Last year I spent a great amount of time learning how to grow vegetables in my garden. We built two 6x4” raised beds, and using the “square foot gardening” method, we managed to grow quite a lot of food over the year. Particularly productive were the tomatoes, of which I had about a dozen plants. We had over 10kg of tomatoes over the year, and made just about every tomato based food product we could think of! As well as the tomatoes, we had success with sweetcorn, peas, winter squashes, patty pan squash, garlic, onions, French beans and some delicious Arran Pilot potatoes. Less successful were the chillies, carrots and bell peppers, because we located them next to larger plants such as the winter squashes, whose leaves grew over the smaller plants and essentially robbed them of light. Still, it’s an ongoing project and learning is half the fun, so this year we won’t make those mistakes again.
A year later, and we’re ramping it up a bit. My goal is to produce a single meal where every item on my plate has come from the garden. I don’t just mean a simple tomato soup or a plate of butternut squash wedges, I’m talking about a proper meal that has a lot of variety and buckets of flavour. Perhaps a hollowed-out crown prince squash that’s stuffed with garlic mushrooms, peppers and onion. Or maybe a delicious vegetable omelette.
Wait… an omelette? That uses eggs? From actual chickens?
The Next Step
Yep, chickens. I’ve wanted to keep hens for a few years now, more so since I started down the self-sufficiency path. I came across some posts about rehoming ex-battery hens from the British Hen Welfare Trust, and instantly I wanted to get involved. What are ex-bat hens? Well, commercial egg farms need to make as many eggs as possible to make money. Once their hens reach 17 months old, their egg output drops slightly, so they are all sent to slaughter and replaced with more productive young hens. We’re not talking about a few hens here either, the BHWT estimate that there are SIXTEEN MILLION caged hens in the UK alone. The BHWT (and other charities) save a small number of these hens and work to rehome them all over the UK. For a small donation you can rehome some hens and then take them home, letting them live out a happy retirement in your garden.
A lot of people have asked why get ex-bats when they produce fewer eggs. Well, after watching a lot of videos of ex-bat hens being rehomed on YouTube (and I do mean a lot), we knew that was the only thing for us. They are often described as “oven ready” with very few feathers and in a sad state indeed. These hens have never touched grass, never felt the wind in their feathers or even the sun on their face. It’s so bad that you actually have to teach them to go to bed at night and to take shelter from wind and rain. Initially they will stand still without knowing what to do, but over the course of a couple of months their feathers grow back, their oversized pale combs shrink and turn red, and they become happier as they run around and scratch at the earth. And they still give you eggs, just maybe 3 or 4 a week instead of 6 or 7.
We registered with the BHWT and reserved three hens to collect at the next local collection, at the end of February. That gave us 18 short days to build them a run and coop, and get everything ready. You can buy some great looking purpose built runs and coops like the Eglu range from Omlet, but we wanted something more traditional looking, that would give us the most amount of space for our money. We decided to build our own wooden run and coop in the garden, using timber and elbow grease. It took us pretty much every spare daylight hour we had, even working from dawn till dusk over the weekends and taking days off from work, but we finished the run on Sunday the 24th at 1.30pm, about half an hour after we were meant to be leaving to collect the hens! Nothing like a deadline to make you work hard…
The trust had permission to use a local farm for the day to rehome the hens. It was just over a thirty-minute drive away, down small country lanes in the heart of the Dorset countryside. When we eventually arrived, there were cars parked all down one side of the road, hinting at the demand and popularity of the hens. We took our cardboard box (with big slots cut out) out of the boot and made our way up the track to the farm, where we found a queue of people like us. There were about 30 people ahead of us, all from different walks of life. There were farming families and people who obviously lived in rural areas, but there were older couples and young families from nearby towns too. It only took about twenty minutes for us to get to the front of the queue, where a team of volunteers were behind some makeshift barriers with the hens, giving them health checks and nail trims, before passing them over to more volunteers who helped us to put the hens in the box. Having never handled a live chicken before I nervously picked the box up with the weight shifting around inside, and carried it very carefully back to the car, with it clucking all the way.
Once we got home we took the hens into the run, and gently lifted them out onto the wood chip floor. We watched them for a minute or two before leaving and letting them settle into their new forever homes. It didn’t take long before they started scratching at the loose wood chips and pecking their food, but they really did not like human contact and were very shy when we later entered the run to check on them. Conveniently one had a comb that was upright, another one’s flopped to the left, and the other to the right, so it was quite easy to tell them apart! Their names are Mabel, Kip (which is Dutch for “chicken”), and Optimus Prime, or O.P for short.
Progress So Far
It's been a week now since we picked them up, and they’re coming on very well. O.P developed a bad limp after a couple of days, but it’s getting better and is now barely noticeable. We think that’s she’s just not used to moving her legs much so her muscles need to build up a bit. They now put themselves to bed at night, and when you open the coop door in the morning, they’re almost queueing to come out down the ramp. Best of all, they’re less afraid of us, and will even scratch around by your feet. For the first time on Sunday, O.P ate corn out of Angi’s hand, and now all three hens have learned to do this, which makes feeding them an afternoon treat a lot more fun. We’re getting a lot of eggs from them too, 14 in the first week, which is more than the 10 we were expecting.
We’re so happy that we got hens, and we’re really looking forward to seeing how they develop over the coming weeks and months. I’ll make sure to take some more photos and write more Journal posts of their progress.
Colour images taken on a Bronica ETRS with Fuji Pro 400H developed by Filmdev, and the black and white image was taken on a Hasselblad 500cm with Kodak Tri-X 400 pushed to 1600, home developed in Kodak HC-110 dilution B