How I became Mother Hen
Bestselling novelist Jane Green has a confession. Her idea of fun is a night in the shed with her feathered best friends Amy, Ozzy and Yolko Ono…
Growing up in somewhat central London, I harboured fantasies, as far back as I can remember, of living in the country. I may have looked like a bigcity chick, but inside I was channelling Nancy Mitford, dreaming of large and louche old houses in the country, with endless vegetable gardens, and a whole host of animals.
I was horse-mad until the fateful day I discovered boys. I’m not sure I fell completely in love again until I had my children, and I truly didn’t think anything could tear me away from the children… until I encountered my first chicken.
I have lived in Connecticut, by the beach, for 11 years, and have talked about wanting chickens for most of that time. Ten years ago, I even bought a chicken coop but never quite got beyond that point. I needed help, someone to show me the way. What I needed, was a chicken guru.
Enter Hanover, my German farming friend and chicken expert. She told me exactly where to build my new coop and run, bundled me into her car to drive up to the farm store for feed and grit, and a week later showed up with two chickens.
It was the beginning of an obsession that has taken over my life. Within a week I had tapped into a whole underground network of chicken people living in my town. I rescued two mite-ridden bantams that were terrorising others in another coop, and bought five-week-old chicks from a woman one town over.
I trawled the internet looking for chicks of the breeds I wanted: Bantam Silkies – more kitten than chicken; Cream Brabanters; Blue Cochins; Partridge Wyandottes. Everyone had sold out of the desirable day-old chicks.
They did, however, have fertile eggs. I took a deep breath and let the eBay gods take over. A week later, 40 eggs were merrily snuggling in an incubator.
Martha Stewart popped in with fresh eggs from her coop. I think she meant for us to whisk them into omelettes, but if anyone were to have glamorous, gorgeous chickens, surely Martha would? As soon as she left, I threw them in the incubator. We were up to 46.
Twenty-one days later, the eggs started to hatch. The rate wasn’t particularly good – about 14 in total. I gave some away and kept the rest in a brooder box in the attic. They say it’s time to move the chicks outside when they’re fully feathered. I say it’s time to move them outside when you walk in the attic to find them merrily strutting around up there.
One of my children is just as obsessed as I am. We have moved chairs into the chicken run, and we sit there for hours, happily discussing their personalities.
Some of them have ridiculous names, many offered by my clever readers: Heidi Plume, Kylie Minegg, Victoria Peckham and Yolko Ono. Mother Clucker, sadly, only lived a day.
We both agree that Amy and Ozzy are our favourites. Much to my husband’s disgust, he caught us training Amy to come up the stairs into the kitchen yesterday. He muttered darkly as he walked away, shaking his head.
Generally I let the chickens have free range in the vegetable garden, which is disastrous for the vegetables, but I am still in the first stages of the relationship where the chickens can do no wrong. When they dig huge holes in the lettuce patch to dust bathe, I sigh with happiness at how adorable it is, adding lettuce to the shopping list.
When I enter the garden, they run towards me, lopping from side to side, clucking with excitement, gathering around my ankles waiting for treats. I feel like the Pied Piper as I garden: everywhere I go, the chickens follow me. I insist it’s because they love me. Beloved rolls his eyes.
I have another 20 eggs arriving next week. I can’t stop. The more breeds I discover, the more I want. I am not the slightest bit interested in chickens that look like chickens. The more ridiculous the chicken, the better. I have Cuckoo Silkies coming, and Frizzles, which means I need a bigger chicken coop. And possibly a bigger garden.
Earlier this week I did have to get rid of Cher. A very pretty Bantam Cochin, who turned out to be a rather mean rooster. We aren’t allowed roosters in our town, and neighbours had already complained, which is, of course, the problem with hatching eggs yourself – you never know what you’re going to get.
I tried to do it as humanely as possible, although I managed it while staring into the middle distance. I am firmly of the belief that if you don’t look, it didn’t happen. Because I am still trying to be the farmer by the sea, I couldn’t waste Cher. I had to cook her. Him. So I plucked him, and cleaned him, and made rooster soup. Which none of us can eat. Every time I open the fridge, the soup pot looks at me accusingly.
Next time – and sadly I know there will be a next time – I think Goldie Hen and Fluffles will be turned into curry, or something, certainly, less recognisably chicken. Also, I will do a better job of plucking because it certainly doesn’t help when a near-naked chicken bobbing in the pot still has a few stubs of feathers that were once, clearly, black and white.
Although the pleasure the chickens have given me is immeasurable, I can’t help but feel there is something missing. The children are doing farm camp this week. Yesterday, when I dropped them off, I found myself bonding with a very lovely sheep. I’ve always rather liked sheep…
The Patchwork Marriage by Jane Green (Penguin, £7.99). Do you have a name for a chicken? Suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org or by post to Jane Green, The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER. Signed copies of Jane’s book for the most imaginative.Pictures from Chickens: The Essential Guide To Choosing And Keeping Happy, Healthy Hens by Suzie Baldwin (Kyle Books, £14.99)
Daily tip from the lady archive
“A GRACEFUL walk is a great asset, for sometimes it can create an illusion of beauty where little exists.”The Lady. Pleasant Exercises for Grace. 2nd April 1931