Henkeepers come from all walks of life. Here, awardwinning Cambridge historian and writer Beau Riffenburgh describes how he and his wife, novelist Liz Cruwys, became captivated by their ‘girls’
Authors who keep hens
Liz had always wanted to keep hens, but our lives as Cambridge academics who also spent several months each year working in the Arctic and Antarctic, made it impossible. Even after we retired from the university to move to the countryside of Carmarthenshire and concentrate on freelance writing, our time in the polar regions made us feel we couldn’t fulfil all the obligations of taking care of a little flock. In hope, my mother bought Liz a splendid henhouse for her birthday, but it sat empty and forlorn in the barn, just waiting to be used.
Then, shortly after we decided to stop our work in the polar regions, some friends phoned to say that they were going to collect a few Warrens the next day and invited us to come along and pick some up ourselves. It took but a moment to agree. We hurried into Carmarthen to buy pellets and mixed corn, and our neighbours provided us with a bag of wood shavings and some straw. The next afternoon, Gertrude, Ethel, and Ma – the first two named after our maternal grandmothers and the last after the lead hen on an Antarctic expedition that I had written two books about – came to live with us.
Of course we didn’t know it yet, but they were to change our lives.
At first, we thought they would just be part of the garden scenery – pretty little things in
We didn’t know it yet, but they were to change our lives.
their run, who would take a few minutes each day to tend, and who would keep us supplied with delicious eggs. But we hadn’t reckoned on their charming and magnetic personalities. Within a couple of days, we began to spend more and more time with them, getting to know their characters, behaviours, habits, voices, and individual likes and dislikes. Their run went from a small attachment to their house to a 20 sqm area of fence and chicken wire, and finally to a quarter of an acre enclosed by electric fencing containing all of their favourite bits of the garden – a row of leylandii trees, an unruly patch of overgrown shrubs and stunted trees, a fallen fir that has managed to cling to life and provides a series of tunnels under its branches, several large bushes to lounge under, and a grassy ‘plain’.
We quickly began to appreciate the sheer pleasure of their company – watching them in the dust-bath, sitting still while they preened on our laps, having them follow us outside their own range into our part of the garden for an evening ‘ramble’ – which they now expect every night before they turn in. Being with ‘the girls’ allowed some of the stresses and strains of modern living to disappear. Many years ago, Liz worked on a project that looked at the benefits of having pets. The results showed that people with pets tended to score higher on the happiness scale. The researchers attributed this to three things: getting a daily dose of fresh air, the responsibility of seeing to the needs of other living creatures, and the satisfaction of returned affection. It certainly proved true for us.
The girls were so lovely but so different. Ethel was nervous of change, loved to scratch through areas of chippings, and was very affectionate towards us. Gertie was noisy, exuberant, independent, and liked to hunt for worms and slugs. And Ma was gentle, intelligent, inquisitive, and always the first to try anything new. Ethel eventually established herself as Queen of
All She Surveyed, and, in response to her becoming a bit of a bully towards the others, our vet suggested getting a couple more hens to dilute her over-exuberance in exerting her authority. So we obtained two more beautiful Warrens, Ada and Audrey, named after our paternal grandmothers.
Ada quickly became known as Food Bird, as she never met anything to eat that she didn’t like. She was larger than life and had amazing problemsolving abilities, including going through a series of complex stages to get to treats that we thought we had put out of her reach. Audrey could communicate incredibly well and knew how to make it clear when she wanted the tarpaulin taken off her dust-bath or to visit our part of the garden.
We found that our writing careers benefited from having the girls, as going out to be with them gave us breaks in our work days that allowed us to go back to our books refreshed and with renewed energy and enthusiasm. And, perhaps not surprisingly, chickens started appearing in Liz’s novels.
Tragically, we lost Ma in 2014 and Gertie and Food Bird in 2015. All had had egg-laying problems, as Warrens so frequently do, and the latter two suffered from egg peritonitis. The problem, of course, is that they’re bred to lay virtually every day, which puts a massive strain on their systems. As one of Britain’s foremost avian surgeons said: “Warrens are like highperformance racing cars – designed to function at a very high level for a short period of time, then break down.” Egg peritonitis – brought about by this systemic breakdown – is the most frequent ‘natural’ killers of hybrid birds, and one of our ambitions is to encourage and fund research into how to treat or prevent it.
With Gertie and Food gone and Audrey broody (yes, Warrens do go broody), Ethel was lonely and bereft. So we got three more hens so she would have a new flock, including Henrietta and Florrie, two Black Rocks. But because we love Warrens, we got little Dusty, too – a real charmer wholly dedicated to begging treats from her easily manipulated humans.
Unfortunately, the hope that the Black Rocks – who lay as often as the Warrens – wouldn’t have so many egg-laying problems was shattered when Henrietta eventually started laying soft-shelled eggs day after day. She was eventually given a hormone implant to shut down her ovaries in the hope that it would give her system time to heal and reset itself, a treatment that Dusty has also recently received after making what the vet thought was a miraculous recovery from egg peritonitis.
A couple months ago, our flock increased again when we added two Light Sussex bantams, Olive and Sybil, and a Bielefelder bantam, called Hulda in honour of her German breed. They are all little beauties, although we worry about Hulda because she produces eggs as large as those of a Warren more than twice her size.
We feel happy that we have given all our girls a life where they can see the sky, feel the grass beneath their claws, and have the freedom and safety to do as they please all day long, whether it be hunting, dust-bathing, or sunning themselves. We consider it only fair, as they return masses of pleasure to us. Letting them out in the morning, and watching as they hurry to see what worms and bugs might be around is wonderful. Somehow, their delight in simple pleasures puts other things in life in a much better perspective.
The three new bantams in the enlarged dust box. From left: Sybil, Hulda, and Olive.
The first five girls on their favourite bench. From left: Food, Ethel, Gertie, Ma, and Audrey.
ABOVE: Five of the current girls on their favourite bench. Above from left: Henrietta, Ethel, Audrey, and Dusty. Below: Florrie and Liz. BELOW: Beau with Ma when she was young.