Long before we got together, Jo had owned a succession of poultry:
first a flotilla of varied ducks – from Cherry the enormous Aylesbury to Arrow the narrow Indian Runner – hock bottle on legs – followed by the fine Black Rock hens from Fosters Poultry in Gloucester, who arrived after Jo moved back to the Cotswolds following an enforced spell working away from home at RAF Wyton in Cambridgeshire.
After the move to Wales with only a handful of hens, the couple now have Black Rock, Blue Belle, Light Sussex, & Leghorn chickens, escorted by a handsome Welsummer cockerel, named Myrddin; a trio of lavender Indian Runner ducks (for slug control in the veg garden) & a pair of beautiful sand-coloured Brecon Buff geese, dubbed ‘Dave’, the gander; & ‘Roberta’, or Mrs (‘Rob’) Goose (after the leaders of the NewLandOwner team)!
All the poultry are free-range & consume organic feed (a combination of mixed corn & layers’ pellets) although the ducks are when possible restricted to the veg garden areas, with the geese ranging the paddocks above the orchard & the hens sneaking anywhere they think they can get away with it – especially causing chaos by regularly turning over the muck heap & scattering it across the middle farmyard, much to Tony & Jo’s frustration!
The hens lay the most delicious, huge eggs (especially the hardy Black Rocks) with deep, domed, golden-yellow yolks, which give our ice cream a particularly rich, luxurious flavour. Indeed, Tony’s Jeckyll-&-Hyde working personality, which enables him to be an airline pilot for part of the time & a farmer for the remainder, affords him occasional trips to Damascus in Syria, where he explores the spice souks to root out such delicacies as finest Iranian saffron & Madagascan vanilla pods for Jo’s iced delights. However, exhaustive experimentation (to the detriment of neighbourhood waistlines!) has proved that the literal creme de la creme is made from only four, simple, ingredients: our pure, fresh, goats’ milk; rich double, cream; finest organic caster sugar; & our own superb hens’ egg yolks. We can’t wait for the ducks to start laying as we are confident their eggs will produce even more depth & dimension to this delicious dessert!
The Ducks: Jo’s first-ever foray into poultry, seven years ago, was a simple ‘eggsperiment’ (‘scuse the pun) with a couple of fertile duck eggs purchased from the Cotswold Farm Park, aided by a sturdy Brinsea Octagon Ten incubator on a rocking cradle (still going strong, by the way). The eggs hatched into an odd pair of ‘bitzer’ ducks, dubbed ‘Orange’ & ‘Cherry’, a hand-raised pair of faithful females who laid wonderful,enormous white-shelled eggs which somewhat overwhelmed Jo’s little wooden breakfast egg-cup! Whilst the girls were growing up in the kitchen of Jo’s modest Cotswold home – a former RAF Officers’ Married Quarters – she purchased, from the local Burford Garden Company, a pair of little but loud call ducks, who moved into ‘des-res’ premises at the bottom of the spacious 125-metre garden, backing onto open fields & adjacent to woodland at the edge of the village. A lovely, deep, duck pond was installed, much to the delight of all waddlers & waders concerned. However, this pleasure was regretfully short-lived: just after installing the pond, Jo was posted to the Tornado Integrated Project Team at RAF Wyton, almost three hours’ drive away in Cambridgeshire, which meant she had to face the bitter fact that she could no longer travel home on a daily basis to care for her poultry. Tony, being a pilot, was at home for sporadic periods at best; so there was little option but to rehome the ducks at the helpful Domestic Fowl Trust, at Honeybourne near Evesham. We have since purchased a superb thirty-bird hen house from the Trust, which represented excellent value for money; as does their extensive poultry accessory shop, plus they have a wide range of birds for sale – highly recommended. Now, we have a trio of lavender Indian Runner ducks, purchased in Spring 2007 at the Builth Wells Smallholder Show. They live in a pretty little duck house on a hardstanding at the edge of the vegetable garden, their ultimate role being slug control (we lost most of our crops to the dreadful slug situation with the warm, wet conditions this season) & are great fun to watch, with their comical stance. They were so young when they first arrived, they had not even learned to quack! We have two females & a male, thus are hoping to hatch more of our own & increase the flock size in due course.
The Hens: Initially, after her return to the Cotswolds, Jo was reluctant to reinstate her poultry flock owing to the fear of being detached abroad & having to lose them again, with the further worry of an imminent detachment to Iraq looming. Meanwhile Tony was, ironically, relieved from his almost continuous & arduous detachments to Iraq & Afghanistan, with an immediate – & painfully ironic – posting to the Hercules Integrated Project Team at RAF Wyton, less than 2 weeks after Jo returned from there to Gloucestershire, to take up a post with the Collocated Headquarters Study Team at RAF Innsworth, near Cheltenham. Subsequently, until it was established that there was adequate care for any poultry purchased, Jo did not venture to reestablish her flock. This time, she decided, after extensive research, to purchase a modest flock of six Black Rock hens & an accidental, hybrid – but magnificent – cockerel. Initially these were housed in the small shed which had accommodated the ducks, modified with a perch; however, after a visit from a stray gypsy bantam cock, who was riddled with red mite, we learned to our cost, that felt rooves are NOT suitable for hen houses, as the shed rapidly became infested with the horrible, deadly mite. The hens became anaemic & unhappy; & despite extensive treatment of both birds & house with sprays, powders etc, nothing seemed to dislodge the disgusting parasites. In the end, we dismantled & burned the old hen house – & replaced it, after thoroughly treating the birds, with a new Forsham Cottage Ark designed to house a dozen hens, with the accommodation & nest box accessed via a ramp, & a scratching area, immediately below to provide a fairly fox-&-vermin-proof environment.
Unfortunately, despite the unstinting support of the majority of the villagers, one of our immediate neighbours seemed taken with the idea that her family should receive eggs, initially for the vegetables she grew (despite the fact we had our own vegetable garden, & plenty of our own produce); then it was deemed to be ‘in compensation for the inconvenience’. Jo had been living in the village, for some three years, before these particular neighours arrived. They’d apparently moved to the countryside in search of (oh, that hackneyed phrase!!) the ‘good life’; unfortunately, however, the family did not approve of anything with fur or feathers. Having harangued the local farmer about the excessive noise his cattle made in the field which bordered Avro Road’s gardens (apparently they mooed too loudly!), the husband started to throw stones at the birds nesting under the eaves of his own house. He also waged an aggressive war against any feline which dared to enter his garden; & then complained to the local Environmental Health Department, about our cockerel’s excessive crowing. This was a surpise to all our other neighbours, who thought he was an exceptionally quiet bird & rarely heard him at all! In fact, he generally only crowed when anyone walked down the quiet path to the farm behind the houses. Regrettably these neighbours launched a bitter campaign against us, despite Tony bravely chasing a burglar off their premises one evening whilst they were away on holiday. As they insisted on continually watching us over the garden fence, we erected a higher one to afford ourselves some privacy; they immediately complained & strenuously fought the planning application. Our lives were made a misery; & despite the unstinting support of our other neighbours, we made the difficult decision to take our lives elsewhere.
Anyway, to cut a long story short (one which can be found elsewhere in this Weblog!), we moved: but one cockerel less, as regrettably the ‘neighbours from hell’ set upon another adjacent neighbour, who’d insisted on supporting us through buying our eggs & feeding the hens, if we were away. When Tony discovered they too had been harangued for their support of the cockerel, we decided enough was enough; & our fine young chap was rehomed on a local farm where he had plenty more ladies to woo.
Thus, we made the move to Wales, with our foundation flock: sadly, we’ve since lost a couple, to old age, illness (dear Bunty had cancer) & sheer darn silliness (Babs somehow wedged herself between some bales in the barn & could not be found, despite our extensive searching, until we made the sad discovery of a pathetic pile of little bones & jet-black feathers when filling the horses’ hay nets one evening several months later).
We added to the flock, from another farm over in Cheshire; but are now very cautious about buying from unregistered producers, as the new birds introduced a virus into the flock; &, it transpired, were badly infested with lice. Extensive treatment saved the majority – but not before we lost a couple, including one of the ‘old girls’, much to our distress. We’d opted to diversify the breeds we owned; however, we’ve found nothing as hardy, long-lived or which lays such quality, quantity or size of eggs, as the Black Rock. They are an excellent bird for a novice poultry keeper as they are generally robust & gentle (apart from when broody!) – but caveat emptor! – make sure you get your point-of-lay pullets (young hens) from a registered dealer.
The Geese: The geese came for several reasons: primarily, as an alternative to a guard dog; also, for the delicious eggs, so good for cake & ice cream making; & thirdly, as a supplement to the table at Christmas time. With Tony having never experienced the joys of incubation, Jo decided to give the old Octagon Ten a dust-off, & purchased three goose eggs for 80p each, from our friend Jeanette in Cardigan covered market. The cradle rocked; the humidity & temperature levels were regularly monitored & recorded; & the incubator clicked away quietly in a corner of the living room for another 30 or so days. As the temperature initially proved quite difficult to control, Jo didn’t hold out much hope for a successful hatching; however, she was proved wrong, when one of the three eggs hatched! Thus a small Embden cross arrived…..but more of that, in the Diary archive.
Being somewhat cynical about the efficiency of the incubator, during an excitingly weak moment at the Builth Wells Smallholder Show in March 2006, Jo & Tony purchased a pair of Brecon Buff geese for the grand sum of £40. Dubbed ‘Dave’ & ‘Roberta’ after their friends on the NewLandOwner team, they were transported to their new home in a huge wicker basket purchased for the purpose. They were then duly installed (as a temporary measure) in our 30-bird henhouse (& have lived there, ever since!). With Dave being a bit of a coward & Roberta being a really sweet old girl, their use as guard geese has proved somewhat limited; however as a visible deterrent they are surprisingly useful. Unfortunately, they don’t spend much time on the farmyard, as they’ve taken to sneaking onto the garden pond & eating all the plants! So far, we don’t have any offspring; as, despite successfully hatching three out of five of the eggs Roberta laid earlier in the year, none of the goslings survived; killed by a predator which somehow managed to get into their accommodation (as it was more secure than Fort Knox, we can only surmise it was a stoat or weasel). Hopefully it’ll be a case of ‘better luck next time…’
But we did manage to acquire a young gander, whom we raised for the table & had for Christmas lunch, stuffed with a wild mallard; delicious, & worth all the grim, exhaustive effort of plucking!