Untimely broodiness – breaking the habit

In normal circumstances I welcome broody chickens with open arms (although given the manner of some of my broodies I mean that metaphorically as you would be lucky to get anywhere near them!) However during the late summer months, and in particular during July and August, it can be a real problem if you find a hen that drops.

Not only are these months amongst the hottest in the UK calendar that can make the hen house an uncomfortable environment for a sitting bird, they are when the breeding season is over for me and even if I have fertile eggs available I don’t want young chicks being reared by a hen so close to the weather turning for the year.

There are other reasons too why the broody is unwelcome at this time of year. Firstly it is when that nemesis of the poultry keeper, the Red Mite, is at its peak. You might not have a red mite problem but a broody sat on a nest in Red Mite season can be an absolute magnet for these and other external parasites that can all too easily knock a bird out of condition. If this happens earlier in the year then there’s usually ample time for the hen to recover and recondition, but in August the moult, and the winter, are just around the corner and the bird should be ranging, building up reserves for what’s coming rather than depleting energy stores wasting her time sitting around on an empty nest.

This is when you need to deploy the Broody Buster.

Physiologically, a hen is designed to brood eggs as part of their reproductive process and the cycle of brooding in chickens is approximately 21 days from the point when they first start to incubate to hatching. During this time she will rarely leave the nest other than to quickly feed and drink. Her preening, dust bathing and feather care will also be curtailed and she will lose weight, lose condition and potentially pick up external parasites.  If the eggs are fertile, and hatch successfully, the hen will leave the nest and care for her brood and also start to care for herself again. As such, the 21 day period is survivable for the hen and should not have any adverse impact on her long term health. However, if a hen is left to brood with no prospect of a successful hatch there is a significant risk she will remain broody for much longer than the 3 week period and in doing so damage her health (aside from it inducing other hens in the flock to become broody).

Brooding is primarily the desire to nest; incubating and hatching is secondary, shown by the fact a hen will brood fresh air if her internal switch is flicked. In order to break this behaviour it is necessary to place the hen in a non-nesting friendly place. The quarantine cage is an ideal piece of kit to use. First remove the plastic tray and place it on top of the cage as a roof (if the base is not removable then simply turn the cage upside down so the base now acts as a roof). Place the cage on two bricks in an exposed but shady outdoor position. Add food and water, and then place the hen in the cage. This can be done within the flock enclosure or away from the main group. The hen will protest and this is when a battle of wills takes place between the keeper and the hen. She will not like being unable to nest and will want to return to her favoured location. She will, however, settle. If, after a couple of days, her behaviour seems more normal (pre-broody) she can be returned to the flock. If she again becomes broody then repeat the process for a few days longer this time. Eventually she’ll lose the desire to nest, at least until the next time.

It might seem a little harsh but it can save a lot of heart ache and hard work.…. at least until the next time she growls at you from the nest box.


Avian flu prevention zone extended to 28th Feb – Press releases – GOV.UK

The Chief Veterinary Officer has extended a Prevention Zone to help protect poultry from avian flu.

Source: Avian flu prevention zone extended – Press releases – GOV.UK

UPDATE 6th Jan 14:30: for the full legal declaration read here https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/581957/ai-prevention-zone-170106.pdf

Just in case you needed a reminder, the lock down on poultry flocks and ban on poultry gatherings (auctions, shows etc) has been extendBPRHead2ed to 28th Feb. Needless to say this will have a significant knock on impact for breeders and small poultry businesses even if the order is lifted when the second deadline is reached.

Good luck to all my fellow poultry people, I hope you whether the storm at this critical point in our poultry rearing year.

Let sense prevail… incubators off.

As another breeding season draws to a close I find myself looking back over my hatching records, and the cross section of growers I have on the go. In front of me on the wall is a ‘post-it’ note that states “No Eggs To Be Set After End Of May”. It is in my son’s handwriting, and to be fair it’s there for a good reason and acts as growerssmy annual reminder.

For too many years I’d still have my incubators whirring away in August, September and even early October only to find myself ruing the day I set the eggs. Why? By November and December the resulting hatchlings have outgrown their indoor facilities and need to go outside, but outside its cold, wet and muddy. Hands up if you too have learnt that lesson only to forget it the following year?


As a poultry breeder there is a constant temptation to set eggs.




In some yearOwlbeard-White-Day old 1s I’ve had hatchlings popping out everywhere, and it’s been a bumper season for sales, and so I’ve kept hatching well beyond my common sense threshold. The risk is though, you see it as the poultry equivalent of making hay whilst the sun shines, the trouble is ‘making hay’ is a harvesting event, setting eggs is more like sowing seeds. As a gardener you read the label, it tells you when to sow and when to harvest. You don’t get that warning when breeding poultry, so in many respects the note acts my label.

Leghorn-Brown-Day old 1 (640x451)

He wrote the note I think primarily because he too ends up having to help out and when the weather is poor, pushing a wheelbarrow along a path with 6 inch of mud on it, whilst the wind successful empties the contents of said barrow across the paddock, is a spirit sapping task even for the most happy-go-lucky individual.  I’ve written about it before but the winters at the moment seem to be more mild and more wet, with occasional unpredictable extremes such as having a BBQ in March one year only to be under 3 feet of snow the same month the following year, and as such I’ve shifted my breeding plans at least for the time being. I’ve shorten the window of time for setting eggs, and lengthened the period of time the males are apart from the females…… and I have to say I’ve found it altogether more manageable.

As such sense is prevailing and this rather faded post-it note has served me well. It has also meant I’ve had more time in the summer to just enjoy watching the youngsters growing outdoors on the grass, rather than spending hours indoors covered in dander and dust dealing with day olds. You never know, I might even venture towards a summer holiday one year!


Radio 2, Podcasting and Planning

It’s been an interesting past 7 days or so that involved being invited on to Simon Mayo’s Radio 2 Drivetime to explain another listeners three word Wednesday of “washing show chickens” to podcasting about pet poultry with Alys Fowler and Jane Perrone.

Yours truly caught rolling on Ellesmere green

Yours truly caught rolling on Ellesmere green

In between I’ve played a few games of Crown Green Bowls with this being my second season after an almost 30 year break (yup, that game you thought was the the last refuge of old men was a sport I played in my mid teens) plus I’ve also set my last batch of hatching for the year.

This might seem a little early to be switching off the incubators but breeding any livestock is about planning. The eggs I set this last weekend will hatch mid June. Extrapolate that out and you have the pullets reaching 18 weeks by the end of October which means with a bit of luck some if not all might just start laying before the winter sets in. If not then they will obviously kick off in the spring but they will be expensive mouths to feed and maintain over the winter months.

Planning can be key, getting the plan wrong can be costly. Good luck to those who have hatched up this year and may your pullets be productive!


Chicken & Egg by Andy Cawthray and James Hermes | The Womens Room

The first review of the new book and hopefully the first of many positive ones too 🙂

Chicken & Egg by Andy Cawthray and James Hermes | The Womens Room.

Blatant Book Plug – Chicken & Egg: An Egg-Centric Guide To Raising Poultry

Well it’s my blog, so why not plug my new title due out in the Spring of 2015…..?

The title might sound a little corny however the focus of the book is in fact “eggs”. The origins and science of eggs along with the ways to get the best out the breeds you choose with particular emphasis on a number of the key laying pure breeds, all beautiful illustrated in the loose water colour style of that exceptional artist, Kate Osbourne . I’ve yet to see the finished product but if it’s anything like the previous title I worked on with Ivy Press then it will be exceptional and well worth owning…. and I’m not just saying that because I wrote it, but because the other book genuinely is a cracker 😉

New title due out in Feb 2015

New title due out in Feb 2015

Egg Packing, post or collect? – Hatching Guidance

When it comes to hatching eggs collecting them directly from the breeder is always preferable if you can as it not only enables you to meet the breeder and their birds but it also means that you can keep an eye on the eggs from the point of collection to the point they are put in the incubator or under a broody.

It might seem common sense but when you do collect the eggs make sure they are packed securely and are safe from rattling around on the journey home. Excessive shaking can addle the eggs or cause the air sac to become displaced. Also don’t leave them in a place where they might be subject to direct sunlight such as the front seat, or excessive heat such as a glove box or car boot as this can result in the eggs warming up and the incubation process starting or worse still, cooking the contents. In fact to be on the safe side it’s probably best they are place in a cool box if the journey is going to be a long one.

Of course having the eggs posted to you is always an option but you are then left in the lap of the seller and of the postal service (and potentially your own penny pinching!)  Firstly it’s down to the seller to pack the eggs properly. This is simple enough to establish, just ask them before you commit to purchase. There has, and still is the debate going on as to whether traditional packing in a box with plenty of padding such as straw of polystyrene chips is better than the custom built polyboxes.SAMSUNG In my experience it’s not which is better, it’s how the seller packages the eggs in each that counts. Ideally the egg needs a cushion against shockwaves from travelling to the egg if the packet is dropped or bashed. Eggs carefully boxed in a bed of polychips or straw will provide the cushion, as will using a polybox larger than the egg you will be packing but wrapping each egg in kitchen paper so it fits snuggly in the recess.

Next is the postal journey. I send my hatching eggs Express Deliver next day by 1pm. At the time of posting this blog it costs £6.95 to send a polybox of 6 average sized chicken eggs by next day delivery plus around 90p for the polybox, sticky tape and some brown paper to parcel up. It’s not unreasonable then in my view to charge at least £7.50.

I’m often asked to send the eggs first class as its cheaper (around £5) but I won’t. Ok it’s the buyers choice but I doubt they will be blaming their decision to pinch a few pennies as being the reason why the hatch rate was poor now will they?With cheaper posting there is no guarantee on the delivery timescales, it could be up to three days and you have absolutely no idea what conditions the eggs are being kept in. Basically all the factors you would be looking to mitigate when transporting hatching eggs go straight out of the window. At least with express delivery those risks are kept to an absolute minimum.

Finally, don’t forget the price of the actual hatching eggs too. Don’t expect too much from half a dozen eggs that cost less than half a dozen eating eggs off the supermarket shelf as no breeder would devalue their stock and the work they put into keeping them by selling them so cheaply; they would sooner give them away, or save all the effort and sell eating eggs off the gate.

So unless you are actually visiting the breeder, seeing their stock and collecting your fertile eggs in person then don’t expect miracles from a bargain 99p half dozen eggs that you paid £2.50 P&P on which spend a week in the post and arrive loose in an egg box parcelled in bubble wrap. You might be lucky, you might get a show winner in there but in the end, you pays your money and you makes your choice.


Hatching Responsibilities – have you a plan for the unwanted?

Hatching chicks via a broody or an incubator is fascinating. I constantly find it an amazing process both as a biological scientist and a chicken keeper, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had a hatch (actually that’s not true, I’ve recorded the details of every hatch I’ve done but perhaps that’s more to do with my anorak collection than anything). In articles and talks I’ve done I’ve been an advocate of hatching birds and engaging in the whole process of rearing chicks to full grown adults; it’s a livestock experience which if well planned for, is accessible to anyone with even a small amount of garden. But by the same measure I do bang the drum on the key term – “plan”.

La Bresse cockerel, 8 weeks old to be grown on for the table.

La Bresse cockerel, 8 weeks old to be grown on for the table.

Before you even consider the concept of hatching little fluffy bundles to beautiful matronly egg layers you need to be aware of one key element; on average 50% of what you hatch will be male. It might sound patently obvious but it surprises me just how many people claim to be aware of that basic fact but hatch anyway, but with absolutely no idea or plan on how to deal with the inevitable surplus males.

Now you might well have spotted ‘gadgets’ that proclaim to be able to sex an egg (they do exist, I tested one and guess what, it was no more accurate than my random choices). You may even read articles about the Australian Brush Turkeys and the way these birds have the ability to manipulate the sex of the chicks that hatch through the temperature control of their incubation mound in what seems like a similar manner to reptiles. The later though are biologically different; they use temperature-dependant sex determination (TSD) whereas the turkey in question works on temperature-dependant embryo mortality meaning the heat of the mound can define to a degree which sex of chick hatches and which dies in the shell. There may well be similar technique that could be applied to the artificial incubation in chicken eggs but as yet I’ve not seen any evidence of it that could be applied successfully in a backyard situation.

And so back to the inevitable cockerels; what is your plan? Rehoming or selling on is possible but unless you have a particularly stunning blood line of a breed then those options are extremely limited. Selling them on accompanied by pullets is an option but unless you have significantly more pullets than cockerels you could end up selling stock you wanted to keep. The bottom line is that until the birds hatch you have no idea what the ratio of male to female will be, so face the reality – you are likely to need to either cull out the spare males or grow them on for the table (unless of course if you have an unlimited amount of land and housing to accommodate the extra chaps). Planning what to do is part of your responsibility when it comes to hatching and rearing chicks, as is caring for the chickens you bought on a whim when swept up in the ‘fashion’ for chicken keeping.

Ringing up your nearest breeder asking them to take on your unwanted birds is likely to be met with a polite ‘no thank you’ and many animal rescue centres are simply not geared up for poultry and could struggle to accommodate them. Worse still though is the increasing number of reports of birds simply being dumped. And if you think I’m making a storm in a teacup then speak to Raystede Centre For Animal Welfare who recently reported 12 hens and cockerel squashed into a box and dumped overnight at their premises. As their Chief Executive said, it’s not only irresponsible but also “a criminal act” as is chucking them over my fence in the hope I’ll not notice the extra three or four cockerels in the field.

So plan before you hatch and remember, with it comes responsibility for the welfare and future of every chick that appears.