Ann Fitzgerald: Hatching a batch of 'chucklings' is no laughing matter for confused hen

The farm now has its first hive of honeybees. Photo: Getty Images.
The farm now has its first hive of honeybees. Photo: Getty Images.
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

From beef to bees via 'chucklings', it's been a week of firsts on the farm. The bovines kicked it off, as the heifers started to calve, our first calves of the year.

No matter where you go or what you do, a birth never ceases to amaze. The economic outlook for this crop of calves is dismal but the heart cannot fail to be lifted by the sight of new life.

Next up was the turn of the poultry.

A while back, our new Orpington chicken show signs of being broody, as in she was spending most of the day sitting on her own egg.

We don't have a cockerel, so that was never going to come to anything.

What we do have is a drake and a couple of ducks, who had shown no interest in hatching their own eggs.

So we embarked on a course of action which had all the hallmarks of a Dad's Army military operation.

One morning, as soon as the hen came off the nest and emerged into the run, one of us ran out with feed to occupy her while the other raced down to the stable and popped four duck eggs into her nest.

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I had no experience of breeding poultry, so it all seemed very exciting. That excitement soon wore off.

The hen basically sat on the eggs for 23¾ hours a day, constantly emitting what I'd describe as a gentle hum.

What incredible dedication… and the eggs weren't even hers.

Her only break was when she was fed in the morning.

She would rise, step out of the nest, stretch one leg out so far that it seemed it must fall off, then the other, flap her wings a bit, scratch her beak a couple of times on a piece of wood, gobble down some food then settle herself back down on the eggs. She seemed utterly content.

Ruth wondered if, as chicken eggs hatch in 21 days, and duck eggs in 28, she would come off the nest early.

The hen's instinct was obviously to stay, until one evening, we heard little chirps coming from underneath her. Three of the eggs had hatched, the first ducklings on the farm in about 50 years.

They quickly took to water like, er, ducks, scaring the life out of their poor mother hen, as chickens don't swim.

When Robin was growing up, they had a variety of poultry around the yard. Sometimes, a bantam hen would hatch pheasant eggs that had been deserted when hay was being cut.

If the resultant clutch were startled, the bantam's instinct was to call the young pheasants to her for protection, and she would get in a flap when the pheasants followed their instinct to freeze.

Next I wondered what to feed what we dubbed the 'chucklings'.

Robin suggested going to Google, where the best advice seemed to be boiled eggs mixed into a watery porridge. He laughed when I told him, as this is what he used as a child to feed young fowl.

Next up, I got a phone call from Seamus Maher, a local man who comes from a line of bee-keepers.

I had approached Seamus some time back to say we were interested in getting some bees. I had intended to do a bee-keeping course but it didn't happen. From a little research, it seemed that seeking out a mentor was a good way to get started.

So, thankfully, Seamus said he would help me out, and the farm now has its first hive of honeybees in, perhaps, ever.

A few days later, I put on the bee suit for the first time. It was both terrifying and thrilling. I've no idea what I was supposed to do or even what was happening.

But, hopefully, we will get on.

Watch this space.

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