Hen-keeping and egg-collecting
In but a few days’ from now, the long Easter weekend shall have descended upon us and we may collectively jump for joy at peeling ourselves away from our screens to gallivant in the great outdoors, feasting on chocolate eggs. Though what about the more humble relative of the Easter egg – the classic hen’s egg – and its place in Easter celebrations? We, for one, shall be enjoying those just as much – perhaps scrambled on Easter Saturday and with soldiers come Easter Sunday.
To nod to Easter’s arrival and indeed that of our Benedict oak egg rack which has come into stock just in the nick of time, we today share the most endearing story of hen-keeping and egg collecting by friend of Rowen & Wren, farmer, maker and mother of three (and counting if you include her many goats, cows, chickens, cats and dogs), Kat Goldin of the wonderful Gartur Stitch Farm…
Our chicken-dreaming started in a tiny flat above the bustling town centre of Windsor. I’d filled our little rooftop patio with all of the plants I could, harvesting salads and herbs every day throughout the summer and I wanted more of that feeling of pride when you grow your own. Having grown up raising ducks, I remembered the joy of fresh eggs straight from the coop and I felt there was a chicken shaped hole in our lives.
It took five years and three house moves for us to find a place where chickens were a possibility; one of the criteria for the last house move was that I could have chickens. Within a week of moving in here at our farm, five chickens came to live with us – Mother Clucker, Hen Solo, ChewBawka, Skeski and Princess Layer were all ex-battery hens, featherless, rescued from a factory farm and here to live out their days with us. We would sit in our garden chairs at the gate and watch their funny antics, which we called “Chicken TV”. They are funny creatures – the way they splay themselves out in the sun, or ruffle up in a dust bath or cluck with excitement when they find a tasty worm. Sadly, none of that first batch are still with us, but our new layers are equally comical, frequently found in our fruit trees in autumn, eating our apples or forever trying to make their way into the house for snacks.
The ultimate enjoyment of hen-keeping has always been gathering the warm round eggs from the barn every morning. It is a bit like an Easter Egg hunt, but every day, as our birds rarely like the clean, warm nesting boxes we lovingly built for them, preferring the most awkward places – in the roof space of the barn, in the hay rack, behind the compost heap, even once in my partner’s boot, discovered with a crunch early one morning.
Our normally free-range hens spend their lives in the field and forest around the farm, eating bugs and grass, collecting fallen fruit, digging through our compost heap and breaking important parasite cycles in the dung of our other animals. While thoroughly unappealing to us, this protein-rich diet gives us beautiful eggs with yolks that are often neon orange and whites so firm they stand up by themselves.
There is a sort of magic in the cycle, even now. Free-range birds are seasonal layers, slowing down or stopping altogether as the days shorten and starting up again when the sunshine returns. Here in Scotland, the eggs come back at the same time as our goats kid and fresh chevre is back in our fridge and the wild garlic comes up. Those first few weeks we eat nothing but various combinations of those three things – omelettes, quiches, boiled eggs and sourdough bread.
As I inevitably forget a basket when I am out in the barns and fill the eggs up in my shirt or skirt, I am always so grateful for this amazing addition to my family’s table andthe abundance that these little birds bring to my life. I could do with fewer dust baths in the flower beds though, but it is a sacrifice I am willing to make for a good omelette…
Do note: all outdoor photos in this post were taken prior to the 2020/21 Poultry Lockdown.