Happy New Year

December 2017

I am quite aware that my blog posts are becoming shorter each month and I am taking longer and longer to publish them. I wouldn’t call it writer’s block, it’s just that I seem to have been lacking inspiration of late and as the trees and plants go into hibernation mode, it appears I do too. Winter is always a difficult time to write, especially when beautiful, crisp mornings are replaced by endless days of rain and drizzle. I am not actively working in the garden and I think this has a huge mental impact on everyday life. When the weather is wet and cold and there is no sign of life in the garden, it is very difficult at times to motivate myself into doing anything at all. I start to question if we have actually made any progress here, whether it was the right thing to do, and are we actually happy? Negative thoughts are quick to consume me and I am left with doubt for the future. So, why on earth would I want to share all this negativity with you, at a time when a new year is about to begin, and everyone should by cheerful and optimistic?

I spoke to my husband last night about how I had reached a point in writing my blog where I didn’t have anything positive or interesting to share. He quickly made me realise that in these modern times, the majority of people who post online are so preoccupied with creating false impressions of how fantastic their lives are, they lose touch with reality and the true joys of living. It is so true, the rise of social media, selfies and smart phones have led to people constantly bombarding us with how great their lives are, how much money they have and how beautiful they look. Temporary happiness now comes in the form of a ‘like’ button! Pete told me that in order to continue my blog, I need to write from the heart, be honest and true to myself, and not write for the purpose of pleasing others.

So, here goes…

Don’t assume, for one minute, that living out here amongst the rolling Aveyron hills is all sweetness and light, because it isn’t. We have our ups and our downs, like any other family.

December began in such a positive light. Chez TêteBlanche was bursting at the seams with Christmas crafts for the village market: decorative wine bottles with led lights; miniature Christmas trees decorated with festive chocolates for the dinner table; painted nativity scene plaques; hand-painted Christmas mobiles and tree decorations… In fact, out Christmas market stall was quite successful. We made some extra cash before Christmas and I have taken a couple of orders for some Compolibat plaques, which went down very well with the locals. We quickly figured out which items were popular (notably story stones, owl plaques and candlesticks) and which items were less regarded (fairy doors and fabric wreaths) so that if we decide to do it again next year, we can optimise our sales.

Back at home, the kitchen cupboards were fully stocked with chocolates and fizz, and all the other necessary ingredients to make our typically English Christmas dinner one to remember. Now it is all over, I can quite safely say that it is a Christmas I would much rather forget, for one by one, like fallen soldiers, all five of us in the house came down with a terrible case of the flu. On a brighter note, due to a subsequent lack of appetite and taste, we still have a cupboard full of chocolates and alcohol to get through, and for once, this Christmas we all lost weight as opposed to piling on the pounds! After a rough ten days of fatigue, aching muscles, chest infections and fevers, I am pleased to say that we are all on the mend now and the worst is over.

Which is more than can be said for one of our hens. Being poorly over Christmas has meant we have paid less attention than normal to our chickens and we have only recently noticed that yet another has come down with vent gleet. Today is New Year’s Eve and it is the first day of sun we have seen in a long time. Feeling ready to brave the outdoors after days spent huddled around the fire, Pete and I gave the hen a warm bath this morning and we spring-cleaned the chicken house. How poetic it all sounds, yet when you consider taking on the joys of homesteading, nobody mentions that it might involve you massaging a hen’s backside in soapy water in order to remove rotting faeces from her feathers, or shovelling stinking chicken poo into a wheelbarrow when you still have the shivers from a recent flu virus. Nope, quite often than not, we concentrate way too much on the glorified side of country-living and fail to mention the knitty-gritty, but it’s always there, and its bloody hard work this quiet life in the country!

As December draws to a close, I have swept all signs of negativity under the carpet. I can look back at 2017 and feel proud of what we have accomplished.

The children are doing well at school and are effortlessly bilingual. I have a strong relationship with my parents, who are now close by. Our house is becoming a home and as we enter our fourth year here, we are constantly making improvements. We have a better understanding of our land and what can be improved next year, and I have a strong man beside me, who helps me to live in the present moment and reinforces the idea of being mindful in everything I do. Take the weekly shop for example. Yes, there are times when I might have bought frozen pizza instead of making it myself or cooked frozen supermarket veg rather than picking it fresh from the garden, but nobody is perfect, despite what they might try to portray. What is important, Pete reminds me, is to consciously try to make the right compassionate choices in life. Tempting though it is for me to buy a cheap pack of chicken when money is tight, the likelihood is that those chickens suffered in appalling battery-farm conditions and the better option would be to go without chicken at all until we can afford to buy it free-range. The price of chicken in France fluctuates all the time but there are generally commercial offers for free-range chicken every month or so. An alternative solution would be to rear our own chickens for meat, something we have always liked the idea of, but never followed up. We do have plans to expand our chicken run to accommodate more chickens next year, so this could finally be an option for us.

Reflecting on the past year leaves me with optimism for the next. We have plans to add some colour in the form of flower beds next year. The introduction of a climbing Wisteria and geranium hanging baskets in the summer made our front door appear much more welcoming, so the plan is to create a relaxing area around the other side of the house, where we can enjoy the longer evening sun amongst a variety of cottage garden flowers. I wouldn’t mind a little pond too, but it might involve some digging on Pete’s part so I haven’t mentioned it to him as yet!

Of course, we haven’t forgotten about the fruit and vegetables. I generally tend to get carried away ordering seeds at the beginning of the year and have this awful tendency to sow them too early. This year, I am going to make a constructive growing plan, concentrating more on the staple veg that we eat regularly, such as potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, spinach and swiss chard and try not to get carried away growing tonnes of brassicas such as cabbages, broccoli and cauliflower, many of which are eaten by pests or left to rot. Instead I will grow a smaller amount of brassicas and try to look after them better, with the aid of neem oil (a 2017 discovery of mine). Although our polytunnel has provided us with fresh lettuce well into December, I need to stagger my lettuce growing more, to ensure a steady yield throughout the year, particularly when it’s really hot. My neighbour has promised to help me increase my green bean and tomato yields, and after trying the back-breaking traditional method of potato-growing, we are reverting back, without hesitation, to our initial straw-grown potato method next year.

So, what began this blog post as a downward spiral of self-pity has once again been transformed into a positive reflection of the past year, with high hopes for 2018. Please don’t believe everything you read or see online, concentrate on living the dream rather than trying to share it on social media. Don’t dwell on the past or worry about the future, just be honest, true and kind, live in the moment, all the time.

I sincerely wish you all the very best for 2018. Happy New Year!


Christmas crafts

November 2017

For the past few weeks, I have been a little preoccupied, to say the least, making crafts with my mum to sell at the village Christmas market. I remember feeling a bit let down by last year’s Christmas markets which weren’t exactly festive, just lots of stalls selling expensive handbags, homemade chocolates, conserves, pottery and plants. After a quick tour of the aisles, I left feeling not so merry, with not even a glass of vin chaud in sight to lift my spirits. I was not going to let it happen again. This year, our Christmas market preparations started back in September, when my auntie introduced us to Posca. These all-surface, water-based Posca pens have allowed me to unleash my creativity and express myself through vibrant colour. And for my canvas…wood, porcelain, slate, glass, I’ve tried the lot! Take a look:

While I’ve been busy painting pebbles, my mum has been making wreaths, knitting snowmen, decorating wine bottles, dressing candlesticks…the list is endless. It is an awful lot of hard work, for what might be very little profit, but we have been enjoying ourselves, getting in the Christmas spirit and spending some quality mother-daughter time together. Compolibat Christmas market is being held on Sunday 10th December…I’ll let you know how we get on.

Obviously juggling all this crafting with my English lessons has left precious little time for anything else. The garden looks most untidy and the freezing temperatures have meant we have been indoors with the fire blazing all day long. Our two steres of wood, delivered locally, might not even see us through to Christmas at this rate!

Still, we are all in good health and good spirits. Let the Christmas countdown commence…

A composting loo with a view

October 2017

We have, at last, an upstairs bathroom! What began life as a temporary green house for sowing seeds, then became a spare room for guests, then a bedroom for our two children and finally, it has evolved into a family-sized bathroom, complete with composting toilet.

Inspiration came from various images found online and we loved the idea of ‘old meets new’. It’s a rustic bathroom with a touch of modernity, maybe not to everyone’s taste, but certainly to ours and I’ll explain why in the rest of this post.

We had a blank canvas to work with and since we had no intention of installing a flush toilet, we were not restricted by waste pipes. There was plenty of room for a bathtub, but this is an unnecessary luxury for a house that’s trying to save water and be eco-friendly so was never on the agenda.

Here is a list of our initial requirements:

  • a compost toilet (due to the success of our downstairs composting loo, it was a must for upstairs, even if it’s a bit more effort to empty the bucket!)
  • a walk-in shower (for the ease of showering the kids and a luxury for us, when you have been brought up showering in baths)
  • rustic furniture (made-to-measure by Pete)
  • rustic pipework for shower (copper or brass, for example)
  • a rustic sink unit (wine barrel or wooden work bench)
  • lino flooring (due to the uneven floorboards, tiling was never an option)
  • house plants (to create a relaxing oasis and make the most of this rather large, south-facing room).

Here’s a look at some of the images that inspired us and how they are reflected in our bathroom:


Although all the shower components were purchased separately,
the walk-in shower, as a whole, is the most expensive item in our bathroom,
totaling nearly 70% of our bathroom expenditure.
I wasn’t willing to compromise on this particular ‘luxury’!
I loved the patchwork tiles as soon as I saw them in an online picture (see above)
and managed to track them down from a tile supplier in Toulouse.
They cost us more than we initially intended but we don’t regret our purchase,
at least not at the moment.
Perhaps we might in twenty years’ time when our children ask
what possessed us to buy such ghastly, out-dated tiles!


Our shelves are removable to provide access to the pipework in case of any leaks.
My dad did all the plumbing…so far so good!


I initially wanted to incorporate the sink into an old wooden barrel
(we even bought the barrel second-hand) but it would have been too high for the kids to reach
and so we decided on a stone sink, with a waterfall, bamboo-style tap.
The sink unit was designed and made entirely by Pete
and began life as an old fireplace mantel,
a beautiful piece of wood given to us by one of Pete’s friends,
who was renovating his house…I wonder if he regrets giving it away now!

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We bought the mirror second-hand for a bargain 12€
and Pete framed it with pallet wood, before making my dressing table (his own design).
It is very large and extremely heavy, but our generous-sized bathroom can take it.
It’s just missing a stool. Hint hint!


The design of our second composting toilet differs from the first
as the sawdust is stored in a removable bucket, to the side of the toilet.
This means we simply remove the bucket and take it to the shed to refill it with sawdust,
plus the kids can reach it easier than the downstairs one which is built-in behind the toilet.
For added privacy, there is a screen with a floating shelf (for one of the plants)
and it hides the toilet from view when you walk into the bathroom.
I guess not many people have a toilet with a view!


I carefully researched plants that thrive in humid and light conditions
and this is what I came up with:

Areca palm – the largest plant in our bathroom which is very easy to look after and impressive to look at.

Aloe vera – a useful plant to have in the house (which I bought last year and brought up from the lounge).

Snake plant – a hardy plant that filters toxins from the air.




Peace lily – a striking flower that also purifies the air (it is not kept in direct sunlight).

Umbrella plant – it wasn’t chosen specifically for the bathroom but it was beginning to suffer in the lounge so I brought it up to the bathroom and it has since picked up.

Zamioculas (Emerald Palm) – my favourite plant that is nice to look at, easy to look after and doesn’t need much watering.



I am still on the look-out for a fern and an orchid, but I’ll see how I get on keeping these ones alive first.

Once we had decided to get a black shower and black taps,
it seemed we needed a bit more black here and there to bring it all together,
so we went for a rustic lantern light and a cubic suspension light
(chosen because they both take E27 lightbulbs,
which we got for free earlier in the year from mesampoulesgratuites.fr).


The paint was chosen in accordance with the tiles, four different colours for four walls,
but a bit of thought went into them all the same.
The vibrant yellow represents the sun
and brightens up the bathroom with a Mediterranean feel.
The pastel brown wall represents the earth and soil
and reconfirms our connection to it.
The pale blue wall represents water
and the pastel green wall represents life (renewal, nature, energy).


So what exactly did it all cost?

Upstairs bathroom costs – Sep/Oct 2017

Item Supplier Costs €
Tile glue Carro Discount 25
Patchwork tiles Comptoir Toulousain Carrelage 204
Mastic Bricorama 4
Shower base Cdiscount 260
Shower Ebay 170
Shower plug and overflow Amazon 23
Shower screen Ebay 200
Sink Groupon 70
Sink tap, siphon and plug Amazon 56
Large mirror Le BonCoin 12
Black mirror and hooks Ikea 31
Paint Deco Troc 34
3 Buckets Ebay 30
Plants Point Vert 25
Hinges Bricorama 18
Lino Bricorama 77
Ceiling light Amazon 19
Lantern light Amazon 42
1300 €uro



Labour (carried out at weekends by Pete) and all the wood for around the window, shower base, shelves, sink unit, dressing table and compost toilet was Free (with a capital ‘F’)!

A lot of thought went into this bathroom and I think Pete has done an amazing job. I particular love taking a shower while enjoying the view of the countryside. There are no curtains at the windows and no shower curtain to protect our modesty. Protect it from whom? Out here, in our countryside retreat, there is nobody. Just us, an average family of four, trying our best to live a happy, sustainable life, and my parents, who now live with us full-time and have at last started calling it ‘Home’.

Horrendous honey-robbing hornets

September 2017

A whole month has passed and thankfully, it has been flea-free! Back to normal Chez TêteBlanche, no fleas, box tree moths or wasp spiders around here, just the odd house spider or two, oh and a gigantic hornets’ nest in next door’s barn! One evening when Pete was playing football, I left the outside light on so he could see when he got back. When he returned, there were swarms of these giant Asian hornets flying into the outside light and kitchen windows. It was like a scene from some horror film! Luckily none of them got inside the house and they quickly dispersed when we turned the lights off.

The Asian Hornet, otherwise known as an Asian Predatory Wasp (Frelon Asiatique in French) has an “especially potent venom” in its sting that can be dangerous to humans and multiple stings have caused fatalities, especially in Southest Asia, from where they originate, so a swarm of them is, quite understandably, terrifying.

What’s more, these invasive hornets pose a risk to honeybees as they kill them to colonise their hives and steal their honey. As if the declining honey bee population didn’t have enough to deal with! There could be serious consequences for global agriculture if the number of Asian Hornets continues to rise and the number of honey bees consequently falls.

Next door’s barn is currently empty and up for sale and the owner invited me to, reluctantly, peer inside to see the nest, which is in the eaves of the roof and leaking what I can only assume to be honey. It is about half a metre in diameter and has the most awful, pungent smell. Even more worryingly, it is located not twenty metres from our front door! I just hope she gets somebody round to deal with it sooner rather than later, and preferably, when we’re not at home! I advised her, all the same, to report it to the INPN (Inventaire National du Patrimoine Naturel) for their records.

Here is a map that shows how the Asian Hornet has colonised much of France
since the first nest was discovered in Aquitaine in 2004:You will also find the links to two articles: one about how they may yet colonise the UK,
and one proposing a solution in the form of a hornet-eating Sarracenia plant.
Asian hornet to colonise UK within two decades without action
Hornet-eating plant could save France’s honey bees

The mere thought of an invasion of giant hornets leads me to believe that maybe the fleas weren’t that bad after all, which, in turn, makes me start itching and as much as I appear to love talking about insects, the truth is, I would much rather be talking about the joys of autumn! So here you are, a selection of some of the tastiest AUTUMN RECIPES I’ve come across recently, that have been tried and tested by myself, using a lot of home-grown produce and that are completely meat-free. Just click on the recipe title for a printable PDF version and give them a go.

Thanks to Sweetpeasandsaffron.com, I just can’t quite believe how easy this recipe is, it almost feels like you’re cheating! For even stronger flavours, I substituted one garlic clove for a teaspoon of Fenugreek and instead of curry powder, I used a homemade curry paste. I served it with Basmati rice and naan breads I made in the bread machine.

A quick and easy dip from Taste.com.au
The only change I made was adding a little extra lemon juice and some sesame seeds. The kids love it with carrots.

Swiss chard just has to be one of our Autumn/Winter favourites and it is real easy to grow. Once I had discovered this recipe from Geniuskitchen.com, I never tried any other swiss chard recipes. What’s more, it is the perfect accompaniment for Butternut and blue cheese bake!

Thanks to Allrecipes.co.uk, I will definitely be making this dish again. I left it in the oven a few minutes more than I should have, which meant some of the breadcrumbs got stuck to the bottom of the dish, but despite appearances, it tasted delicious.


Next month’s longer blog post will undoubtedly be the unveiling of our new upstairs ‘family’ bathroom, complete with composting toilet. Not convinced? Just wait ’till you see it!

Invited and uninvited guests

August 2017

It’s August and it is peak season for visitors Chez TêteBlanche! Most of our guests have consisted of family and friends who we have welcomed with open arms:

Pete’s twin brother, Paul and three of his kids

My brother, Rob and his girlfriend, Rhian

My mum’s best friends, Jeanette, Janice and Alyson

However, we have had quite a few (hundred) unwanted and certainly uninvited guests in our house this month… in the form of fleas! Now to most people, fleas are a bit of a taboo subject, as they are often associated with dirt and grime. Who would ever dream of admitting that they have had a flea epidemic in every room of their house?!

Truth be told, the very point of this blog is to cover the highs and lows of permaculture-living in the countryside and I will openly admit that yes, we have had fleas in our house and no, we definitely haven’t stuck to ecological methods of insecticide to get rid of them!

We first noticed them on the dogs, of course, who sleep in the house and have previously been allowed full access to all rooms, including upstairs (not any more!). Until this year, the dogs had never had any fleas before, but I’m not convinced they were solely responsible for bringing them inside, for there were fleas all over the garden too. They could be seen jumping on us when we were sitting on the grass. Everybody keeps telling me it’s the year of the tick, but as far as I’m concerned, it is, without a doubt, the year of the flea!

Desperate measures meant we had to throw out my mum’s extra-large shaggy rug but worse than that, it got to the point where we couldn’t even go upstairs without fleas jumping on us. When your kids start drawing spots on their animal pictures and you wrongly mistake their drawings of flea-ridden cats and dogs for leopards, it starts to dawn on you that you might just have a problem on your hands!

We tried everything, from flea collars to neem oil sprays, cheap shampoos, expensive shampoos, room and upholstery sprays, soapy water traps and finally, our last resort was a lethal aerosol room-fumigator! As the month draws to a close, I can safely say we are over the worst of it and with the cooler temperatures upon us, we’re seeing less and less of them with each passing day.

While the fleas seemed to be making themselves at home inside, outside we had an invasion of quite a different kind…the Box Tree Moth (Pyrale du Buis, in French). Our neighbours had already mentioned their anguish at the destruction of their Box Tree hedges, due to the invasion of leaf-eating caterpillars. The word ‘anguish’ is no exaggeration. If you take a look at this Box Tree Moth timelapse video, you can understand why it was so upsetting for them to see their beautifully well-kept hedges eaten away into nothing in a matter of days.

Yet, these caterpillars have since turned into beautiful moths that seem quite taken with our favourite Persian Silk tree, providing us with a wonderful, fluttering show of black and white. As far as I know, the larvae only eat Buxus plants, so our Persian Silk should be fine.

While we’re still on the subject of insects, arachnophobes, look away now! I just have to show you this photo of the first of many wasp spiders that have also chosen our garden for their home this year (I’ve increased the photo size so you can see it in more detail, it is quite spectacular).

This is a female and although she is not poisonous, she bites (apparently)! I’ve had enough uninvited guests for one month so as long as she stays outside, she’ll be just fine.

In between family visits, we managed to get a couple of nights away in a gite in the lovely Belcastel. It might be less than 30 minutes away from our house, but we might as well have been miles away. The gite had to be booked for a minimum stay of one week, but since my mum and her friends were only staying there for four nights, it seemed daft not to make the most it. We had glorious sunshine and the unheated, outdoor pool was the perfect way to keep cool, with a castle view to go with it.

We also paid the Gorges du Tarn a visit and spent a lovely evening catching up with our friends, Janet and David. The kids especially loved their salt water swimming pool, which was immaculately clean and warm, offering yet another amazing view!

More swimming meant a trip to Lac de Roucarié near Carmaux. It has a sandy beach and clear, shallow water…perfect for families.

Of course, having friends and family over to see us gave us the perfect excuse to explore some familiar and new sites. Here are a few photos for anyone who is interested:

If you live in the Aveyron and would like to show off some sites to your friends and family when they come over, you can apply to be an Aveyron Ambassadeur to receive a card which grants you free entry to exhibits and attractions (conditions apply). Click here for the link.

Making a house a home

July 2017

I can clearly remember when Pete and I first discussed buying Chez TêteBlanche along with my parents, and the all-important question he asked me. I had only visited the property once with my dad, and yet here we were, the four of us, about to make an offer on a house in rural Aveyron, that my own husband and mother had never even stepped foot in!

“Can I make this house a home for us?”, Pete asked me.

Without hesitation, I told him he could and of course, the rest is history (or if you’ve forgotten or you’re intrigued, you can read about it in the earlier pages of this blog!). We are now well into our second year here and slowly but surely, our home is starting to take shape, both inside and out.

I previously promised you some photos of the upstairs bedroom renovation and since the work is practically finished, I have quite a few to share. The small, dark cubby hole of a room we have been using for storage for the past couple of years has been transformed by Pete’s meticulous hands, into a sleeping area for our daughter:

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To access this small bedroom, you first have to go through the playroom, which can evolve into a study area as the children get older. For the moment, we are using the playroom as a temporary bedroom for our son, so Pete can get on with renovating the next room in the house, the upstairs bathroom! After the bathroom, all that will be left to do in the house will be Alexander’s bedroom, the landing and downstairs corridor, kitchen, outside terrace and our bedroom, which remains to be finished! I haven’t even mentioned the remaining work to be done in my parents’ rooms and the garden. If you haven’t guessed it by now, we are in this for the long haul!

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While Pete was busy doing all this hard work upstairs, I was outside in the garden harvesting courgette after courgette. They just keep on coming! We have also had a lot of success with butternut squashes, plums and some very tasty sweetcorn.

The outdoor beef tomatoes are starting to ripen, although after an early harvest of cherry tomatoes inside the polytunnel, the numbers now appear to be in decline, probably due to the extreme heat and lack of ventilation! Next year, I think we will grow all of our tomatoes outside, even if it does mean we have to wait that bit longer for them. Another idea that we have still to work on is our bean teepee! Although a vast improvement on last year, I just can’t understand why I find it so hard to grow beans! I tried to grow them up the sweetcorn, but they never amounted to much. I tried to grow them up the teepee, but only a few came through, leaving large, patchy areas…it’s not exactly the den I dreamed of for the children! I really do like the idea of a teepee, but I am now moving further towards the idea of an ornamental teepee for next year as a more permanent structure, with fragrant jasmine and sweet peas. As for the beans, luckily my neighbour is exceptionally good at growing them organically, by the kilo and not only has he given us loads of them to eat, he’s also promised to come and help me in the garden next year so my beans get the best start.

I really love the fact that we share each other’s home grown produce on the hamlet. We recently found an enormous, football-sized puff ball mushroom in our garden and there was plenty to share with the neighbours, even if some were rather dubious of our mushrooming knowledge in fear of eating a poisonous one! There is an abundance of apples that are just starting to ripen in another neighbour’s garden and they told us to help ourselves whenever we please. The children are in their element. You must understand that our son and daughter eat on average three apples each a day!  We have one old apple tree in the garden, which gives us a lot of fruit but it is not yet ripe, and a young, imported Granny Smith tree which we planted last year and has not yet produced any fruit. Maybe it would be financially advantageous to plant some more apple varieties this autumn, to assure we can meet the demands of our children’s tummies!

We have yet to harvest the potatoes, although only time will tell if we will beat last year’s 57 kilo stockpile. I am going to cheat next year and buy my potatoes already sprouted. I have found that as the potato planting season starts, all the local garden centres reduce their potato prices for clearance. As I had previously chitted potatoes in egg boxes on the windowsill with success, this year I mistakenly, tried chitting my potatoes in the polytunnel, thinking they would get the ideal amount of light. This said, it was surely the polytunnel’s humidity and heat in early spring that contributed to the somewhat lack of sprouting. I planted them all, nonetheless, on Easter Monday as is the tradition around here. Many have grown into plants that have already flowered, a promising sign. Many didn’t come through at all and I’ve since replanted carrots in their space. We shall see…

I will leave you with an article I wrote for Permaculture Magazine a few months back (when I was hoping for better things from my bean teepee!). It has just been published in the Autumn edition:

Don’t count your chickens…

June 2017

Our chickens have occupied so much of our time this month that inevitably, it is the subject of June’s blog post. At the end of May, we returned from our trip to the beach to find one of our eight White Sussex hens rather poorly. We researched her condition to discover she had vent gleet, a fungal, yeast infection that left her with a swollen, dirty behind. We did everything we could to help her condition: gave her a bath, cleaned the chicken coop and water carrier, added some apple cider vinegar to the drinking water and replaced the food tray. Sadly, still unwilling to eat or drink, she died a day or two later. Just one week later and we lost a second hen in the exact same way. Now it can’t have been the water or the food, and living conditions were good, so we can only assume it was the unusually high temperatures that caused it, unless anyone has any other ideas??? The chicken house gets extremely hot and the outdoor run is south-facing so we are going to look into extending it so that it incorporates some shade from the nearby trees, when the chickens are not free ranging.

But this still does not change the fact that we were two hens down. As a general rule, we have found that eight hens is a good number for a constant supply of eggs for our family of six (including my mum and dad) but they have not been laying as well since the weather warmed up so obviously six hens, averaging two eggs a day is not ideal. When a third chicken started to show signs of illness, we didn’t really see the point in buying new replacement hens just for them to die in our coop, for reasons unknown to us. This time, however, the apple cider vinegar seemed to do the trick. Her tail soon lifted up to a normal position and she was back to her usual self.

So what to do about the lack of eggs? We could have gone and bought two, three or even four new, ready-to-lay hens from Elevage Avicole de Mayran (a nearby breeding farm)…but we liked the idea of raising our own chicks and we had all the ingredients: a cockerel and six seemingly healthy chickens. Last year, the surrogacy method worked when our neighbour successfully hatched one of our fertilised eggs under his broody hen so there can’t be a problem with our cockerel!  Of course there is one major issue to contend with here, not one of our six hens has ever shown the slightest sign of being broody for longer than 24 hours and the neighbour’s hen doesn’t seem at all interested in having another chick!

This led us to the incubator method. We borrowed a manual 12-egg incubator from one of the parents at school. Sure, it was basic, but the school had used the very same one last year and Madeleine’s class managed to hatch three or four healthy chicks from it…it had to be foolproof! After four days of egg collecting, we put eleven eggs inside and turned them twice a day until Day 18. We candled them on Day 7, but since it was our first attempt we decided to leave all eleven eggs inside, just in case we had misjudged our visual readings (we were not using a genuine egg candler and we are very much in unknown territory when it comes to egg hatching and chick rearing). On Day 17, I noticed that one of the eggs had a maple syrup-like blob on it, which Google signalled to be a sign of rottenness. I removed the egg immediately, sealed it in a freezer bag and tossed it in the bin. We did experience a few short power cuts over the three week period when my dad was doing the electrics in his room…and the temperature went down a degree or two during the last few days, but when Day 20 arrived, I was confident that I would see some egg pipping. Surely we would have at least one success?

I’m afraid not. Not a single egg hatched! Unwilling to perform an eggtopsy to find out what went wrong, on Day 26, I carefully placed all ten eggs in a paper bag and put them in the bin.

But, it wasn’t all doom and gloom…not wanting to put all our eggs in one basket, we had a back-up plan! Precisely one week after we put the eggs in the incubator, one of our hens decided she was feeling abnormally broody and started sitting on one sole egg! The next day, to my surprise she was still sitting there so I added two more eggs to her collection (I would have added more if only I had some, but then if I had had more eggs, we wouldn’t be desperately needing to hatch chickens in the first place!). She quickly accepted them and moved them underneath her, and there she sat quite happily until Day 11, getting down from the nest now and again to eat, drink and do her business. On this particular day however, she unfortunately jumped back on the wrong nest, where she sat for a good 24 hours before she returned to her cold eggs. Nothing seemed to be going right…how hard can it be to hatch a chick?

Still not wanting to admit defeat, on Day 17 we decided to move her to a purpose-built pen of her own, where she would not have access to other hens’ eggs. She literally growled at my dad when he tried to move her…he was wearing gloves which is always a good idea, wow can this girl peck! Once she had settled into her new pen, she got back on her three eggs and didn’t move (to my knowledge) for days. She had food and water and seemed to be doing ok, but Day 21 came and went and…still nothing.

So you can imagine the excitement on my face when I came home from doing the weekly shop on Day 22 to hear loud chirping coming from the pen! Sure enough, there was a little black chick stood shivering on its own. When we had moved the mother hen into the new pen, we thought it would be more comfortable for her to brood in a little wooden crate, but it’s a highly impractical nest for rearing baby chicks, which are likely to fall out, unable to climb back in to the warmth of the mother! We didn’t think that through! We seemed to to be failing in so many areas. Without hesitation, I scooped up the little chick and put it back in the box where it quickly scuttled under it’s mother’s wing. I got back just in time to save it. Any longer and it would probably have died from the cold.

Worried the chick might fall once again out of the crate, we took the decision to remove the crate entirely from the pen. Pete lifted her off the two remaining eggs, which I picked up and carefully placed on some straw on the pen floor. She quickly sat back on the eggs, with the little chick peeking out from under her wing. The next day, we discovered a second chick had hatched, but it seemed to have either splayed leg or a broken wing…either way, it had been rejected by the mother and died soon after. The third egg remained unhatched and the mother pushed it out of the way, for us to remove.

So, I can safely say I am now all chickened out. I seem to have spent an entire month dedicated to chickens and I have no plans to breed any more in the near future. So what exactly have we gained from all this? Certainly a lot of knowledge, through various mishaps and mistakes along the way, not to mention a ‘miracle’ chick that proved to us that despite our best efforts, mother nature knows best. I have put my newly-acquired heat lamp away in storage for the time being, and my mum has kindly offered to buy us two new replacement hens. At least now I can concentrate my efforts on the garden and leave Mother Hen to look after her little one, which might just turn out to be a cockerel after all that!

Oh, but there’s just one more thing that I have to take care of first…a little boy who has just come down with, you guessed it, the Chickenpox!!!