It has been a long time since I have written anything on this blog. Rest assured, it does not mean I stopped gardening! Life just came in the way of expressing myself here. A lot has happened which I am now ready to share with all of you!!
Back at the beginning of June I told you about a rat problem that had developed here at the Villas (see post poultry+food+water=rats …fact! ).
Their visitations had reached a hiatus and I was virtually tearing my hair out with frustration at losing much needed eggs, not to mention fear of the diseases that rats carry, such as Weil’s, Salmonella, Tuberculosis, Cryptosporidiosis, E.Coli and Foot and Mouth. The chooks were stressed too – they clearly resented the intruders dashing around the run and in and out of the hen house. They were constantly on alert and had all but stopped laying…
However, in the end it was neither the poison (the little blue sachet still remains in the hens’ safely out-of-bounds feeding trough) …nor the traps (of the purchased and home-made varieties) that we had set. In fact Michael never got to use the air rifle he had borrowed, because within hours of raising the food and water off the ground by creating a suspended feeding and drinking station, I am happy to report that rat sightings were reduced to zero …virtually overnight! Can it be co-incidence? Too much of a co-incidence in my opinion after more than six months of growing infestation and misery.
Remove the reason
So hen keepers of the world take note. Think carefully before spending money on expensive rat control methods – it is likely you can solve the problem simply by removing the reason the rats are there in the first place – food and water.
The rats have upped sticks and left. Moved to pastures new and our hens are happy once more …and consequently laying well. Lesson learnt. The answer was in our hands all along and all it took was a few minutes of my time, a long sturdy stick and some string!
In late April I told you about our new hens. Well, here we are a month or so down the line and I’m happy to report the new girls have integrated well into the existing flock of two. Introducing new birds can be a bit of a bumpy ride for all concerned while they sort out the hierarchy but asserting and maintaining a pecking order is a fact of life in Chickensville.
Old girl Nugget, who had for sometime been at the bottom of the pecking order, was – much to her delight – suddenly elevated up the ranks to second in command. Whilst the very placid new girl Hazel – a Light Sussex – languished in the doldrums keeping a low profile, snatching something to eat as and when she got a chance.
Don’t worry though, I was keeping an eye on her and made sure she didn’t go hungry, on several occasions going into the hen run with some corn which she ate from my hand (also a good opportunity for us to do some important girl on girl bonding).
However, the dust seems to have settled now and Hazel appears to be much happier and more accepted in the group. How can you tell when a chicken is happy? Well, her tail feathers spend more time raised than dipped. A dipped tail over a prolonged period of time can indicate that a bird is depressed or unwell.
We’re all a bit stressed at the moment though, because we have a rat problem. It’s not unusual to get rats where you keep chickens – bedding, shelter, food (including fresh eggs…) and water all on tap, why wouldn’t they? But this year is definitely the worst we’ve ever experienced here at the Villas.
I noticed a rat in the hen run last autumn. A great big brown one. I would catch sight of it racing past out of the corner of my eye sometimes and I observed straw and significant quantities of corn was being taken into the hen house and placed under an IBC tank which we use to store rainwater that the hens share their home with, but can’t access other than to roost on top.
One day I got down on my hands and knees with a torch and had a look. I could see the remains of some egg shells littered amongst the straw so I fetched a rake and angrily dragged it all out. No rats to be seen …but clear evidence that we had a problem.
We bought a humane cage-style rat trap in the winter, baited it with a piece of bacon as recommended on the box and placed it along the rat run. It sat there for weeks but all we caught (and released again of course) was a small hedgehog. I was happy to know we have a hedgehog that visits our garden but disappointed ratty was still at large.
Somewhat reluctantly we then purchased some less humane bright blue poison-laced grains (by Rentokil) which we placed under the IBC tank in little red dishes – well out of the reach of the hens – and checked regularly to see if it was eaten. It wasn’t.
Subsequently we put more of the grains down the tunnel in the run that we had witnessed the rat using, placing a paving slab over the entrance to keep the chickens out …and got on with celebrating Christmas and the New Year.
In fact it wasn’t until about March that the rat problem raised its ugly head again. Full of the joys of spring and fat on our chicken fodder they were breeding and I started to notice not only mummy rat who we’d seen previously but also some younger ones, slim, fast …and all surprisingly bold.
I started to feel a bit desperate. Things were getting out of control and we were facing a rat population explosion.
We looked for a solution on YouTube and made a trap out of the bottom half of a swing top bin and an old plastic bottle with a hole drilled in the bottom, daubed with peanut butter, loosely threaded (so that it spins at the slightest touch) onto a rod and placed across the top in notches to stop it rolling off.
The base unit was half filled with water and the contraption put by the hens’ feeding station with a ramp to facilitate access by our rodent friends. Ingenious.
Desired result? The drowning of said rodents.
Did it work? No.
They clearly weren’t interested. The watery death-tank remains empty to this day and the peanut butter is beginning to crack and curl up at the edges.
Browsing on the internet again I read that the only way to eradicate rats is to remove the reason they are there in the first place: food and water. So I started looking on the internet for rat-proof feeders. However I don’t think such a thing exists. Rats are very intelligent – much more so than chickens – and if a feeder was rat proof it would probably be chicken proof too.
I then approached the problem from a different angle and decided to be meticulous when administering their feed, only offering their combined daily recommended amount and making sure as far as possible that the food is eaten promptly and not left available for any unwelcome visitors.
Then last weekend I had a brainwave and built a Heath Robinson-esque feeding station which is raised off the ground by hanging the feeders and drinkers on string tied at intervals along a sturdy pole laid across the top of the hen house and the perimeter fence, which are roughly the same height. I have to keep an eye on it when it rains because there is no weather protection and when layers pellets get wet they go mushy and clump-up, but the original feeding trough which is sheltered from the rain is out of action at least for the time being because it was making the rats’ life much too cushy.
And I am happy to report that the hens are thoroughly enjoying their suspended dinners – not only is it good physical exercise as they have to stretch their necks a bit to reach, but it is also gentle exercise for their brains because sometimes the feeders spin a little!
Bringing you Up to Date
The hen food is generally being eaten in one sitting and I really don’t think rats could reach it anyway, at least I’ve not witnessed them doing so. And the area where the original food trough is has been completely partitioned off with a tall piece of plywood and a bright blue tea bag sized sachet of rat pasta poison (also by Rentokil) was placed in the old trough last night.
As I write this post it is 8 o’clock on a Sunday morning, and I am sitting at my laptop in my dressing gown but as soon as I get dressed I shall go and feed the chickens and check on the bait to see if it’s been taken… so the saga continues!
The GOOD news is that yesterday afternoon when I was chasing a hen out from behind the shed to put up the afore mentioned partition, I found right at the far end where nobody ever goes, in the middle of a coiled up hosepipe, SEVEN big beautiful hen’s eggs – a secret nest that even the rats clearly hadn’t found. What a thrill!
Of course I had to check they were edible so I filled a bowl with water and did the do-they-float-or-do-they-sink test …and they all lay on the bottom like good ‘uns, as fresh as you like! Result! Meanwhile I promise to keep you posted about rattus rattus et al…
Up until the other day our flock (that at its peak reached a grand total of fifteen chickens a few years ago) had diminished to an all time low of only three old girls living out their retirement here at the Villas.
To continue hen keeping?
Briefly we discussed whether to continue hen keeping once the remaining chooks had gone to roost at that great big hen house in the sky. After all, like any livestock, they are a bit of a tie if you want to go away for a few days. But as animals go, they are pretty low maintenance and day to day care consists mainly of keeping an eye on their water supply and dishing out their feed. Other than that, to a large extent, they look after themselves and with a bit of luck a neighbour, on a promise of collecting the egg booty for their own consumption, will jump at the opportunity and gladly help out. After all, the thrill of checking a nest and finding an egg never goes away – it’s s a joyous moment.
But egg production had all but expired chez nous and we were sorely missing those large deep yellow yolks that only home grown hens provide. So we needed some spring chickens (!) full of the joys of spring and about to embark on their egg laying careers.
Anyway, there happens to be a farm in the next village with a sign up advertising livestock including guinea pigs, rabbits, ducks, turkeys …and hens. So the other day I set off, crate in the boot of the car and money in my pocket, to check them out.
On arrival, Paul the farmer took me to a spacious barn housing about a hundred chickens – pure breeds and hybrids, all handsome and all in lovely condition. I had decided I wanted four in total and went ahead and selected a Bluebell, a Speckledy, a Black Rock and a Light Sussex – each very different from the other so we would have no trouble telling them apart.
I already had names lined up for them: Hazel, Taggy, Marjorie and Pauline – four of my mum’s college friends who she is still regularly in touch with, even though they are all in their eighties now and live hundreds of miles apart.
A bit of a battle…
I was fully aware that I was likely to have a bit of a battle on my hands when it came to integrating new birds with old, as chickens are territorial by nature. The farmer suggested I introduce them straight away and all in one go rather than gradually, but to keep an eye on them for the first day or two whilst they sort out their new pecking order.
First few days
At sundown on their first day I went out with a torch to see where they had bedded down …and found them in a pile – quite literally – between the fence and the compost bin! So I opened the hen house door in preparation and carried them in one by one, gently placing them on a perch, not letting go until they had got their balance and were gripping securely. In true chicken style, as if in a trance, they barely fluttered a wing or batted an eyelid throughout the whole manoeuvre.
And three days down the line, yes there have been some brief squabbles and the newcomers are tending to keep themselves to themselves somewhat but all things considered the old girls, after having ruled the roost for several years, are being more accommodating than I expected – which is a big relief.
Now I must get back into the habit of checking the nesting boxes for eggs on a daily basis which, of course helps make hen keeping such a rewarding hobby.
We’ve had a great crop of rhubarb this year and I was wondering how best to use it… Last year it was less bountiful for some reason so we didn’t pick it at all and just took pleasure from seeing its red stems growing in the border and allowing the chickens to snack on its leaves.
Then I remembered hearing earlier in the summer a guest on BBC Radio Norfolk’s The Garden Party mention rhubarb cordial which sounded rather interesting …so I decided to give it a go and found a recipe on line by Kate McCullough. And I’m so glad I did, because it’s delicious, particularly when thoroughly chilled and as you see, such a pretty colour. The perfect refreshment when you come in after a couple of hours digging in the August sunshine.
I deviated from the recipe a bit and threw in some ginger because I love that taste combo, but in retrospect I think I was a little heavy handed with the ginger and the more delicate flavour of the rhubarb has had to take a bit of a back seat, which is a shame.
• 1.5kg rhubarb, roughly chopped
• white sugar
• lemon juice
1. Place the rhubarb in a pan with 75ml water over a low heat. Cook slowly until the juices start coming out of the rhubarb, then turn the heat up a little. Continue cooking until completely soft.2. Line a large mixing bowl with a piece of clean muslin and tip in the rhubarb. Gather the corners of the muslin and tie together. Hang the bag over the bowl for several hours to drain. (Bridget: I used a jelly bag which worked very well)
3. Measure the juice: for every litre add 750g caster sugar and 75ml lemon juice. Pour into a pan on a medium heat and stir to dissolve the sugar. Turn off the heat before it boils. Pour into sterilised bottles and seal.
4. Serve diluted to taste – suggest one part cordial with three parts still or sparkling water.
Keep refrigerated and ENJOY – it certainly makes a refreshing change from rhubarb crumble! I’ve even heard mention of it going rather well with gin…