Northern fowl mite: don’t let it catch you out this winter

 

A couple of Christmas’s ago I took a call from a poultry keeper who was going through their first winter with chickens. They were looking for advice on how to deal with the constant downpours of rain we’ve been having. We discussed different ways to keep the run as dry as possible and keep the chickens out of standing water and reduce the amount of muck they traipse into the coop, but one thing they said caught my attention: “The birds seem to get soaked every day, they didn’t even look dry when I let them out this morning.”

I asked if the birds emerged from the coop eager for a drink or to get some feed and I was told they just seemed to stand there looking miserable, particularly the cockerel. This suggested something more than just the cold wet weather to me, and as the keeper only lived a few miles away, I offered to pop around to take a look. DB 120306-2

A casual glance at the cockerel would have suggested it was simply wet on its back, but its sunken stance along with a more greasy appearance to the feathers suggested a possible northern fowl mite (Ornithonyssus sylviarum) infestation. I picked the cockerel up and parted the feathers at the base of the tail and the mite was very much in evidence crawling over the skin (and heading across my fingers).

These mites become far more active during our winter, as they prefer cooler climates. Once they find a suitable host bird they will multiple at an alarming rate. Like the summer pest red mite, these are blood suckers but unlike red mite these little nasties complete their entire lifecycle on the birds and are far more aggressive, feeding around the clock. The greasy look of the feathers is caused by their faecal deposits: they are capable of killing a bird within a matter of days if the infestation isn’t dealt with.

In this instance referral to the local poultry vet was required as the off-the-shelf products may not have acted quickly enough. Regular dusting of your chickens (for example with a pyrethrum-based poultry powder) will help keep northern fowl mite and other external parasites at bay, but dusting wet birds can be difficult, and given the soggy ground conditions the chickens’ normal dust bath may not be available. It is easy to understand how this new keeper was caught out.

The key is to inspect and handle your flock regularly. A lot of the skill in poultry keeping is husbandry by eye, as chickens can have a canny way of disguising ailments until it’s too late. So if you sense something isn’t quite right then check, double check and seek advice. Prompt action could save time, money and above all, the chicken’s life.

 

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Chicken Nugget – The Dorking

Breed Name: Dorking

Region of origin: United Kingdom Dorking Table Breed

Profile: The Dorking is a very ancient British breed believed to have its ancestry rooted back in Roman Britain where five-toed Dorking like breeds were described in texts from AD 47. It is a very heavy breed but there is no evidence as yet to suggest that, as in the case of other giant chickens, it is in any way related to the huge breeds originating from Asia. Well established in the early nineteenth century it made a significant contribution to the development of other table breeds.

 

Behaviour and upkeep:  Because of its huge size and its loose feathering, spacious housing is required if the birds are to maintain a good look. They do not need much in terms of outdoor space and are quite content within a fixed run however care must be taken to avoid them becoming fat through lack of exercise. They can become tame if handled calmly but their size should be considered carefully if thinking of having them as pets. The hens tend only to lay during the spring and summer and fertility can present a challenge for anyone wishing to breed from a flock.

Plumage/Colours: Silver grey, Red, White, Dark, Cuckoo

Particulars:

Eyes: Bright red

Comb: Single, large or Rose

Feet & legs: Featherless, five toes

Weights:

Cock weight

Large Fowl 10-14lb (4.55-6.35kg)

Bantam 40-48oz (1130-1360g)

Hen weight

Large Fowl 8-10lb (3.60-4.55kg)

Bantam 32-40oz (910-1130g)

Egg production – Low to medium

Egg Colour – Tinted

Classification – Heavy; Soft Feather

Chicken Nugget – La Flèche

Region of origin: France

Profile: The combination of the deep red horned comb, strong beak, cavernous nostrils and beetle black plumage coupled with the solid stature of this breed means it well suited to it nick name of “Satan’s Fowl”. It is quite a large chicken which makes a good layer but grows quickly making an excellent table bird well-known in its country of origin.evil2ss

Behaviour and upkeep: These birds benefit from being able to free range as they are excellent foragers and will cover large distances in search of food. This makes them a very economical breed ideally suited to their dual purpose function.  They are also capable of flying quite high despite their size so do need high fences or roofed areas if they are not to be found roosting in trees. Wary by nature they do not tame easily though they are not an aggressive breed.

Plumage/Colours: Black

Particulars:

Eyes: Black/Red, Comb: Double spike, Feet & legs: Clean, dark slate or black

Weights:

Cock: Large Fowl 8-9lb (3.6 –4.1 kg) Bantam 36oz (1020g)

Hen: Large Fowl 6-7lb (2.7-3.2 kg) Bantam 28oz (800g)

Egg production: Medium to high

Egg Colour: White

Classification: Heavy; Rare

la fleche flocks

The UFO & New Blog Sponsors

Last year one of the magazines I write for (Your Chickens) ran a competition for readers Smiths Logo 2to design their perfect chicken house. I was asked to be one of the judges of the entries along with to-be manufacturers of the house, Smiths Sectional Buildings who are based on the Shropshire/Staffordshire border and are known for the range poultry housing, mobile field shelters, horse stables, goat houses and bespoke timber buildings they produce.

Philippa and the crew there made me feel most welcome (the cake was to die for!) as we set about reviewing the designs. In fact it was a bit of an honour for me to be there as I’m the proud owner of a Sherwood 100 bird house  which has served me well (and its previous owner) for the last 20 years, so to see the roots from which it emerged was great.

In fact whilst I’m on the subject of Smiths Sectional Buildings I’d like to say firstly welcome to them as a new sponsor of my blog and secondly that, whilst I can be quite guarded about what I will and won’t recommend I have no issue at all in recommending these guys. They know their poultry housing and ensure the basic needs (which I frequently rant write about) are incorporated. The result is a functional and practical product that in my experience provides two decades and counting of service – not to be sniffed at given the stack ‘em and flog ‘em cheap poultry products that litter the market these days.

Anyway back to the comp. As would be expected there was quite a range of designs submitted but what we were looking for was something that broke the mould a bit, something that would be worth prototyping, something that perhaps we could learn about or pick up new concepts from. The result was certainly conceptual and took quite a bit of construction and design skill to bring together.

Dubbed “the futuristic hen house” or “UFO” (Unusual Feathered Occupancy) I think you’ll agree it’s not like anything seen on the poultry market before.

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Designed as a four pen four house ‘high-rise’ its primary purpose in the brief was to provide a way of keeping four groups of bantam fowl for small scale breeding or exhibition stock rearing.

 

 

 

 

20141006_123832 (863x1024)The designer and winner has had the house for almost a whole season now and when asked for a progress report they replied

“I love my coop, it’s working really well. At the moment I have a hen and her chicks in the bottom layer. Quail in the highest layer, and the other two have had growers in until earlier this week when I released them to free range.

I love having all the pens so close and organised. And it is great for teaching chicks to use a ramp as you can start them on a low one then gradually move them up…..it is a 20141006_123847 (863x1024)brilliant coop that has become invaluable to me this summer. It is quick and easy to clean out and I know the chickens are always safe in it.“

Obviously it was a prototype and head room in the lowest coop is an issue as is the steep nature of the top coop but like any design, it’s a process of reflection and refinement.

Will we see it on mass production? Not yet but who knows, a tweak here and there might just mean we see a few more UFO’s in our countryside.

 

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How to be a right ‘plucker’

The first few hatches of the year are about due for the table now and a question I’m frequently asked is about plucking the birds and the best way to approach it by hand so here goes.

Removing the feathers from a chicken is best done as soon after despatch as possible. This is because the carcass will still be warm, meaning the feathers will come away more freely.

1. Hang the bird upside down against a wall, as this will help stop the bird swinging around as you work on removing the first set of feathers.

2. The extremities (wings and tail) will cool fastest so feathers from these areas should be removed first with a sharp downward tug. It can be hard work on these areas, and gloves may be required to ensure grip is maximised.

3. Once those feathers are removed it is often easier to have the bird hanging from a ceiling hook, so it can be turned freely.

4. Next, remove the thigh and breast feathers being careful not to tear the skin underneath.

5. Finally pluck the back feathers out. The resulting carcass will probably still have a slightly ‘hairy’ look due to the presence of fine feather filaments; these can be removed by singeing with a cold yellow flame.

Now the bird is ready for dressing and roasting… if however you don’t intend to roast the bird whole or in parts then don’t bother plucking it, just skin it instead. And again unless you are planning on portioning it then avoid the need to eviscerate by simply scooping of the breast fillets and removing the legs, thighs (and wings if you want). This can be a little wasteful however it does save a lot of effort.

20 week old Ixworth cock (and just about ready for the pot)

20 week old Ixworth cock (and just about ready for the pot)

Foxed again…. or was I?

This time of year can be quite busy for foxes around these parts. There’s young mouths that need feeding and if the local rabbit population is a bit low then brazen foxes will head for my poultry flocks.

It is also that time of year that broodiness can start to appear in hens. Most of the time my hens will lay claim to a nest box in a coop but every now and then there will be one that furtively lays a clutch in a hedgerow or some undergrowth. Each day she will lay an egg in her secluded nesting site and each night she will roost in the coop with the rest of the flock.

Unless I’m very lucky I’m usually unaware of her activities until one day I don’t see her out and about, or she doesn’t emerge from the house in the morning with the rest of that flock. A sure sign she’s sitting tight somewhere and a fairly sure sign that if I don’t find her then she won’t make the 21 days incubation before being eaten.

Sadly this morning when doing the rounds I found the feathers of a cream legbar hen in the field. She came out of the coop the previous morning but I suspect last night was her first, and last night incubating the clutch (which I later found under a shrub).

Killed by a fox is my usual conclusion as they are the main predator around here and their modus operandi with single birds tends to be a feathers at the point of capture and feathers at the point where they have accessed and exited the property (as it’s likely to have been a squeeze). This morning though after a Horatio Caine CSI moment I reached a different conclusion which I believe lets the fox off the hook…

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Look at these two pictures…

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They are taken from opposite sides of some relatively small gauge stock fence. There are feathers on both sides with a lot close to the fence line. Something has gone through the fence with the dead bird. The legbar isn’t a heavy breed and a fox would have easily carried it over the fence or gone around as a fox is too large to squeeze through the fence. What we have here is a mustelid kill. This bird was taken by some ferret or polecat derivative I suspect.

So apologies foxes for jumping to the wrong conclusion and hello to a new predator most probably of the mustelid kind!

Poultry Genetics Workshop hits Devon

Back in 2013 I went on Grant Brereton’s Genetics Seminar and it was very well received by those who attended, myself include. Earlier this year he told me he was doing a few ‘gigs’ down Devon way so I figured I’d take the opportunity to put a few questions to him especially as he’s redesigned it as a ‘workshop’…. and given we were in interview mode the other day for one of the titles we both write for (Country Smallholding), what better time to strike!
Grant in America
Why a ‘Workshop’ this time and not a Seminar?
GB: I think ‘Seminar’ sounds a bit too studious and official for what we’re trying to achieve in Devon.
Ok, so what’s that?
GB: Well the Oswestry Seminar was in large hall with a stage, live birds in show pens, and props etc. But this workshop in Okehampton will be on the Farm of Ian and Gillian Dixon, so there will be many birds on site that they breed and rear there. Plus we are breeding specific crosses for the course. People will be able to handle the chicks and growers and see many points demonstrated. There is also an outbuilding for presentations and slideshows etc, so I intend to make full use of that.
Sounds a fun day, so are you planning any more?
GB: Nothing official so far. I have a few venues interested in a UK ‘Breeding and Genetics’ tour, so to speak, but Jim Adkins of the Sustainable Poultry Network wants me back in the US in 2016 and I’ve had many offers from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the Continent too. But such events take a lot of planning, and what with my journalism and editorial work, hence so few and far between at present.
So how many places are available each day?
GB: We’ve restricted it to 25 per day because we feel that’s a nice amount of people to be working with. We want it to be an enjoyable and rare experience for all who attend. The Saturday 30 May only has 2 places left, but there are a few more places available on the Sunday 31.
Ok, and what level of genetics are you assuming people will have?
GB: I think it’s very hard to find common ground in that respect, so I will be keeping it simple in many ways – and emailing everyone individually beforehand to see what they hope to get out of the day. But in saying that, I will be available to answer any manner of genetics questions – no matter how complex.
You’ve called it a ‘Breeding and Genetics Workshop – presumably that has some significance?
GB: Yes, absolutely. I want to cover how to breed better stock, and look at pure breeds as well, which are more important really. And for this reason, and so it’s not just me preaching all day, I’ve enlisted the help of my good friend, Jed Dwight, who is a respected breeder and exhibitor. He’s my guest speaker on both days!
So what will people get for their £35?
GB: We tried to keep the cost as reasonable as possible. All who attend will get a FREE e-book download of ‘Breeding For Success, ‘ a FREE souvenir workbook which they can refer to time and again, and a FREE lunch as well as refreshments throughout the day. There will also be some prize giveaways as each person will get their own ping pong ball to be drawn out of a hat later in the day. We also intend on a few hidden extras, plus special discounts on my book range and South Yeo East’s poultry range.
And you think you’re the right person for the job?
GB: I hope so. I’ve spent the last 17 years breeding intensively and most of that time studying inheritance. I’ve conducted many experiments and made many observations along the way. I do believe I can deliver the course in my own way, which I know people enjoyed last time and I’m sure those attending Devon will feel the same.
Are you pleased with the ticket sales so far?
GB: Oh, I think you have to be! Okehampton in Devon isn’t exactly what you’d call ‘central’ but I agreed to do it when some Devon folk found the Oswestry one just a tad too far to travel. So yes, it’s wonderful really; a great compliment.  A few people left it too late last year, which is frustrating, understandably (I could have sold 120 places), but you just never know who is planning on coming and leaving it till the last minute – that’s the hardest part: planning for how many people will come.
So what do those lucky enough to have a ticket need to bring with them?
GB: Well knowing the British weather, a coat, a pair of wellies and a notepad is all I ask. I would also ask them to participate if they want to and just to enjoy the day. It’s supposed to be an insight into becoming a better breeder and delving a little bit into that ‘seemingly complex’ world that makes for all the wonderful permeations of colours, features and plumage patterns in poultry. But the most important part is that people have fun!
To book your ticket for either May 30th or May 31st workshops then click here: http://www.gbpoultry.com/Devon_Workshop.html
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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