, would drive other hens’ chicks away in favour of their own. The nature of different breeds varies considerably and a hen that’s very broody is not necessarily very maternal when it comes to adoption!
If you do want to go ahead with day-olds, my suggestion would be to move the broody to a separate coop/box/pet carrier or whatever you have available, if you haven’t already, and let her settle somewhere private. Make sure that you place the chicks under her at night after dark when she is asleep. Put a supply of chick crumb out for them all and some water in a shallow dish. Make sure that they are in a place where you can easily keep an eye on them first thing in the morning. Ensure that the broody cannot return to the old coop and the other hens can’t get to the chicks (or the chick crumb!) 
The difficulty with all this is that if they don’t bond, then you won’t have anywhere to brood the chicks and, if you do have a brooder, you end up with a bunch of chicks that you didn’t really want and still have the problem of a broody hen!
I raise chicks that I incubate myself and, as they bond with me as the first living thing they see, I find that if I place them with a broody they are not drawn to her as much as chicks that are hatched by her. If they don’t seem to bond with a broody straight off, the hens tend to recognise this behaviour as a sign that this is someone else’s chick. None of my Croads have ever hurt the foster chicks. I have never tried persevering for long enough to see if they could work something out as I have always been too concerned for the welfare of my chicks. 
Showing baby what to eat
If your broody does eventually end up with some chicks of her own, I guarantee that you will have great fun seeing all her natural instincts come together, watching her feed them, protect them and teach them all they need to know.
She will let you know when it’s time to take them out and about, dependant on the weather, and also how and when she should introduce them to the other hens. I love the day when my cockerels meet the tiny chicks for the first time. They are so gentle and interested in them, lowering their heads and standing motionless while the little chicks make inquisitive pecks at the skin on their faces.
Good luck...whatever you decide to do.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Good Coop Guide

This is a large coop that we made from a shed
Choosing your first coop can be difficult as there are so many different types around, and such a wide range of prices and quality available. The type of coop you decide on will probably have more to do with your available budget than anything else. However, even a cheap coop can often represent good value for money as long as it is fit for purpose.

When deciding on your coop you need to take time to consider: how many birds you intend to keep, what type of weather conditions they will experience, which predators they need protecting from and how much wear and tear the coop will be subjected to in its lifetime.
This coop has a large pop hole but the run is too small 
for large birds

So here are some Do’s and Don’ts based on my experience of chicken accommodation.
  • Do make sure that your coop is big enough for the birds that you plan to buy and for your future needs. The recommended space per bird is 1ft square but birds with feathered feet will require a little more. The recommended ratio of nest boxes is 4:1 which means a coop with 4 boxes could accommodate 16 hens. Personally I prefer 3:1. If you buy a coop with a small pop hole, this will limit you to smaller breeds. Orpington’s, Brahmas and Jersey Giants prefer a pop hole like the one that you would find in a dog kennel.
  • Don’t buy a coop that you haven’t seen. That doesn’t mean that you can’t bag a bargain on-line but before you make your purchase try and find a local stockist that sells them. That way you can see how sturdy, movable or accessible they are before you order one cheaper from an internet supplier.
  • Do make sure that the coop you choose is draft free and weather proof, and also that it has adequate ventilation. Place ventilation holes against a natural windbreak or shelter if possible.
  • Don’t buy a second hand coop unless you are absolutely 110% certain that it doesn’t contain red mite. If you do buy one, then take it apart if you can and clean it thoroughly. If you can’t take it apart without damaging it, then treat it inside and out with creosote or an equivalent and wait a couple of weeks before you put the hens in it.
  • Do make sure that the coop design or location does not allow vermin to nest beneath it. Either raise it up, place it on a hard surface, or board up any openings or holes.
  • Don’t buy a coop that has hard to reach areas or is difficult to clean out. Choose one that has access from more than one side and has removable perches, dropping trays, nest box dividers etc. Red mite can’t tolerate UV rays so the more parts that you can remove, scrub down, treat and expose to sunlight the better.
  • Do make sure that the run that comes with your coop is of a sufficient size to accommodate your birds for any length of time and has a covered roof.
  • Don’t keep your run in the same place all the time if it is on grass. Keep moving it to new places to ensure the grass isn’t killed off and the land does not become contaminated.
  • Do make sure that foxes and other predators cannot dig under your run by laying paving stones around it, or digging in wire around it.

This small coop is ideal for a few backyard bantams

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Starting With Hens

For those of you who are contemplating keeping hens for the first time here is a list of all the things that you would need and a rough idea of cost for the essentials.

Accommodation, feed and equipment

  • Readymade coop suitable for 6 hens - £250
  • Plastic Water hopper - £10
  • Plastic feed hopper with cover - £12
  • Coop mounted grit dish - £3
  • Bag of layers pellets - £9
  • Bag of poultry corn - £8
  • Bag of poultry grit -£2
  • Bale of shavings for bedding - £4
  • Bale of straw for nest boxes - £4
  • Miscellaneous bits and bobs such as coop disinfectant, poultry spice, poultry tonic, wormer, lice powder red mite spray, cod liver oil, Vaseline diatom etc - £50.

The Chickens themselves

  • Ex battery hens £1 each (but due to the poor condition of the birds you might want to add special Ex-bat feed to the list above).
  • Unsexed growers or hybrid pullets range from £5 to £15 (for growers you will need to add growers pellets to the list above).
  • Pure breed - £20 + dependant on quality.

Other things you might need
  • A suitably sized run or fox proof electric poultry netting and battery.
  • Plastic feed bins to keep their food safe from vermin, plus a scoop.
  • Poultry carrier for taking them to shows, vets etc.
  • Heat lamps, lighting or heated pads to prevent water freezing in bad weather.
  • Automatic pop hole opener.
  • Poultry books, magazines and breed society fees.

Hope this helps!

Thursday, 8 November 2012

What’s Ailing Eileen?

An occupational hazard of keeping chickens is that occasionally they get ill. This week it appears to be Eileen’s turn. Eileen has always been the one of those hens who trails behind all the others and, while I wouldn’t quite describe her as two beats behind the band, she is definitely the last one to arrive at the party. This means that she is the sort of bird whose lack of condition could easily be missed by many keepers and especially those with a busy schedule and a large flock.
Obviously under the weather.
It takes a keen eye to spot the early signs of deterioration in a bird that is not as forward as the others and a slightly hunched posture can seem like just a reaction to the freezing temperatures especially when other birds are doing the same. But experience and knowledge of my individual birds has taught me to tell the difference and she quickly caught my attention.
She started showing signs of feeling under the weather earlier in the week and I have been keeping a close eye on her and checking her weight and her crop. The early signs were dull eyes and reduced enthusiasm for her food. Although she is eating, she had stopped making the little pworking and cooing noises that the others make and gradually began to look a bit hunched and miserable.
Chickens do occasionally get ill and then bounce back but sometimes sadly they do not, despite a lot of effort. My first chicken to ever get ill was my most favourite hen Bluebell. Despite rushing her to the vet for antibiotics, squirting water and oil down her throat and massaging her crop, I couldn’t hold on to her. I was heartbroken, much more upset than I imagined I would ever be about a chicken. 
Bright eyed and bushy tailed!
Bluebell taught me so much about the wonderful nature of Croads but perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned from her was that sometimes, no matter how much you love them and how much you try...chickens die.
When working out what action to take about a sick hen, I find that I try and strike a balance between how ill they are and how much stress I will subject them to by handling and confining them. An early inspection is essential however and any hen which is injured or in pain should be treated by a vet or dispatched and not allowed to suffer.  The birds that I hatch in the incubator are much more relaxed when being brought into the utility room to be cared for indoors, but Eileen was raised by a broody so treating her outdoors will be the least stressful for her. Birds which are very ill will be too sick to care where they are treated. Fortunately little Eileen is not at that point yet.
Having worked a little diatomaceous earth into the hens’ feed this week to tackle any internal parasites, and some poultry tonic into their water in an attempt to give them all a little boost, everyone is looking bright eyed and bushy tailed...except Eileen.  I decided to put her in a coop of her own today with a dish of chick crumb, mixed with a little corn and dusted with poultry spice.  Chick crumb is easier to digest than layers pellets and has higher levels of protein, as well as being medicated, so this should help her condition. 
She is well enough to potter about the coop and wander up and down trying to work out how to get out and join the others. My aim over the next few days is to try and get her to eat as much as possible and build up her condition. Tempting her to fill up on her favourite things will be the secret, so tuna, egg, porridge, cheese and even cat food will be on the menu.  My only challenge may be that if she gets too agitated by being confined, she won’t want to eat. I’ll let you know.
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