Keeping bees and chickens really attunes you very closely to the seasonal ebbs and flows, the cyclical rhythms of the seasons. When much of what you do with these insects and animals is determined by temperature and the amount of sunshine decreasing or increasing depending on the time of year, a kind of knowing develops that is a little more sophisticated than just noticing whether the nights are getting longer or the bulbs starting to sprout, or leaves on trees falling. The ways in which you actually care for and observe bees and chickens change.
The bees are starting right now to prepare for tucking themselves away deep inside the hive to get through the winter, needing only occasional feeding and the usual annual treatments and preventatives for disease. Chickens wake later and go to bed earlier, the number of eggs being produced goes into decline among the pure-breed hens (modern hybrids like the ex-bats continue to lay, but even they do so less often), and it’s a common sight to go down to the hen-house of a morning and find it looking like someone exploded a pillow in the night because the annual moult is in full swing, with pale worn-out old feathers dropping everywhere to be replaced by shiny new ones.
Moulting is an unpleasant experience. The hens look tired, they even have bags under their eyes, and to the uninitiated ignorant of bird biology it can appear that the ladies are being treated cruelly because they look so awful, with bald patches and feathers hanging off. Some poultry keepers even find themselves reported to the likes of the RSPCA at this time of year, which must be upsetting (it hasn’t happened to us, thank goodness) even if the animal welfare workers know exactly what’s going on straightaway. No hen, not even hybrids, lays a single egg while moulting because all their energy goes into feather production and we help them by adding seaweed and mineral extracts combined with vitamins to their drinking water, and making sure they get lots of greens to eat as well as their daily ration of pellets. I cut back on giving them corn during this time because they’d eat it in preference to the better stuff.
Eggs are seasonal. You induce egg-laying all year round with artificial lighting systems but we won’t do that. Hens, like women, are born with a finite number of eggs already in place in the ovaries. You push for all year round production, the hens stop laying altogether years before they naturally would stop, and the impact on their health is unknown. I suspect—looking at the evidence all around us in the world today—that going against nature, hiding hens from seasonal change, fooling their bodies, can only be harmful for them and, extrapolated alongside all the other intensive and unnatural farming methods employed the world over, harmful to our own species in the long-run.
With 17 egg-capable hens (until next year, when three more will come into lay) we’re currently only getting between one and three eggs a day. It’s no bad thing while my beloved is recovering from an operation because he’s unable to go to work and sell our surplus to colleagues, who snap the eggs up like they’re being offered Jimmy Choo shoes at charity shop prices, so we’re using those eggs being produced right now to bake cakes, make omelettes, add to bread recipes, and we’re thinking of trying what we both previously loathed—pickled eggs, because there are some interesting recipes for flavouring them that might make us feel differently. We’ll see.
In this, our second year of keeping bees, we only managed to get four jars of honey. Last year, though, we had none at all and apparently we’re lucky to have some this year because many northern beekeepers with far more than just one hive haven’t got any owing to the weather, which was only a marginal improvement (from the perspective of the bees) on 2008′s wash-out. I can’t recall the exact figure but something over 80% of British bees didn’t make it through last winter. And yes, we will be worried for our own hive and that will only stop when we see new outdoor activity in the spring of 2010.
So what does our honey look and taste like? It could have been any colour, thickness and flavour, dependant upon the flowers visited by the bees. It turned out to be pale and runny, a translucent amber, and absolutely delicious. We’ve enough to last us into the new year, and it’s a great buzz to know that if we had no money we’d never starve, though of course we wouldn’t always get to eat what we wanted (in common, let’s be honest, with our ancestors until very recently). We have eggs, we have honey, we have plenty of vegetable produce from our modest-sized garden although the type of vegetables and quantity varies according to season. And although we must work hard to bring all these chemical-free wonders to the table, we find ourselves enormously grateful to the bees, chickens, worms and nature itself for the bounty they reward our efforts with.
The biggest pain in the butt from now until the spring will be mud, and the annual competition to find effective ways of dealing with it, stopping the chicken run from turning into deep brown stinky goo, will, as ever, be a frustrating challenge. We tried bark chippings (no—increases risk of mycoplasma), rubber chips (don’t go there despite them being recommended by poultry magazine articles, they don’t work and end up stinking and difficult to dispose of—we recycled ours into a floor for the greenhouse), and eventually we discovered the one thing not advised, hay, works best so far. Sadly there’s a shortage in these parts at present but magazines talk of it clumping together, this being unacceptable. We, though, find it much easier once a month to roll the stuff up in big sheets from the run and dump it on the compost heap where it quickly raises the temperatur, helps breaks everything down and leaves behind a clean earth flooring to be covered with fresh hay. We won’t use straw, which is advised because it brings the risk of importing red mite inside the hollow tubes and other undesirables.