We eventually got our first green (or is it blue ?) eggs from our Cotswold Legbars, about a month ago. When we got them towards the end of last Summer we were hoping for them to have started laying soon after. Unfortunately that didn’t happen before Winter set in, at which point we knew that they wouldn’t get any eggs from them until Spring.

All four have now started laying and we are now getting 3-4 coloured eggs every day, which starts to make up for their Winter "freeloading" :) .

Unfortunately Matilda, one of our ex-battery hens, passed away just before we went on our summer holidays. She had been the top of the pecking order since we got her and had always been a healthy looking hen. Her illness came very quickly. We found her collapsed on the ground one afternoon, in obvious distress, and an immediate visit to the vet was unable to save her.

Additionally, a month or so earlier one of our other hens, Bluebell, had disappeared. We presume she had somehow jumped over the electric fence sometime during the day and wandered off. She never turned up again and there were no sightings by our neighbours. These losses left us with only four hens and one of those was an ex battery who appeared to be enjoying thoroughly enjoying her retirement and laying very few (if any !) eggs. This meant we were getting just two eggs a day, at most. When we returned from our holiday we therefore decided to buy a few more hens.

We ended up buying four point of lay Cotswold Legbar pullets from the local (founder) breeder, Legbars of Broadway. They lay pastel coloured eggs which are predominantly blue (although 15% lay pink or tinted eggs). The Cotswold Legbar was developed at Broadway in the Cotswolds about 20 years ago. Apparently the breed comes from the Cream Legbar, an auto-sexing chicken breed that in turn descended  from three Chilean Aracuna hens bought back from Patagonia in the 1920′s.

Our new hens were about 16 weeks old were already quite striking with their yellow feet, crests and lovely colouring. They had spent the last month or so roaming outdoors in fields surrounded by poultry netting. This meant our garden arrangement, with electric poultry netting protecting a large run was not too much of a shock to them. As advised when we bought them, we kept them physically apart but within sight of our other hens for a week (using a temporary hen house and run). This was to get them used to each other before bringing them all together. It seemed to work very well and we had very little trouble when we did bring them together last week. There were a few minor squabbles as their place at the bottom of the pecking order was established, but we saw no serious bullying by our older hens.

They’ve all been named now – Daisy, Bella, Priscilla and Adam (the name choice of our two and a half year old son !).

We are hoping that they will start laying in the next few weeks and are eagerly waiting for our first coloured eggs

After having a complete break from growing vegetables last year due to the rather awkward age of our son (very active toddler, too young to help, but old enough cause trouble, with a penchant for eating anything growing in the garden, edible or not), we thought we had should get back into the swing again this year. Our son is no longer a liability in the garden and loves nothing more than ‘helping’ whenever we’re outside. We have plenty of raised bed so we will let him have one of his own to work, with his own set of mini tools, whilst we’re busy with ours. Hopefully this will keep him happily pottering next to us and prevent him from digging up our seeds.

We unfortunately missed the start of the growing season as we were too busy with other home improvement projects. So none of the normal potato, onion or garlic crops for us this year, but we can still expect a bumper supply of salad leaves, herb, tomatoes, chilli, runner beans, courgettes, etc. to compensate.

The first job was to remove the polythene sheets that had been covering most of the raised beds for the last year or so. The sheets had done a good job of keeping out most of the weeds, except around the edges. The worms and ants had also done a good job of turning over the soil under the covers. We really didn’t have too much work to get them ready for planting.

Within a few hours all beds were cleared of weeds. The two beds to the right in the above photo, which were visibly still full of weeds, have now been cleared and will eventually be our fruit beds. They will be planted with raspberries, strawberries, rhubarb, etc. at the appropriate time.

We erected two tepees for French beans, using Laurel branches from the garden. One was planted with French Bean seedlings from the greenhouse and we directly planted Dwarf French “Purple Queen” Bean seeds around the other, for a later crop. We also planted two varieties of outdoor cucumbers in large pots near the greenhouse and plenty of courgette seedlings and seeds in the same beds as the bean tepees.

We’ll plant out the herb and salad seeds as soon as possible. We’ll probably use DIY seed tape for quite a few of the smaller seeds as we have documented previously.

It has been a long while since the last update, but actually there was not too much report during that time. Certainly no gardening and not very much excitement from the hens. The poor things did have to endure weeks of sub zero temperatures and large snow falls just before Christmas. Now that the temperature has warmed up and the days are getting slightly longer they seem happier again and the number of eggs we get has started to get back to normal levels.

We will need to move their run in spring to let the grass in their current one recover a little. They do have a generous 12m x 12m space but it still got very cut up over winter. Topsoil and grass seed will be needed to repair it properly.

Eggbot Drawing on one of our eggs with Sharpie pen

I did have one egg related present over Christmas – an Eggbot. This was bought in kit form from Evil Mad Scientist.  It is basically a pen plotter capable of drawing on spherical (ping pong balls, Christmas decorations, etc.) or ellipsoidal (eggs) obects. It is not really an essential item perhaps, but as someone with an electronic background and children I do see it is a fun, educational robot.

The images to be printed are drawn and printed directly from Inkscape, a popular open source (free !) drawing package. The pens used for printing can be any fine tip permanent markers. Inkscape supports layers so by using different layers for different colours and changing the pens during printing, elaborate designs can be created (look at the Eggbot Flikr Group   for photos of designs that more talented people have made). Over Christmas we had great fun decorating and personalising cheap Christmas tree baubles. The picture above shows our Eggbot printing a simple blog based design on one of our eggs and the picture below shows the finished egg.

Finished Eggbot design


Unfortunately another of our hens, Henrietta, recently died. She was one the first five hens we bought at Point of Lay, in April last year. That means we have now lost 3 hens this year, although we are sure there is no underlying connection between their causes of death. Poor Henrietta suffered a prolapse. We booked an emergency vet appointment as soon as we noticed, but unfortunately it was too late.

We haven’t really done any vegetable growing this year which means that currently our posts are infrequent, and every one we have made recently seems to have been (mostly sad) news about the chickens. We decided very early on this year that keeping an eye on our very active 18+ month old son at the same time as tending vegetables was not going to be easy (ie. possible !). Hopefully this will be a bit better next year, but we suspect we still won’t be back in the full swing of growing things for at least another year.

We returned from a two week holiday in France to the the sad news that Snowdrop, one of our two Amber Lee hens (bought last year at point of lay) had died. She hadn’t been obviously ill before we went away and no problems were spotted by our friends and family looking after the hens while we were away. She was still keenly running up for food earlier on the day she died but was missing that evening. After a search she was found dead, behind a tree at the back of their run, with no outward signs of injury. We don’t really know the cause, but at the moment all of our other hens seem happy and healthy.

She will be missed. She had been claimed (and named) by our daughter as "her hen" and was certainly the most friendly. She was happy to be picked up by anyone and would follow us and "jump up" to help whenever we cleaned out the hen house.

The number of hens we now have is still seven, the same as it was a month ago, as we actually acquired another one a week before we went on holiday. A neighbour bought round a stray hen she found wandering in her garden, thinking it was one of ours that had absconded. We both tried to locate  the owner, asking around the local area, and in the meantime we agreed to look after her. A number of houses nearby border open fields, which means the possible area she could have escaped from was quite large.

I’m not sure of the breed but I believe she is a hybrid like our other hens. She is quite young but has started laying. She was definitely bottom of the pecking order and for the first week was being bullied by all the others. We did our best to minimise this, but she still spent most of her time hiding in the chicken coop or under bushes. She now has a small bare patch at the top of her neck where the other hens plucked / pecked her (luckily no blood was drawn !) We were thinking we would have to separate her before we went on holiday, but the bullying suddenly stopped and she now seems to have fully integrated with the others. She may get the occasional half-hearted peck in her direction, but no more than is directed towards the other hens that are lower in the pecking order.

As we have still not identified her owner, almost a month later, it seems likely that we will end up looking after her and our daughter has decided to name her Maisy.

Flora, one of our two Amber Lee hens has been broody for about 2 weeks. This is apparently not common for a hybrid hen, but she was also our only broody hen last year, when she was only about 28 weeks old. We were unable to break her broody cycle last year and have not had much more success this year. We have tried a number of things as recommended on the hen keeping forums we visit, but she is very persistent. On one of the days we shut her our of the nest box for the whole day. She spent all day pacing around, crowing loudly and as soon as we opened the henhouse up in the evening she jumped straight back onto her "nest" (even though there are no eggs there). Due to the loud crowing (we don’t want to fall out with our neighbours) and its lack of success, we probably won’t try this again.

Her behaviour is certainly disruptive. She fluffs up and starts pecking anything that disturbs her. The other hens have stopped laying in the nest boxes and have made alternative nests in a large Pampas grass plant. The combination of the broody hen and several hens that have started moulting means that we are currently only getting 2-3 eggs a day from our seven hens. Hopefully this picks up soon as we can more than keep up with this paltry (or should that be poultry !) amount.

Sadly Isabella (one of our three ex-battery hens) died this week. The vet diagnosed peritonitis and unfortunately she did not respond to treatment (Baytril antibiotic). We can take some solace in the fact that she had enjoyed more than a year of freedom after spending her first year or so in a battery farm cage.

DIY Arduino Duemilanove Based Wireless Electric Fence Tester

I have recently been working on a DIY gadget to allow remote monitoring of the status of the leisure battery which powers our electric chicken fence. Usually the first warning that the battery is getting flat is a red warning light on the fence energiser. By the time we see this it is normally too late and the fence is not being powered at an effective voltage. This is not an ideal situation, with foxes visiting our garden most nights. The idea of the remote monitor is that it will always give an accurate reading of the battery voltage, that can conveniently be checked from inside the house and can sound an alarm if it drops below a predefined threshold. It will also give an indication if the electric fence is actually switched on. There is a switch for the fence that we use to power it down when entering the run to collect eggs, etc. Unfortunately it is all too easy to forget to turn the fence back on when finished. Without going back outside it is often not possible to see if the fence is on or off. The energiser does have a light that flashes green when the the fence is powered, but this is not really visible during the day. As an additional feature the outside temperature is also monitored. To be honest a large part of doing the design was as a challenge to do something different and interesting during the winter evenings. But I do still think it will be a very useful tool to have.

I have now produced a fully working prototype. It consists of two units. A transmitter unit that sits near the bottom of the garden, connected to the battery, monitoring and regularly transmitting its readings. A second unit in the  house receives the data from the transmitter and displays the status on a small 16×2 LCD display. Both modules are based around an Arduino Duemilanove microprocessor board. The Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. There are plenty of free resources available that make the Arduino platform an easy introduction to microprocessor development. The Duemilanove is the latest revision of the basic Arduino USB board. It connects to a computer with a standard USB cable and contains everything else to program and use the board. For the wireless link I used low cost 433MHz AM Transmitter and Receiver modules. With a couple of home made antennas the indoor receiver unit can reliably receive data from the outdoor transmitter when separated by more than 40m (and a window).

To finish off the design and get it into daily use I just have to box the two modules (including a weatherproof box for the outside unit). I also need to ruggedize the antennas and have a couple of minor hardware and software tweaks that I would like to implement. In the spirit of the open source Arduino platform that the  design is based around, I am happy to share my design. If anyone is interested drop me an email (on the Contact Us page) and  I will write up the project and provide a link on this site to any support files I have. I am sure that the general design could be used for numerous general purpose remote monitoring or control applications. With small software changes, for instance, the receiver could support multiple transmitter modules.

new location for the Haven Henhouse and chicken run

We took advantage of the good weather over the weekend to move the chickens run. After a very cold, wet autumn and winter their run was looking very worn. Moving them should give it time to recover before we move them back again, sometime in early spring.  We put their electric fence round some different, interesting features for them to explore, including 9 of our raised beds and some trees and bushes for cover. So far they seem very happy with new surroundings, and are loving scratching for food in the beds. We are hoping they will also help us by weeding, digging and fertilising these beds over the next few months, till we need to use them again.

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