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Chickens: Hatching, Rescue, Eggs

All modern domestic chickens are descended from Red Jungle Fowl that originated in South East Asia and India. They were beginning to be domesticated by our ancestors at least 7000 years ago. From then on they spread around the World wherever humans went and became a mainstay in global agriculture. The chicken became a cultural icon carrying its own significance for many societies throughout the World. We have learned a lot about the science of genetics through the study of chickens and our interest in breeding them. The hens we keep on the farm, Warrens, are a cross between Rhode Island Reds and Light Sussex's. They are the breed often used in battery farms due to their impressive egg laying capabilities. If you want to learn a little bit more about the background of this interesting and important bird Ted-ed have a short informative video that is worth a watch :

Chickens play a very important role in our permaculture garden. We keep them in moveable chicken accommodation that is relocated every one or two weeks. As well as providing them with protection from predators, this also enables us to control which areas of ground are being scratched at any time, as well as ensuring that no area is damaged by being scratched for too long. If we want to plant an area we can move the chickens in. Their scratching, foraging and waste will help to clear the ground, aerate the soil and provide extra nutrients.

Our chickens and our fruitetrees have a particularly good, mutually beneficial relationship. The trees provide shade and protection. Leaf litter that falls to the ground encourages more insects for the chickens to forage. Chickens help to manage pest populations. When any rotten fruit falls to the ground they will eat both the fruit and any fruit fly maggots inside, keeping their numbers down and protecting the fruit. We give the chickens a bi-weekly boost of our own Apple Cider vinegar added to their water. This provides immune support as well as extra vitamins, minerals and trace elements helping to keep them healthy. When the coop is cleaned out the straw is used as mulch around the base of a tree. This helps to conserve water, reduce soil compaction and erosion and reduce weed growth. The carbon rich straw and nitrogen rich manure breaks down and provides the tree with essential nutrients. Chickens and fruit trees are a match made in permaculture heaven!

There is something so beautiful and fulfilling about collecting newly laid eggs each morning. You are guaranteed freshness, quality and great flavour every time. The importance of keeping chickens has become even more salient during this period of global uncertainty. Having access to eggs every day provides an extra level of food security here on the farm. More people have begun keeping chickens or increasing their flock size since lockdown started. The British Hen Welfare Trust, an ex-battery hen rehoming charity, has reported receiving record numbers of hen reservations over the last month.

We have been increasing our own flock numbers. 6 weeks ago we picked up 5 hens from the BHWT. They work to rehome commercial laying hens that are destined for slaughter as they reach the end of their peak egg laying age at around 18 months old. The hens came to us looking rather sad. They had big bare patches of missing feathers and enlarged pale combs. We kept them separate from our original hens for a month to give them time to adjust and gain strength. It has been incredible to see their journey of recovery from batteries to beauties in such a short time. They have been busy regrowing their feathers and their combs have shrunk and become a healthy red. It is now almost impossible to tell the difference between the rescued hens and our originals.

Another way we have increased our flock size is by incubating our own eggs. The act of chicken mating is known as a ‘cloacal kiss’. For 3 weeks after mating, all the eggs that a female lays are fertile and able to become chicks. After collecting 24 fertile eggs we put them in our incubator and waited the 21day incubation period for them to hatch. We had a 75% success rate hatching 18 chicks. They are now 7 weeks old and have just moved outside from their chicken brooder. We will be waiting another 4 months for the pullets to start laying eggs. We hope to distribute some of the males to people wanting to add a cockrell to their flock. There is also potential to pass some on to a neighbour who is interested in adding them in as part of his woodland management system. We have seen the advantages of having a cockrell in our flock first hand. They naturally take the position at the top of the pecking order. With their position at the top secure they help to settle disputes between hens. This was a great help when introducing new hens into out existing flock. Mornings on the farm wouldn’t be complete without the sound of a cock loudly crowing.

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