The chicken run is finished. Finally. It became something of a personal Hadrian’s Wall. (Hen-drian’s Wall? Anyone? No?) This is the first fence I’ve ever built, and it’s a surprisingly satisfying thing to do. We found a chap in a village about two miles away who makes and sells acacia fenceposts. He has a massive yard full of different sized posts, whittled, or more probably chain-sawed, to a point. He’s a man of few words (not easy to deal with on the phone), and I think we may have confused him somewhat. We arrived in our little Clio and asked to buy as many as we could fit in without making the car look too much like a failed teenage tagger-on in a Mad Max film. The farmer’s sons appeared and watched as we jammed pole after post into the boot, seats down, windows open, and they remained as taciturn as he, as we paid (a whole one Euro each), we waved, we drove off, wobbling slightly as I got the point of one post in my ear.
All the fences around us are made of the same wood – it’s hard and durable and seems to turn to stone after a year or so. We bought some wire from the local hardware store, and I set to work with a variety of tools for digging things and hitting things.
Some previous owner of our farm has hidden a large amount of treasure in the ground, if treasure is springs and nails and bits of concrete, and the job of digging a trench to bury the bottom of the wire made me feel like Sisyphus appearing as a contestant on the Crystal Maze.
We’ve made good use of various pieces of stone and metal we’ve found lying around to help make the chickens’ house (an old brick tool shed), and the run, as chicken- and fox-proof as possible, although apparently there are weasels to worry about; basically carnivorous pipe-cleaners that are impossible to stop without hermetically sealing the whole of Burgundy. I’ve also used a load of English lime tree branches that we were given, to make the fence a bit more attractive (for the chickens), and the gate to the run is made from some old kitchen cabinets donated by ML’s parents. Repurposing old rubbish and waste materials is where it’s at.
Some second-hand wooden chairs from a charity shop have been adapted using some wooden veg boxes we were given by our local greengrocer, to make some nest boxes and perches, and we bought some dust-free wood shavings for the floor. We got a plastic feeder and a plastic drinker and some chicken-feed and some broken oyster shells (good for their calcium levels and their method of digesting their food) and some more wire to plug some gaps – the cost of starting a flock soon adds up, and we’ll need to get (and eat) a lot eggs before they pay for themselves.
But this is not the point.
When I was a child my parents kept hens. I have vivid memories of collecting warm eggs on chilly mornings, and of the life they bring to a home with their odd ways and funny behaviours. We want to give them as pleasant, as natural, and as long a life as we can. We’ve provided a stack of logs and sticks in the run (they are evolutionarily a woodland bird) so they can hide and play. All of this for an omelette. When they stop laying they can peck out a retirement that many a Brit dreams of; in the sun of a rural retreat in France.
This morning we took a trip to the weekly market in Marcigny, where you can buy everything from slippers to sausages, and spoke to a guy there who was selling chickens. He had cages and cages of birds; chickens, ducks, geese, quail. We talked to him about what we were after (good natured chickens, good layers) and he sold us four hens, all of them six months old and already laying. They are vaccinated, and he told us about some more care and treatments to consider; using cider vinegar and honey as natural preventatives and medicines. We’ve got a couple of books and zero experience, so it’s heartening to realise that there is advice available from someone who feels as we do – look after the chooks well, show them kindness, don’t use too many drugs, and they’ll live long and prosper. And hopefully lay some eggs.
Arriving home with four chickens in the boot of the car, excited and a little nervous, we pulled up to the chicken house and examined our preparations. Is it good enough? Will they like the shade of blue on the door? I opened the box and gently lifted the hens out, one by one, and stepped back as they had a cautious look around.
We removed ourselves so as to minimise any stress, and the chickens popped out of the house into the run. They started pecking at the ground and scratching away, doing all those things one expects of ones chickens. They seemed to be taking it all in their stride.
Except for one. As soon as she was in the run, she made straight for the corner where we were standing, and stared at us, making a noise like I’ve never heard before, something like a mix of a creaking door and a submarine. Which was odd. She then jumped up, and onto the corner fence post. A bid to escape? Well, we’ll have to clip her wings if she continues to try, I thought. I entered the run and grabbed her, placing her back down on the ground, and she seemed relatively unfazed by me. I decided to stay with her in the run to see what happened. What happened is this: the hen marched up and down, submarine noises and whistles aplenty, and tried to escape four more times before deciding that I was much more interesting. I sat on the ground and she clambered all over me, on my legs, on my shoulders, making those odd noises. I thought there must be something wrong with her, she was so docile, and so I stroked her and murmured to her, like a weirdo. Finally she settled down on my lap and seemed to be asleep. After around five minutes she awoke, perked up, and the noises did not reappear.
The chicken got up and strolled away, seemingly, now, perfectly happy and content with her surroundings. She joined her hen-friends and started chickening away.
And on my lap was a single, warm, perfect egg.
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