Ducks · Life in the Countryside

Let’s get ducks

I’m not going to lie the past six months have been tough, really tough. Living in a caravan over winter has not been fun. I’ll do an update at some point on what’s been going on the past few months but first let me introduce you to our latest additions.

Yesterday, J and I were undertaking the rather arduous, and somewhat late, task of planting our seed potatoes in our newly dug bed when I began discussing where we might have our ducks and fruit cages. J has been desperate to get ducks for quite a while and we’d been putting it off as firstly, we’re quite busy and secondly we’ve struggled to locate a drake. Ultimately we plan to breed our ducks and use them for meat so we will need both males and females in the correct ratios. Anyway yesterday we decided to give our local poultry breeder a call to see what she had in stock and she had just hatched seven ducklings of one of a suitable breed. She was going to call us back once she had sexed them (not the easiest things to do with ducklings unless you are a professional). We decided to go and see them later that day and before we knew it she had called back to say there were two male and five female. It kind of seemed like fate to have almost perfect ratios so we just jumped in the car, with C of of course, and headed straight there. And yes, you’ve guessed it, we bought them all.

The breed is called Silver Appleyard and they are good layers, about 180 eggs a year each, and grow to a good size for meat. So we’ve been spending the past day getting to know them. Finding out what on earth to do with day old ducklings has involved lots of internet searching but we think we’ve got a handle on the basics. They’ll stay inside in their brooder (large box with a heat lamp) for about three weeks and then slowly be introduced to their new home outside. Which we don’t have yet. But for now it’s basically making sure that they have food and water and keep warm. One of our boys is weaker than the others and we’ve had to give him special attention by hand feeding him. We’ll update on him soon if he makes it through the night. The others had their first bath today. They loved it but we only kept them in for a short while as they don’t have the oil needed for waterproofing themselves. We’ll try to let them have a little swim every day if possible.

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chickens · Life in the Countryside

The death of a chicken

As you may remember we have six chickens who are all about 18 months old now. Once they started laying they were pretty consistent although have been less so recently. We suspect that Dorothy has been eating her eggs and we think the girls have been a bit put off laying by their home being moved about a bit and some of the workmen and machinery that we’ve had around recently. Anyway whilst we were away in Cornwall we used the services of a local lady to come and water the garden and tend to the chickens for part of the time as my father in law was away as well. She contacted us to let us know that Henry didn’t seem quite herself. Henry has always been the runt of the group really. She had a poorly leg not long after we got her which took a couple of weeks to heal and she had always seem the weakest. Well to cut a long story short, she died.

The chicken lady said it seemed like she had respiratory problems and was egg bound but whatever it was she didn’t survive. Whilst it is really sad to have lost one of our girls, it is all part of life in the countryside. In fact we’ve been lucky not to lose any of the girls before now to foxes. Chicken health care isn’t exactly available and aside from some home remedies, chickens are generally expected to either make a recovery or not. Simple as that. We have debated whether or not to replace her but have decided not to immediately. Chickens can be rather bullying to newbies and as such it’s best to introduce them to an existing group slowly and in pairs. So we’ll leave it for now as a family of five and may add to our brood in the future.

The big thing that we’ve had to do is to explain to C about Henry. She understands the idea of death but hasn’t had any direct experience of it until now. We decided to be honest about it and tell her that Henry was really poorly and the doctor couldn’t make her better. We also have a book with a story about death which explains it really nicely about a fox going to sleep forever and how his friends remember him. So when J told her he said that it was like the fox in her book. She seemed to understand and wasn’t sad but very matter of fact about life an death. Guess that’s what comes from being a country girl.

chickens · Life in the Countryside · The field

Moving the chickens

So after we had the hedges and the grass all cut back recently we decided to move the chickens out of the orchard and into the field. There were a couple of reasons behind this. Firstly the grass in the orchard needs some time to recover from the girls pecking at it and creating dust baths so we’re going to reseed it and give it a bit of tlc. Secondly, it was a right pain trying to mow around the chicken pen as there wasn’t really enough space to move the electric fence easily so you had to mow a bit, then move it, then mow a bit then move it etc. If they are in the field then we can just mow half the field, move them permanently and then mow the rest. Thirdly, we were actually missing having the orchard as a place to spend time in. We really liked the orchard and had a couple of barbecues there last summer and wanted to get back to it being more of a social area to spend time in as a family. So our plan was simple, move their Eglu and then remove the fence and herd them into the field. We figured that the chickens would follow their home as it moved. By gosh we were wrong. So first we moved the Eglu, the chickens were mildly interested in what we were doing but mainly focused on pecking at the area where the Eglu had once stood. C and I tried to bribe them to come out of the gate in their fence using meal worms. No luck. So we started taking down the fence, again they showed a mild interest in what we were doing but then just decided to explore the rest of the orchard. 


So my father in law began to mow the orchard to even up the grass where the fence had been removed. Admittedly they did move away from the mower, but only a little bit and still stayed determinedly in the orchard. By now they were getting a bit more confident and were exploring the full reach of the orchard, but still stopping short when it came to moving towards the field. Now we had kept Jessie inside whilst we did this as we thought she’d be a bit of a hindrance (I did want to keep C away too as she was equally a hindrance but you can’t really lock a toddler in a cage) but we then thought we could use her to help encourage the chickens into the field. She has only seen the chickens from behind the electric fence before and so we figured she would relish the idea of chasing them. If only we could manage to get her to chase them in the right direction. The result…she had a mild interest in the chickens but was more interested in exploring the orchard. We tried leaving them in the hope they would go by themselves but we were worried about them not managing to get home before it got dark and we know there are foxes about (hence the electric fence). Eventually we used all of our resources (me, my husband, my father in law, the dog and some netting) to try to trap one or two at a time so we could then carry them to the field. I don’t have any photos of this because I didn’t have a free hand to take photos! We managed to get five up there but Dorothy (remember her, the elusive let’s hide our eggs chicken) decided to hide in the hedge between the orchard and the field (which she couldn’t get through because of the fence). We ended up leaving her and coming back a couple of times and we eventually managed to pick her up and get her there but it was hard work. This is their new home in the field.


They seem to have settled in quite nicely. Once they’ve been there for a couple of weeks then we’ll give them the chance to free range even further into the field. 

Parenting · Recipes

Baking with a toddler – chocolate chip cupcakes

As you make have gathered from my some of my previous posts I love all types of cooking but especially baking. I have fond memories of baking with my mum when I was younger and this is something I’ve been keen to share with C. In fact when she was only a few weeks old C had her first taste of baking when she helped to stir the Christmas pudding mix on stir up Sunday. I would share the photo but it shows me living on about an hours sleep and is not a pretty sight! Anyway, since she has been able to I’ve really tried to get C involved in cooking at home and she is particularly fond of baking. So today as it was a slightly grey day where the weather really couldn’t decide what to do, we decided to do some baking. Now I know some people can get a bit nervous about the idea of baking with a toddler (C will be three in October) but it is such a lovely learning and bonding experience and has tasty results. In fact cooking in general with a child is teaching them a vital life skill and it’s something I’m really passionate about especially having seen teenagers leaving school without any basic skills in the kitchen at all which is frightening. So today C and I baked cupcakes, we probably bake once every three weeks or so but we do other cooking a lot more frequently. In fact C can probably recite a basic cake recipe (although she doesn’t know numbers big enough for the quantities yet). So today I thought I would not only share our recipe, but also some tips and hints to help encourage the nervous amongst you to try baking with your little one. I’ve put the simple, de-toddlerfied version first before my step by step guide with toddler tips included.

The basic recipe (18-20 cupcakes depending on tray size):

Ingredients

  • 175g butter/margarine
  • 175g caster sugar
  • 175g self raising flour
  • 1.5 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3 large eggs
  • 100g chocolate chips

Method

  • Turn the oven on to 180 degrees Celsius and put cupcake cases in your tray ready.
  • Add all ingredients to a large mixing bowl except the chocolate chips and mix (I use an electric hand mixer but a spoon would suffice but I can just never get as much air in the mixture then) until pale. 
  • Then add the chocolate chips and stir in with a spoon. 
  • Spoon mixture into cases and bake for 12-15 minutes until the top bounces back immediately when pressed and they are light golden in colour (my oven takes exactly 13 minutes for these but it can vary depending on your oven. 
  • Allow to cool on a wire rack and enjoy.

The toddler version

First step is to make sure that all hands are clean and I always have out all my equipment and ingredients ready. For a toddler baking version I have two bowls, one small to measure in and one large to mix in. 


Now the first job your toddler can help with is to put the cupcake cases in the tin. This is a great fine motor activity as it can actually be quite hard to separate out the individual cases. When I first started doing caking with C she would use an entire 50 pack of cases to fill one 12 hole tray but now she manages to separate them all out individually.


Next up we start the mixing process. I measure the ingredients out (as C gets older she can help more with this) and C empties them into the mixing bowl. 


She has a spoon to mix the ingredients whilst I measure the next ones (and wipe any spillages up).

Cracking eggs is a great skills to learn. As we have chickens we tend to get a fair bit of practice with eggs and C can crack an egg and almost open and empty it completely by herself. My suggestion is to let your toddler have a go and just prepare yourself for the mess (I’ve had a teatowel under the bowl before to catch spillages and always have cleaning equipment nearby for an immediate clear up). I get C to crack the eggs into our measuring bowl and then transfer them into the mixing bowl. It’s also useful to have a bowl to put the empty shells in nearby. You’ll notice C steadies the bowl herself when cracking the eggs now which is another useful tip.

 

Then the toddler can do some more mixing with the spoon whilst you put away the ingredients and make sure the hand mixer is plugged in and ready. As we have a rather small kitchen (an understatement really) with limited plug points we have to move to another part of the kitchen to be next to power. Now C has had it explained to her very clearly that when we use the mixer she has to have one hand on the handle (which she must share with me) and one on the outside of the bowl. Now be really really firm about this as it is such a safety hazard if they mess about. Use whatever warning system you need to make this clear to them (I even early in our baking career together when C kept trying to put her hand in the bowl despite clear warnings cut our baking short which resulted in lots of crying but she has behaved immaculately ever since and it’s better to have a battle and a cry now than a trip to A and E later). 



Then once fully mixed I normally allow C to lick the beaters whilst I get everything ready to fill the cases and put away the mixer. Then the “cleaned” beaters go straight in the dishwasher and we add the chocolate chips and stir in.


Now comes the fun part trying to fill the cases without getting mixture everywhere. I use a two spoon method myself but C tends to just use one spoon and shake the mixture off. She only tends to fill a couple before deciding the spoon has to go in her mouth instead so I tend to end up filling most of them myself, and hers tend to need topping up a bit too. 



Then whilst they’re in the oven C can lick the spoons and I can put the bowl in the dishwasher and tidy away and wipe down anything else that needs doing. Then once the well licked spoons are in the dishwasher it’s just a waiting game. Now I’ve gone for two different strategies before depending on what kind of mood C is in. Either we move to another room and start a different activity and I discretely slip back into the kitchen when the timer is up to take the cakes out of the oven and put them on the cooling rack and then take her back into the kitchen when they are cooled so we can try one. I employed this a lot when she was younger as she struggled to stay far enough away from the oven and couldn’t quite get (or didn’t want to) that the cakes were too hot to eat immediately and that she couldn’t help me put them onto the rack. Or I involve her in the whole process (which I am increasingly doing now) and we do a final count down from 10 seconds on the timer (see how I even managed to link a bit of numeracy in there) and then she watches as I open the oven and unload the tray and we set another timer for when they’ll be cool. 



Now I like this recipe because it is simple and relatively quick and hassle free even with a toddler sous chef, it doesn’t require any icing or anything doing to it after baking they can be enjoyed as is. You can even substitute the chocolate chips for raisins or other dried fruit if you want to be a bit healthier but I personally don’t think the odd couple of chocolate chips now and then are too bad for you. 

Oh and for reference, a toddler sized portion is one cupcake and an adult sized portion is definitely at least two. Does anyone else cook much with their little ones? What are your favourite recipes? Any other hints and tips for fellow parents?

chickens

Chicken sitting

So at the end of August we are having a week away as a family and my mum is coming to house sit. Now house sitting for us isn’t exactly the most straight forward with our daily chore list and eclectic mix of animals, so I thought I’d start with a how to guide for the chickens as actually they are the most straight forward. 

Eggs:

As soon as you wake up, normally about 7am in our household, their door needs opening and the sliding door to the nest needs sliding open so they can get in to lay their eggs. It doesn’t matter if it’s not exactly 7am but you don’t want to leave it too long in the heat of summer. Our girls normally lay their eggs in the morning and will make a right old noise to let you know when they have laid one. You can collect the eggs as often as you like but they only need collecting once a day, I find just after lunch you normally have all the eggs laid. We normally have six eggs a day, three normal coloured ones, one white, one blue and one dark brown. You may be lucky enough to get an extra large egg, normally a double yolker, but if you get an egg without a shell then dispose of it as it won’t be safe to consume. The girls like the dark and quiet when laying so if you go to collect and one is in there then close back up quickly and leave her to it or she might get quite stressed. 


Food:

The girls have a food container and a water container which need to be kept topped up. I tend to use an empty milk carton to carry the water down from the house (although any of the outside taps will do). They won’t normally go through all of their water container each day but if it’s especially hot then they might do. Their food is kept in the right hand metal bin (rats can’t chew through metal) along with the scoop. Again, it is best to keep it topped up daily even though how much they end up going through will depend on how much they forage from their pen. They also have a little pot of grit and shell which needs to be topped up from the plastic tub in the feed bin. This should only need doing once a week or less. This is vital to help the girls form the egg shells so if you get any dud eggs then always check the grit first. I tend to do the food/water top up first thing in the morning before I let the girls out as you won’t have them bombard you then! The food container is hooked up to head height (for the girls) and the water at ground level.


Cleaning and maintenance:

As with most pets, the cleaning out of the chickens is the least fun part of having them. We bought our Eglu as it is easy to keep clean. We do a big clean once every couple of weeks where we properly jetwash the inside. But every couple of days it is a good idea to clean out the poo tray. Just remove the tray and empty into the nearest compost bin. Then refill with the straw from the nest area and top up the straw in the nest area from the left hand metal bin. Finally sprinkle the roosting bars and the besting area with some red mite powder, from the same bin. That’s it really for keeping them clean, if their water bowl is dirty then rinse it out but it should be fine. 


Bedtime, treats and electric fences:

The girls will put themselves to bed at dusk so once they have done that you need to slide the door to their nest closed (you can do that earlier in the day if you’ve had all the eggs) and then close the door for them. We tend to keep the electric fence on whenever we are not there and even at night. Apparently foxes won’t go within a metre or so of it. It doesn’t really harm us if we touch it, but remember to clip the fence back and wire it up when you leave them or it won’t work. If we’re working out in the garden we often turn it off, especially if C is around. Now whenever you go outside towards the girls they will run out to meet you, often attempting to fly as they do so! What they are after is a treat. There are dried meal worms in a tub in the left hand bin, they will eat from your hand, but if you’re wanting to do chores then just throw them and they will race for them. Maximum one handful a day to keep them on a vaguely balanced diet and so they don’t always expect to get treats. 


Looking at it here this seems like quite a lot, but actually I think the chickens take up about 10 minutes of my day maximum, unless I choose to hang out with them! 

Life in the Countryside

Caterpillars

I was so proud the other day to have a sign of my first cauliflower head. However, today it is quite the opposite as my cauliflower has been savaged by caterpillars. I had seen some sign of leaves being nibbled before but now they have gone into overdrive. 


This is the much nibbled cauliflower.


These are the eggs which have been laid right around the cauliflower head along with a baby caterpillar.


And this is a full size grown up caterpillar.

C spent some time working on the hungry caterpillar book the other week so absolutely loved finding the caterpillar. I on the other hand was less than impressed! I’ve picked off all the ones I could find but what is the best way to rid myself of them and prevent future infestations? Looks like I need to do some more research (again), there is so much to learn about growing your own that I’m not sure I will ever know everything!

chickens

Cannibal chickens

So unfortunately today we discovered that one of our chickens has eaten an egg. Yesterday when C and I collected the eggs one of Anna’s eggs had a crack in and there was some dried egg matter on the eggs. As usual the eggs were all on top of each other so its not unusual for one to get a crack in it occasionally. No egg from Dorothy, but its not unusual for the girls to have a day off a week. I cleared out the straw and disposed of the cracked egg and made the nesting area ready again for the next day. Today I had already collected one egg first thing before work and C and I found four more in the nesting box. And unfortunately there was not only no egg from Dorothy again but also there was dried egg on the other four eggs in the box and on the straw. It looks like Dorothy’s egg has been consumed. Bugger!

Now there can be several reasons why a chicken might turn cannibal: they could be stressed, bored, lacking in a nutrients, thirsty or accidental cracking. Now we have had some very hot weather in the UK this week so that could have made one of the girls act out of character. The disruption that we had last weekend with discovering the girls had created a new nest and then having to open it up could have made them act out of character. Who knows. So I’ve made sure the food, water and grit/shell are all well topped up and thankfully tomorrow is the weekend so we can monitor the girls all day and remove the eggs promptly and hopefully discover who the culprit is and stop the cannibalism. Goodness only knows how though!

chickens

The egg mystery…

So this week we haven’t had as many eggs as usual. The girls haven’t been themselves really, J had to chase two of them into bed the other night as they had climbed on top of the hen house and were refusing to get down and go to bed, even though it was gone 11pm and very dark. And we’ve had workmen around a lot with getting my cabin built and the final few bits of outside work sorting the patios etc which can be quite noisy and unsettling for them. And it’s been really hot this week which can tend to make chickens lay less. So although I was a bit perturbed by the decreased eggs I figured it was just one of those things. 

Anyway yesterday I let the girls out in the morning as usual before heading back in to make the morning coffees, and then at about 9:30 we went out to check and see if there were any eggs. However, we could only count five chickens, Dorothy was missing. The fence had been on the whole time and I was sure that I’d counted six chickens tumble out of their house that morning. We looked around the hen area but no sign of her or any evidence of any predator attack. It looked like somehow she had flown over the fence and escaped. After a good search, including a root around the pampas grass, we headed back inside but J and I kept popping out alternately to check and see if she had returned. And lo and behold she had reappeared about an hour after we were first looking for her. Now that really bugged me but we suspected that she had been hiding in the pampas grass and we had just missed her. We had things to do for the rest of the day so didn’t give it much more thought. However, today we were having a Father’s Day barbecue and I just went out to check the girls didn’t need anymore water before we started cooking as it was a scorcher today and Dorothy was missing again. 

I was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery of the missing chickens and eggs and so called J to come out and bring an old walking stick with him and we began hacking at the pampas grass. We found what looked like an entrance point to the centre of it where through their scratching about they had managed to create an archway into the centre (see below).

So we tried to clear some of the vegetation so we could get a better look inside. Not exactly easy as the leaves are actually quite sharp and so J got his hedge trimmers out to tackle it. Finally I managed to spy some eyes peeping out at me from across the other side of the pampas grass, Dorothy appeared to be laying an egg (see below you can just about make out her eyes and beak).  

Now I am not happy with the idea of my chickens laying eggs randomly somewhere else, they could easily encourage rats or other pests. We started giving it a good trim right above where she had been sitting desperately trying to make our way into where she was. Thankfully she rose and scuttled out and we could then clearly see eggs. Now that is eggs plural (see below) so it wasn’t just a one off occasion. She had been using her newly established nest for a while. 


As a reminder Dorothy lays our white eggs, but our discovered horde also had some normal looking ones so she has clearly had some friends also sharing her private nest. We managed to get the pampas grass cut back enough to get into them and in total from there we collected a dozen eggs. Seven white and five normal coloured. It certainly made it our biggest daily haul to date. Now we just need to find out a way to make sure they go back to using their actual nesting area!

chickens

So I was wrong…

I guess there has to be a first time right? So last week I reported that we’d had our first egg from Dorothy, our tri-coloured leghorn who is supposed to produce cream coloured eggs. We have routinely had three eggs a day since then, with one being paler than the other two, so we figured we now had Boss, Belle and Dorothy laying. Well low and behold I was totally wrong. For today C and I went to the hen house on our usual coming home from work routine and what should we discover but four eggs. Not only that but the fourth egg was most definitely the cream one from Dorothy. Which means that the baby of the group, Henry, has been our sneaky third layer. Still holding out for our blue and brown eggs from Elsa and Anna but fingers crossed we’ll have them soon. The eggs are building up fast so I think I’ll need to find some amazing egg recipes to start using them up!

chickens · Lazy beds

egg shells

So for a while now, even before we had chickens, I’ve been saving egg shells. It all started when I read in a gardening magazine about how egg shells are good to sprinkle around your plants as a deterrent to slugs and snails. I had previously been putting them into the compost bin, but now I keep them in a Tupperware near to the bin. When the Tupperware reaches its capacity then I take them out and rinse clean under the tap then dry on a tea towel. Once they are dry then they are crushed up and squished into an old ice cream tub for storage. I’ve sprinkled them amongst the blueberries and raspberries and the turnip seeds so far and I plan to use them on all of our seedlings. The egg shells will eventually compost down into the soil and provide extra nutrients. Now I’m not sure how much good they actually do but there seems no harm in trying as otherwise the shells would just be going in the compost. After the torrential rain we had the other week we noticed some slugs on the potatoes so they too have now been sprinkled with shells. Fingers crossed they do something to protect our crops.