Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Thursday 19 October 2017

A sign of longer, bright days as our clucking hens lay first eggs

Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

Around 8am last Tuesday morning, our nine-year-old daughter, Sarah, came prancing into the kitchen. "Mammy, I have something to show you." I was busy getting breakfast and lunches but could see from her face that it was something important so I duly laid down my weapons and gave her my full attention.

"Now, close your eyes," she said. I did. "Now open them," she said, having whipped the subject matter from behind her back. My eyes opened wide in genuine surprise and delight at what she was holding, a newly-laid egg, the first of the season.

And I readily admit that it lifted my spirits. For a few moments, I marvelled anew at the miracle of egg-laying (as far back as ancient Egypt, the hen was revered as the bird which gives birth every day) and a tingle of hope for longer, brighter days stirred my heart. Simple pleasures.

Winter was late arriving and, by any stretch of the imagination, it hasn't been a hard winter - so far. In fact we have only recently had a bit of cold but the unseasonal warmth running up to Christmas was an imposter who fooled plants into peeping up their heads when the days were still shortening.

The year has now turned and this feels right, it feels good. We got the first of these hens almost three years ago when they were on the point of laying and this is the first winter that they actually stopped.

CASUALTIES

There have been some casualties in the meantime and, at this point, they number four, a Rhode Island Red, a Speckled Maran, a Sussex cross and a Black Rock. Throughout last year we got 2-3 eggs every day, so we don't know if that means one or more of them has retired or they are all still laying, just not every day.

The day will come when they stop laying for good. So what happens then? Our girls know well what comes on their plates but we still play a little game in which nobody is allowed to mention eating ch**ken, in case the feathered girls might hear. So we never have roast chuck for supper, but we do have lots of roast 'flamingo'.

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Of course Coq au Vin is the classic French peasant dish when long, slow cooking in a good red wine softens the hard working muscles of an old rooster or hen, turning what has been described as a bundle of wizened rubber bands into something succulent and delicious. But I'm not sure we are quite ready for that yet. We will face that day when it comes.

My dear husband is looking over my shoulder as I write this. "Ha, it's a sad day when you are down to writing about chickens and eggs", he said . The thing is, he was the was the one who was talking about how they had molted and no-one was more chuffed to discover that they were back in business.

Several people we know, not all on farms, have got a couple of hens these past few years.

They are easy to keep, as they only need clean water, small regular meals and some shelter from the elements. We have all become conscious of improving self-sufficiency, a step in the direction of the Good Life.

I know the purists may not agree but they are also the ultimate recycling machine; our hens get everything from the house except chicken-meat. The eggs are highly nutritious and the ultimate fast food. We even went to the bother of calculating that it is 20m from hen run to cooker, a journey of 0.013 air miles.

The girls often play with, and talk to, the hens, they enrich our lives and there is something special about driving into a yard with hens. They provide a homely and wholesome soundtrack to farm life.

On the one hand there is the exuberant bawking on the production of an egg. I've heard it suggested that this is the hen proudly telling the farmer that she has laid for him.

The real reason is probably more self-serving and primitive, even if I cannot decide between the theory of telling any nearby rooster that she ain't in the mood or the fact that hens are descended from junglefowl and when one stops to lay, the rest of the flock would have wandered on so, when the job is done, she has to call to them "where are you?"

CAPTIVATING

What is also captivating is the soft clucking that hens do throughout the day, as they go about the place, scratching, pecking, preening and perching. As if they were whistling or humming.

These are things that some, mostly older, tradesmen still do but, usually when whistling and humming are mentioned nowadays it's usually only in relation to pylons and windfarms, respectively.

Of course, one swallow never made a summer. Even as Sarah was treading back across the frost-tinged grass bearing the precious offering, a line of red was extending itself across the horizon and, within hours, a grey sky had descended and we were hit with a miserably cold, wet day. So I know spring hasn't really arrived yet.

But those few moments were utter joy.

FULL REPORT ON PAGE 9

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