With the evenings beginning to draw out and the first crocuses poking through it’s just about possible to imagine that spring is round the corner. And at Coopers Farm that means only one thing: the arrival of abundant and assorted new life. And after all these years that still fills me with excitement and anticipation.
Malcolm the sheep scan man will be here any day. The rams went in with the ewes in late October and now it’s time to find out how successful those romantic liaisons were. To scan them, the sheep pass along a corridor similar to a Heath Robinson contraption that looks a bit like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. With Malcolm at the controls, perched on an old Toyota car seat, the ewes file alongside him and are scanned to see if they’re carrying one, two or three lambs.
“These posh hens found the late autumn and early winter of 2019 far too wet and cold to lay eggs”
As each is recorded we spray them with marker paint on the shoulder for singles, on their tail for twins and across the rump for triplets. And then finally – ta-da! – Malcolm gives us the total score for the number of lambs we can expect. Hopefully about 150 with not too many ‘empties’. And at last the hens have decided to get in on the act, too. I’ve had hens ever since we came to the farm and love to see them wandering around the farmyard. Sadly, however, a few months ago they wandered just a bit too far from said farmyard and the inevitable happened. I swore I wouldn’t get any more, but then after a few egg-free months I succumbed.
Not for me cheap brown hybrid hens that happily lay an egg every day – hell no – I have a real weakness for the rare and the beautiful when it comes to feathers. So, back in the summer, I acquired a cockerel and five young pullets (the term used for hens before they produce an egg) of the old-fashioned Sussex breed. These come in many shades, all with black neck and tail feathers and most commonly available in Light (think white), Buff (heavenly caramel) or Speckled (dark brown with what looks like a smattering of snow) variations, but we’ve gone really off-piste and opted for the extremely rare Brown Sussex.
But here’s an interesting aside, there is apparently an even rarer, possibly even extinct, one. The Coronation Sussex chicken (I’m not making this up) was created for the coronation of Edward VIII – an event which as we know thanks to Mrs Simpson never took place. It had the same white body as the Light, but with lavender instead of black neck and tail feathers and a red comb it was supposed to resemble the Union Jack. They haven’t been seen for many years now but wouldn’t it be wonderful to discover there still were some scratching around.
Anyway, back to my quite but not completely rare Brown ones. Purchased at about 10 weeks old, they were not expected to ‘come into lay’ until about 20 weeks which would have taken us to November. Trouble is, these posh hens, unlike the far more obliging brown hybrid ones, found the late autumn and early winter of 2019 far too wet and cold to lay eggs – which might go some way to explaining their rarity. But bang on the button, as soon as we got past the winter solstice in late December and the evenings began to draw out – bingo we had an egg!
Like buses they’re now coming fast and furious and will continue to do so until – unlike those reliable hybrids who’ve have it bred out of them – they go broody and stop laying. But then again a few chicks around the place at Easter is always a welcome sight.
Jane will be teaching a half-day course on an introduction to bee keeping at the wonderful Curious House in Stonegate on Thursday 7 February, curioushouse.net.
Follow Jane Howard – and the farm – on Instagram @coopersfarm
Phil the cockerel and his very rare Brown Sussex hens
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