Writ­ers’ flock

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’

Your Chickens - - Contents -

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.

ABOVE: The three new ban­tams in the en­larged dust box. From left: Sy­bil, Hulda, and Olive. TOP RIGHT: 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.

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