Thursday 27 April 2006

Churchyard chickens

I'm always talking about the chickens, so here is their history.

About 16 years ago someone dumped a flock of bantams in the churchyard. Maybe they thought the birds could fend for themselves; they were reasonably safe as it's enclosed by railings, a wall and hedges (no, no, it's not Colditz, I mean one or another on each boundary). However, it was November and both food and shelter were another matter.

So my husband, a hind-hearted man and a bird lover, started to feed them. But winter approached and one day we found a dead chicken, killed by the cold. So the next week or two was spent sneaking out at night catching chickens which were roosting in the trees and bushes. My teenagers found this great fun. We built a henhouse and a run and they settled down.

Of course, once the spring came, they started to get broody and before long we had our first hatching of chicks. The run was extended. And again.

They are particularly sweet-natured birds - they never peck - and very good mothers. Sometimes, a friend with some smart pedigree birds which are a bit clueless about sitting on eggs or looking after chicks asks us to hatch a clutch of eggs for them. One puzzled bird found herself sitting on a pair of goose eggs - only one hatched but she must have been most impressed to land up with a chick almost as big as she was. I inherited Goosey from my mother (and promptly passed him on to my son) and he now lives in a run next to the bantams, but they visit him.

Sometimes a newly hatched chick is frail and exhausted and comes and spends a few hours in a box on the Aga (the traditional bottom oven is too warm) or inside my bra - well, it likes to hear my heartbeat. And if a bantam is a bit poorly she is brought into the house each evening for a morsel of cheese.

We started with about 15 birds and the number we have now fluctuates between about 30 and 40. Sometimes we are visited by a fox but otherwise we keep them until they die of old age. The eggs are lovely, small - if the recipe says 2 eggs I'd use 3 - with beautiful deep yellow yolks. They mostly live on wheat and household scraps and whatever they find in the garden. They are free-range; they do have a large wire run to give them some protection from dogs and to keep most of them together, but they wander round the garden too.

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