Can’t remember if I mentioned it or not, but we were experimenting with raising chickens for meat.
I decided last winter that I wanted some Light Sussex to breed and raise for meat – these rare breeds are pretty and a good dual purpose bird. So, I decided that we should go to Melton Mowbray auction in March and buy a breeding trio (2 hens and a cockerel). We spent an interesting but freezing day at the auction and came away with Hugh, our cockerel, and 2 females. Sorrel and Alex bought their Wyandottes there too. Just as well, as it turned out.
The plan was to save about 6 fertile eggs and wait for one of the hens to go broody. All through spring and into summer, I kept saving eggs, sure that they would go broody sooner or later. Then a freecycle visitor said that she wasn’t sure they were Light Sussex and that she thought they might be some kind of hybrid related to LS – hybrids don’t go broody. Hmmm, that would explain it. Meanwhile, Sorrel had more broodies than she could handle. When hens go broody and you don’t want them to, the thing to do is kick them off the nest every morning and shut them outside. This usually works. However, Wellie (Sorrel’s hen) was so vicious that they couldn’t shift her off the nest. It seemed so easy to borrow her and pop a few eggs underneath.
So, in July, Wellie began to sit on six of our eggs. After about 10 days, she destroyed 3 of the eggs – presumably because they weren’t fertile or developing properly. She continued to sit on the 3 remaining eggs and successfully hatched them in August. She was a brilliant mother and the chicks thrived.
Mum and babies were all fed on chick crumb, then on growers pellets. Eventually, the chicks were as big as their adoptive mum.
And they kept growing. The time came to send Wellie home. The plan was to return her to her original companions at night time so they’d all wake up together and assume this was normal. Advice on how to reintegrate chickens varies, but this seemed easiest as Sorrel only has a small garden and one house and run. But when Wellie was returned, all hell broke loose. There was a major fight and the end result was two chooks in one house and run, Wellie in another house and run, and one other chook in yet another house and run. This almost filled the garden. This was in October, and they still haven’t completed the reintegration as the fights keep happening, although they’re less vicious now. We won’t be borrowing a broody again.
As the chicks grew, it became clear that 2 were cockerels and these were definitely bound for the pot. The fate of the pullet depended on how we got on killing the cockerels. The time came shortly after Christmas, and so did the snow. They were given a reprieve as killing and plucking is an outdoors job and it was just too cold. Then the weather warmed up a little and we headed down to the run to grab our cockerels that we had securely shut in their house. However, as soon as we opened the door to get a hand in to get them, they made a run for it. We couldn’t catch them so it had to wait another weekend. This time we decided to catch them at night when they are sleepy and put them in a cat basket until morning when we could kill them. This time we managed to catch one, but the other one escaped. Still, a bird in the hand… Or cockerel in the cat basket….
The kill was quick and easy. Then we started plucking.
This was messy and the feathers blew everywhere even though there was only the slightest breeze. Gutting the chicken was the scariest part as we had no idea what to do, but found some excellent instructions at http://butcherachicken.blogspot.com/
Then we had an oven ready chicken, which we wrapped and stored in the freezer.
The next weekend, we started all over again with the remaining cockerel. However, I don’t know if he hadn’t been getting his fair share of the food or what, but he was very skinny. We didn’t bother to finish the plucking as it didn’t seem worth the effort.
The one chicken we had in the freezer has now been roasted and eaten, with some soup and stock back in the freezer for a later date. It was very tasty – but not more tasty than the free-range chicken I usually buy from our excellent butchers.
So, on balance, we’re glad we did it and know how to kill and cook a chicken. But it doesn’t seem worth the effort to us as we have such a good source locally. If we wanted to take this forward, we’d need to redesign and build the run to save the messing around trying to catch them. We’d also need to buy more stock that will actually go broody. The hen from the batch is now living with the original three chooks from Melton Mowbray and the one remaining warren.
So, what now? Well, although I’m quite keen to get some more laying stock and have a lovely multi-coloured flock, I’m not sure that this is the right time. I’m working full-time for the first time since 1992 and I hope that will develop into a proper role by the end of 2010. Keith is still contracting and although he is still at B&Q, there’s no guarantee how long it will continue and he can’t be relied on to be around when I’m not. I also hate it when something goes wrong and I don’t know what to do – with the chooks, I mean. So, I think my current plan is to bide my time, spend any money I might have spent on more stock on education for myself so I know what to do when things go wrong and maybe understand a little more about pasture management (I don’t really manage anything at the moment). But the Melton Mowbray sale is on March 27th so I have until then to decide.