Moving to France: Introducing New Hens

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By Katie and Jen

Our only premeditated and planned moving abroad goal was……. to get and keep hens. It symbolised a slower pace, space, and the beginnings of self sufficiency. We read about how fascinating they were to watch. (They are.) And ever since we saw a TV documentary about them being able to “read” symbols on their food containers, well, nothing was going to stop us getting some of these really cool beasties.

Yellow cakes from bright yellow yolks.
Yellow cakes from bright yellow yolks.

And you get eggs. There’s something very satisfying about eating your own scrambled eggs fresh from your girls’ bottoms.  Or cakes.

We got our first five, Bree, Susan, Lynette, Gabi and Edie six years ago. Graeme, the cockerel, came along slightly later, an unintentional acquisition. His farmer owner came to deliver wood to us, and returned the next day with Graeme closed inside a small cardboard box “as a gift”. We called him Graeme after my brother, a bit annoying but very loveable all the same. He’s a tiny green and white bantam, a good looking little lad. We decided we’d eat him for Christmas dinner if he was too noisy, but we fell in love with his dainty bouncing around the garden and he’s still with us 7 years later.

Over time some of our desperate housewives have passed away and we have reintroduced new hens to the flock three times. In that time, I have also gotten over my naming disorder and now allow the kids (Katie really, our animal keeper) free rein to name them as she pleases.

Here we have  Gabi (still), Garlic, Primrose and Tracey. Yellow legs with very yellow legs recently passed on. It wasn’t a leg related death. She was a lonely wee bird was our Yellow Legs, more on that later.

Hens
The hens waiting on breakfast.

Introducing new hens to an established flock is not easy. It can involve (the hens) being quite vicious. Hens are farmed and have become a main source of meat partly because of their ability to sort themselves out into a big community, where each knows their place very quickly. It doesn’t always work quickly enough to prevent a lot of stress if the birds are confined in close proximity or there are too many of them. Wild hens don’t exceed much more than 20 per flock. If thousands are farmed together, the ends of their beaks are often chopped off to prevent aggression because a natural pecking order can’t be established.

Our hens are lucky – they are averaging 1500 square metres each. A “free range” hen is defined in a European Union Council Directive (it’s different in the US and elsewhere) as a bird who has 4 square metres of outdoor space, 2m of pophole opening for every 1000 birds (wow, that’s a lot), 15 cm of perch and one nest space for every 7 hens (or 1 square metre for every 120 birds). Our little beady hen eyes nearly popped out of their heads when they saw their jackpot new garden. But despite this space, it can be an anxious process adding a few new birds to an existing group. We’ve improved the process a little more each time.

The aim of a pecking order is to save energy having to fight over resources like food and water. Very quickly hens agree who is getting to eat and drink and use the best nesting box first. It’s thought in nature that the dominant bird is a hereditary position. When they a brought together in your garden, it pays to plan the integration process in advance.

The second time we got new hens, we added two new to three existing ones. It’s a good idea not to introduce a loner so we were delighted when the two new birds, Yellow Legs and Florence, started out the best of friends in their strange new environment. It was all going well, with the two groups keeping their distance from one another, until Graeme took a bit of a fancy to Florence, and Florence abandoned her friend.

Graeme would call out in a funny twitter across the garden to Florence, pecking at the ground at the same time to point out a juicy grub. There perhaps was a grub there too, but as soon as she raced across the garden to him, he jumped on top of her. Graeme is tiny and the hens are normal size, so I’m not sure how effective this coupling is, but it doesn’t stop him from trying. Often. And as for Florence, Graeme’s new chickie, no one messed with her.

Poor Yellow Legs on the other hand, when left alone, was bullied mercilessly. Hens tend to go for the back of the head. Every time she bent her head down to eat or drink, she got a nasty peck on the back of the head from a bully’s beak. We put out a separate food dish, we kept them apart as much as we could, we intervened, but the bullying didn’t stop. Blood excites a hen, so once her head was bleeding, it was even more difficult to control. We’d apply green clay to clean up and hide a new wound. We tried dressings, but it’s not particularly easy to get a bandage to stay on a hen’s head.

Hen
A bit of tlc required.

We read every tip on the internet to try and restore harmony. It was an anxious time for us all, not just poor Yellow Legs. We even took her into the house to sleep in a box in the bath after a particularly nasty attack.

“Mum, can I take the hen out the bath, I need a shower,” was a fairly normal thing to hear in the house of an evening.

We were close to finding Yellow Legs a new home, when things started to get easier. The bullying slowly subsided. Yellow Legs kept herself to herself all her life, sniff, but she stopped being picked on. Rest in peace now little YL, you were my favourite.

So when, this third time, we wanted to get a couple of new hens, I was nervous even before we began. The provisional purchase was agreed on the basis that Katie would research every possible integration tip, and come up with an extensive and detailed plan.

To her credit, it has worked a treat. Not a single nasty attack. It’s taken a while, it was a long and careful process, longer and more careful than before. But we have 4 happy hens and Graeme, the tart. Here is Katie’s story of how she introduced our new hens,  Primrose and Tracey.

Katie……

Our neighbour, Thierry, has lots of animals including chicks so instead of going to the market on a Wednesday in Bourganeuf we bought 2 of them for 5 euros each. It saved a car journey too.

We kept them separate from our hens for three weeks, they were very curious to see new chicks and they kept staring at them in the enclosure. They had a little bed together, not in the henhouse. Then we let the chicks outside in the garden every morning before the hens got up. They were about half the size of the big hens.

Hen house
A temporary house for two little’uns.

Then once the chicks got used to going outside, we let them out when the hens were out too. The big hens chased the younger ones for a few days and they stayed far apart, so you need to be there for them, but they will get used to each other after a few days. And it’s ok if they have lots of places to run. We made sure the food was in different places too.

Then step by step get them closer and closer to each other and the food closer so they will get used to staying together. After about a month, when they were used to each other in the day, we decided to try them sleeping together at night. We got rid of the temporary bed in the enclosure. It is very dangerous for chicks outside at night! Especially when there are foxes. The boys are allowed to pee near the henhouse to keep the foxes away [testosterone in the wee].

You have to wait till night time. The new hens slept outside on the roof on the henhouse. I lifted them in the henhouse when everyone was sleeping. But left the door open, in case they need to run out in the morning. The enclosure door was closed though for the foxes.

Then after two weeks or so they started going into the henhouse themselves. Now they are happy together and the chicks are nearly the same size as the hens. Their comb on their head is growing too.

And then you will know how to INTRODUCE NEW HENS.

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