Poultry – the gateway to smallholding :
Most smallholders start off with poultry. I attribute my becoming a smallholder to my son who, when he was in primary school, nagged me to get some hens. There was a craze in the school with all the kids keeping and trading them. I was working full time then and knew that in winter it would be impossible to be home before dusk to put them indoors. But, never underestimate the pester power of a small child. I succumbed. Of course the fox dined very handsomely at my expense. However, it was lovely to have their delicious eggs – when you could find them. They laid all over the garden, in hedges, in the garage, under a wheelbarrow left upended on a pile of raked up leaves and best of all in the middle of a huge clump of nettles. We probably only ever found 50% of the eggs.
We then went the whole hog and got ducks and geese from a friend who was a poultry breeder. The ducks were a disaster. They were filthy. Their favourite place to sit was on the patio sunning themselves. As they need water, old plastic sandpits were repurposed which added to the mess. They did look lovely though, Jemima Puddle ducks waddling around the garden.
Grisly goose tales
The geese were a pair. The gander was truly wicked – he made a great guard dog. The only trouble was that he decided the place also needed guarding from us. My mother came to stay and although she had been brought up with all sorts of poultry, was terrified of him. She made my daughter hold her hand as she crossed the field.
The pair hatched out one gosling and the gander seemed to take on the primary parenting role. It was very sweet to watch. The kids were fascinated. Sadly, they wandered down the yard one day and the gosling was run over. Shortly after, mother goose disappeared – presumably taken by a fox. Following that, I came home from work one day to find the gander paralysed. I took him to a very bemused country vet. He admitted he hadn’t had much experience with poultry and didn’t know what was wrong with him. When I got the gander home, I took a child’s deckchair from the garage and cut a slit in the material seat. Then I sat the gander on the chair and pushed his feet through the hole. He would sit there frantically paddling, getting exercise and keeping the blood flow to his muscles. It worked and he regained the use of his legs. Not long after this he went missing one evening. I found a circular flattened grass patch in the middle of the field and tell tale white feathers.
That signalled the end of my first poultry keeping experience. A few years later when I was made redundant I decided that the one thing I really missed was gloriously fresh and deep yellow yolked eggs. So I got more hens and have had them ever since. I now keep Muscovy ducks as well. In fact, I have had the drake since then and reckon he must be at least 12, if not older. He was the father of two clutches of ducklings born here last summer. One of the mother ducks quickly became known as Psycho-Mama. She appeared one morning when we were sitting on the patio eating breakfast with 12 babies in tow. I glanced up and saw this apparition. She proceeded to march up over the bank into next door with a load of little yellow fluffies trying to follow. They would get so far and tumble back down again. Undeterred, she continued. We had to jump up and hunt her back to safety helping the few who had made it after her. That was the start of her adventuring and much of the summer was spent firstly trying to find them and secondly herding them home. I used sing “Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow, until you find your dream”. Miraculously 11 out of the 12 survived. Although that would have been 10 if I hadn’t gone down the fields one evening to search for one that was missing. I found him sat under a big clump of dock leaves in the middle of the field obviously exhausted and able to go no further.
The same duck is now sitting on more eggs and I reckon they are due any day now. The gestation for Muscovy ducks is a bit longer than other ducks at 35 days. She got confused by the real feel of spring a few weeks ago and became broody. I hope it’s mild when they hatch and she does less adventuring this time.
Courgette Frittata Recipe
In spring as daylight lengthens and the hens are in full lay, it’s great to have a few recipes to use your eggs. One of the best I discovered is a courgette frittata by Rachel Allen. I adapt it though to what is in season veg wise. It makes a lovely lunch with a green salad and crunchy bread. You can also serve it for a main meal. I have used courgettes, leeks or spinach. But the original recipe was for grated courgette.
- 6 eggs
- 2-3 large courgettes grated
- 1 garlic clove crushed
- A log of goat’s cheese (Aldi do a really good French one)
- A good handful of chopped oregano (or whatever herb is in season)
- Get a large relatively non-stick pan and soften the grated courgette and garlic in a pan with lots of butter and olive oil. Season. Remove from heat and when it cools squeeze out the excess liquid (I give this to my pigs).
- Beat the eggs and add the cooled courgette mix. Heat the pan and pour the egg mixture onto it. Add the herbs. Cut approximately 6 rounds of the cheese and set aside. Crumble the rest into the egg mixture. After about 3 minutes place the 6 rounds on top and pop pan under a pre-heated grill. If your pan handle is not oven proof just wrap it with tinfoil.
- You need to watch it carefully so it doesn’t burn or overcook. Turn off grill when there is still a slight wobble in centre and leave it under grill with door closed. It will continue to cook.
Tales from a Smallholder is a series of posts by Margaret Griffin featuring fortnightly on the YLFN Blog. Margaret is an agricultural and food scientist turned smallholder who writes about her life at www.uppedstickswithpigs.com. She also hosts Airbnb guests on her smallholding and is available as an accredited trainer in food: cooking, baking, curing, brewing, fermenting, pig-rearing and of course, smallholding.
Illustration by www.mizzwinkens.com