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Warm eggs and cold, cold reality down on the farm; HELEN ELLIOTT'S monthly dispatch from the family farm in County Durham is a tale of the swooping ups and downs that flow from keeping chickens.

ASIDE from the feral kittens, who chose us just over a year ago now, one of the first animals to join us at East Farm were chickens.

I love my chickens, happy little creatures, easy to look after, pecking around the place making it feel like a real farm and as an added bonus, they give us almost daily fresh eggs.

For anyone who has tasted local, farm fresh eggs, you'll know what I mean when I say, there is literally nothing better on this Earth.

Collecting that warm egg (watch you don't get your arm pecked off by the broody hen), cracking it into the frying pan, even the colour of them is more vibrant somehow and the taste? Well, put it this way - it's impossible to go back to supermarket eggs.

Clint, our beautiful cockerel and his three girls joined us for my birthday last year and I was keen to add to them as soon as I could, but as always at PS30 for a point of lay hen money was a slight issue...

So, after much encouragement from my chicken expert pal, a borrowed incubator (also from chicken expert pal) and some kindly donated eggs from a farmer pal, we were away. Chicken breeder extraordinaire. This time next year Rodney, we'll be millionaires We set 12 eggs, if I recall correctly, and after 21 days of watching and waiting, our first one hatched. The excitement in the house was tangible, my daughter stayed up till past 10pm that night, just staring down into the incubator, with me periodically shouting, 'NO, LIBBY SAID DON'T OPEN THE LID!!' Libby is my chicken expert pal, there is absolutely nothing she doesn't know about chickens - double negative there - basically she knows everything. She is incredible and is another of my real world heroes.

After a few days, we moved our nine brand new, shiny, cheeping chicks into the fabric dog whelping pen which I bought cheaply on eBay, all set up in our hall, complete with brooder (borrowed from Libby), chick crumb and a little bowl of water filled with pebbles to stop the little darlings from falling in and drowning. Aw, they were so cute. Libby came over to sex them, and I had high hopes for all girls.

Fairly soon I realised how unreal-Turn to Page 24 Helen Elliott with husband Roy Elliott, son Magnus and daughter Louise From Page 23 istic those hopes were, we had four girls and five boys. Not too bad I was assured, apparently for some unknown reason, it is not uncommon for hatches to have a greater proportion of boys than girls. There must be some biological reason for this I'm sure, but I haven't figured out what that reason is just yet - I'm working on it.

After all, there are historical biological reasons for pretty much everything in this world, natural selection, sexual selection and all that. I'm a 'biologist' by trade and regularly bore my family by explaining to them why they are driven to behave the way they do. *Catches husband ogling a woman* 'Don't worry darling, its just because she has a hip to waist ratio of close to 0.7 and your genes are telling you she would birth easily. The reason you are torn is because you are already genetically invested in our children.' Its fascinating when you get into it, but I digress.

The fact remains I had successfully raised four hens to add to my collection, but I had inadvertently raised five boys at the same time.

The problem being that those boys now had to be dispatched. I already had a cockerel, and I was reliably informed of a gruesome end if they were all to meet once grown up. Biology at work again here, they would fight over the girls, fight to the death until one remained. So it was down to me to be a responsible breeder and prevent that situation.

I wanted to be sure that they WERE boys and Libby recommended leaving them a little longer to be sure. A few weeks later when we had several 'cock a doodle dos' of a morning, the day had come.

I have always been keen as a parent to tell my children the truth, I don't believe shielding them from reality helps to prepare them for the world. Just my opinion, everyone is different. My eldest, Louise, had already seen death first hand, several times, but this was different, this was death with no apparent purpose. On the farm, everything has a purpose, the sheep are to eat, the chickens have to produce eggs, the cats control the mice. The horse.

Well, the purpose of the horse seems to elude my husband, however many times I ensure him she has a purpose. Without the horse, my mental health would be at significant risk, as would my husband for that matter.

Despite this, Louise wanted to be involved, as she does with most things, and so together we moved the boys into a different part of the shed. I had been advised of the best technique, the most important thing for me was to ensure a quick death for the birds, to minimise any suffering on their part. A broom handle across the back of the neck on the floor, pulling the legs sharply upwards to ensure a break to the neck, resulted in instant death. Unfortunately, these cockerels were too small to be eaten, and so their death was one of the hardest on the farm so far, as it seemed such a waste. Another reality of the farming life. Another large glass of wine that evening.

A year of enjoying life followed with my remaining cockerel, the afore mentioned 'Clint' and his girls, me dutifully visiting them twice a day to let them out in the mornings, allowing lovely days of scratching around the farm, freerange style, returning at sundown to shut the door after they put themselves to bed. Of course, I had been warned about the risk of the fox, and at first I was out right on dusk to make sure they were safely tucked away.

As time went on, and bath time overrun delaying me by half an hour, then an hour after sundown. Nothing happened and I came to think we maybe didn't have a fox around.

One night I went out just before bedtime to shut them in, I found Clint all fluffed up and very agitated, with blood on his face. We were missing one girl. I never saw her again, and I rather naively thought that all the horror stories of foxes killing everything and only taking one, were wrong. We had a fox that had only taken one and our lovely Clint had valiantly fought him off and protected the rest of his flock.

What I hadn't realised was that there was only so much Clint could do. One night, I'd been at work all day, I had poorly children and a lot on my mind. I forgot to go out. I forgot to shut my beloved chickens in. I went out then next morning to let them out not remembering that I hadn't shut them in the night before. The scene is one I will never forget. The fox had been back, he had waited patiently for me to forget and it had paid off. He had killed the whole lot of them, even Clint. There were feathers everywhere, entrails spread all over the field, even the eggs my little broody had been sitting on were smashed and gone.

It's biology, I know, but that doesn't help the feeling go away. They were my chickens and he had no right to take them all, in such a brutal way, I felt them same sickness that I felt when I found one morning that our shed had been broken into and our property stolen. But that's another story.

I will never forgive myself for not going out that night and making sure they were safe, I have learnt my lesson. Farming is such a steep learning curve, and I have a feeling there is lots more to learn, although hopefully not all the lessons will be as hard to take as this one was.

Libby encouraged me to set the eggs I still had in the fridge, from Clint and my girls, after appealing to my family and friends I managed to set 18 of Clint's offspring, and I'm pleased to report we had 15 hatch.

So almost exactly a year after last time, we are not millionaires, and I feel I am starting all over again.

But there is hope. Hope that amongst all those gorgeous, cheeping chicks, there is at least two or three girls

My eldest, Louise, had already seen death first hand, several times, but this was different, this was death with no apparent purpose


"It's biology, I know." A fox was no friend
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jun 1, 2018
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