The first hen I ever owned was brought here soon after we moved in, in the summer of 2010, along with her 17 chicks as a gift from my brother who has a farm. She was just a common brown yard hen, very peaceable and an extremely good mother. It became natural to refer to her as “Mother Hen”. We had built a very sweet little poultry house, complete with a large window that looked out into a small yard, for the hens we were going to keep.
It had a front door for humans, and a hatch in the back wall for hens. You only had to stand at the door (ducking your head because it’s quite low) and pull on a rope that hoists up the hatch, to let the hens out onto the farm.
Except for a small chicken I called Kentucky many years ago, Mother Hen was my first proper hen. On the farm where I grew up, my mother had a very large fowl run, almost like a small park, with a roomy old hen house. The front wall was made up of wire mesh so it was airy and not the slightest bit gloomy inside. The perches were along the back wall and the nesting boxes out front – you could access them by lifting a lid and not have to go into the hen house at all. The poultry and the Muscovy ducks had to share this accommodation every night and my job was to feed and water them and collect the eggs. The food and water containers were set about more or less in the middle and, since the Muscovy ducks’ love of water along with their toilet habits made this poultry house floor particularly messy, the experience for a barefoot child is perhaps something I should leave for you to imagine.
All was fine until the arrival of a particularly vicious Rhode Island Red rooster who had a penchant for chasing children. He had a very sneaky way of sidling closer while I was busy at the tap or somewhere in the yard, unnoticed since he was pretending to peck at things, then suddenly turn and pounce. How often did my heart stop in those days! And how often did I run home in terror with a brown feathery streak on my heels, more often than once falling on my face just before I reached the safety of our door!
Then Zak arrived. Zak was a black rooster who as a baby had been saved by my niece and nephew from a sure death after being struck down on a road. He was what one would call “road kill”. My older brother had no choice but to stop the car when his children saw poor flattened little Zak. They took him home and fed him water with a dropper until he sort of plumped up again and looked less flat. In time he gained strength and could eat, then use both of his legs. He made an amazing recovery and as he grew, they came to realise that Zak was a boy (that is when he got his name) and that he would not be able to stay with them because neighbours in a suburb become very annoyed with you if your rooster wakes them up at 4am. So Zak was brought to us, on condition that he would never be killed for the pot.
By this time Mother Hen had had a narrow escape when Fara, my Boston Terrier of a similar size, decided to try her for lunch (I was very surprised that Fara hadn’t gone for a chick – so much easier) and in the process injured Mother’s wing. The wing was dragging on the ground and she kept tramping on it. What a quandary! In a moment of ingenuousness I made a sling from plastic netting that potatoes are sold in; I needed something that would not get wet, was strong and could breathe. Every morning I had her on my lap, tucked the wing into the sling and tied it in a bow on her back. It was quite a sight to see a brown hen out and about on the farm festooned with a yellow bow. I had to do this every morning, because between being shut away at night and being let out in the morning, her 17 chicks had pecked at the bow until it was undone. But the system worked and Mother Hen’s wing was restored. When Zak and Mother Hen met, each had a story of survival to tell.
Years passed, many families were raised and hens came and went. Zak eventually was buried in the animal graveyard beside the copse. He had been a perfect gentleman and getting a new rooster worried me, with memories of that wicked old scoundrel on the farm. But I need not have worried. The new king of the coop, a very handsome, shiny rust-brown Rhode Island Red, although slightly stand-offish to humans, was well behaved and also a very good husband. He always made sure his girls ate first. We raised so many chicks and watched in delight as little fluffy puffballs appeared from under the mothers. But also sadness every time a chick didn’t make it. The amazing thing was that, within a day or two of hatching, their small legs would be going like pistons as they mimicked their mothers in scratching for grub. Nature! Watching my hens over the years has more than convinced me that it is a crime to keep hens confined. Scratching, pecking and foraging about is just who they are.
In my first year of school I ran into trouble with eggs. We had a farm breakfast at the big table before grabbing our school bags and taking a swift walk down to the gate, about 300 metres away, to wait for the school bus. And then lurched along, stopping at each farm to pick up more kids. And all the while the scrambled eggs which I couldn’t bare but managed to get down with sips of milk, jostling about in my stomach. Until one fine day when all of it came up. On the carpet in the classroom which was truly mortifying. Miss Cairns was terribly kind and asked me what I’d had for breakfast (could she not see?). It was such a huge relief to at last tell somebody that I was made to eat eggs but couldn’t stand them. She suggested that I tell my mother I should not eat eggs any more. And I never ate them again. Until I met my husband. He could make a delicious breakfast fit for a queen and gone were the memories of those eggs that turned my stomach upside down.
With collecting eggs every day and writing the date on them, we never have a bad or even an old egg. When your eggs are so fresh, and the yolks so orangey-yellow, there is only one way to enjoy them best: poached. I cannot help it, but when I get asked to choose, it will always be to have my egg poached. Occasionally we make delicious omelettes, and very occasionally we have them scrambled.
Breakfast is my best meal of the day – not the finest restaurant can beat my view from where I sit at the kitchen table, looking across to the orchard where at the moment the trees are groaning with apples, with a beautiful egg on a beautiful plate.
Keeping hens is not only moonlight and roses. They can drive you mad. Most of my plants that live in pots have wire hoops over them to keep the hens out. Hens dig and scratch wherever they go. And the vegetable garden is their absolute favourite! Don’t think it’s only the grubs they are after – they are particularly fond of seedlings and any juicy leaves. We have tried trimming their wings to keep them out, a job I detested, but it worked for a while. They crawl through holes, fly over gates and walls; they can go wherever their beady eyes take them. In the end we plan to put up a trellis fence with climbing wisteria along the top of the vegetable garden wall; but until then it’s going to just have to be ‘make do and mend’.
Today I no longer have a rooster. The worries that go alongside raising chicks became something I could no longer do. The hens lay eggs until they are too old, and even then they may live out their days along with the rest, and life is quiet and peaceful. There is something very companionable about the hens being all over the place. They have a quiet, contented way of chatting as they go along. There is one exception: Joan Jet (she’s black). Every evening she demands with her croaking and squawking at the back door that it is time for food. Eventually when I take along a scoop of mixed grain, it is almost alarming to hear the sound of a someone running after me in army boots. Without turning around I know that it is Joan.
The hens make me happy.