Charlotte Popescu, author of several chicken books, writes about her most successful birds
Over the years we have had many hens passing through our hen houses. Some have been spectacular as layers with long and productive lives. Others have fallen by the wayside rather too quickly either getting sick and dying with no obvious symptoms or getting egg laying problems and going downhill for this reason. Hens are very unpredictable! Here I am going to tell you about our most successful hens over the years.
ONE OF OUR BEST and fondly remembered hens was Tilly, a little cross breed. She made a fantastic broody, laid well and kept laying right into old age. She was pretty and personable as well so really had everything going for her despite not being a specific breed! Then there was Megs, a black Wyandotte cross who laid well and managed to conceal thirteen eggs, sit on them and produce thirteen chicks without me realising she had even gone broody! We currently have Alice, another cross breed, who looks like a Silver Sussex, although she is a Welsummer/Speckledy cross. She has lovely looks, lays well and must be around seven years old. And last but not least we have Pearl, a very pretty cross breed, who lays khaki coloured eggs. Her father was an Araucana cockerel (Araucana is the Chilean breed which lay blue eggs) and her Mum was a Wyandotte. Araucanas are crested so Pearl has a small crest and combines her prettiness with being an excellent layer (her year starts in December) but she does like to go broody and hatch a couple of broods per year. She is also a diligent, caring and gentle Mum. She especially likes to roost in the fir tree overnight and will teach her brood to do the same when the right time comes!
OUT OF ALL THE HYBRIDS that we have bought over the years the best layers have probably been the Black Rocks – the first two that I had both lasted into their sixth year and then both died within a couple of months of each other. They were hardy, never became ill and kept laying through their first few winters. One of them became broody when she was five years old for the first time which was curious. It seems that hybrids (after two or three years of intensive laying) can revert to pure breed traits such as not laying in the winter and going broody! I am afraid with hybrids there is a bit of pot luck involved as to whether they will lay well with no problems and live to a good age. We have had a number that have succumbed to unidentifiable illnesses when only about two years of age.
My two Skylines (blue egg laying hybrids) were bought in 2006. One has now died but the other is still going strong. She went broody for the first time last year and I let her hatch a brood of chicks. She was a good mother although she got very irritated with us if we got too close to her and she was very protective of her chicks. As soon as her chicks were in their teens she started laying eggs again even though her brood were still with her which is quite unusual to say the least.
I was recently told by a farmer who keeps an organic commercial egg laying flock that 7% of hens never lay a single egg in their lives. This accounts for a Sussex hybrid I bought last year. She reached maturity and had a lovely red comb but there was not an egg in sight. In the end I took her back and exchanged her for a hen that was definitely capable of laying eggs.
MY TWO RHODE ISLAND REDS (Large fowl) were two of my best buys – they have been fantastic egg layers all through last year – they went into moult late which is a sign of a good layer and started laying again this spring.
On the whole pure breeds are unlikely to lay though the winter. However our little gold spangled Appenzeller cross has really surprised us – she has laid right the way through her first winter and although rather flighty has good looks to match her egg laying prowess.
Our little buff Pekin, whom we call Pekes, has been with us a long time and must be eight this year. She continues to lay every spring and then goes broody. She loves to hatch a brood of chicks and is the most gentle of Mothers – she doesn’t mind at all if we pick up her chicks, move her to new quarters and she has even been transported to an event or two and used as a visitor attraction while I talk to people about keeping hens! One year her eggs (bought from ebay and supposedly fertile) did not hatch. I bought in four one-day-old chicks for her to foster and after an initial uncertainty she made the best of a bad deal and embraced her adopted brood with relish and cared for them until they were bigger than she was!
My best hen from last year’s hatches is my French Copper Blue Marans, named Jessie. She is a big attractive bird, blue (which means a dark grey colour) with coppery shades in the neck and is laying well as is her sister Maisie, the Copper Black Marans.
Last year I was given three two-year-old silver duckwing Welsummer hens, Holly, Ivy and Willow. This year I am going to breed some of these beautiful hens.
OUR EX-BATTERY HENS have really surprised me. We rescued two hens in October 2009. They were most probably hatched in May 2008 and would have had a year of intensive laying between September 2008 and September 2009. In October they, with many others, were ready to be rescued. Our two, Betty and Bree, have been fantastic. They lay well, are surprisingly hardy throwing off attacks of mycoplasma (a bacterial infection with cold-like symptoms) and other minor infections; they are charming, inquisitive and fearless, always first to the back door if they see me through the window and think I might be coming outside!
Out of all the cockerels that we have kept our most outstanding acquisition was definitely our silver duckwing Welsummer cockerel, named Ali, hatched from a Domestic Fowl Trust egg. He was with us for eight years and he was a true gentleman, always courteous with his girls and always on the look-out for tasty morsels to offer them. I once watched him spend a good few minutes plucking a blueberry off a plant that was behind some netting. He gently placed it on the ground and called his girls over – the first one on the scene gobbled it up – and he didn’t seem to have ulterior motives that time either! We now have a new silver duckwing Welsummer cockere, Jasper.