In order to make money by poultry, in any proportion to the attention given to them, the speculator should be either a capitalist who provides an extensive apparatus for the supply of fowls and eggs to a neighbouring community, or a cottager or small farmer who can rear fowls in a chance medley way, on what they can pick up for themselves. As I am neither a professional breeder of poultry, nor a cottager, nor yet a small farmer in the ordinary use of the term, I cannot and do not expect to make money to any notable extent by our fowls and ducks.
As I have already intimated, the object is security against famine, where a whole neighbourhood depends on the justice and mercy of one butcher. When I relate that at an inn not three miles off, forty-five couples of fowls have been killed in one day, from the beef and lamb falling short of the demand, it will be easily conceived that it is no small comfort to be supplied, at all events, with eggs and bacon, fowls and ham, within our own gates. The country people would like very much to see the Queen among our mountains. They would give her a dinner of eggs and ham, and set her on a pony, and show her everything. It is certain beforehand what her diet would be if she came incog. At the little country inns — each the sole house of entertainment in it a dale or water head — you always know what you will have.
“Can we have dinner?”
“What can you give us?”
“What you like.”
After inquiring in vain for beef or mutton, we are told:
“But there’s ham, and there’s eggs.”
“Very well: and what else?”
“Why there’s eggs; and there’s ham, and bacon.”*
If the Queen came unawares to some dwellings which are not inns, there might, in the height of the season, be the same bill of fare, and no other. The value of the resource must be the measure of our gain, under such circumstances; and not the money we make.
It becomes an increasing wonder every year why the rural cottagers of the United Kingdom do not rear fowls, almost universally, seeing how little the cost would be, and how great is the demand. We import many millions of eggs annually. Why should we import any? It seems as strange as that Ireland should import all its cheese, while exporting butter largely. After spending the morning among dairy-farms in Kerry, you have at dinner cheese from London: and in the same way, after passing dozens of cottages on commons or in lanes in England, where the children have nothing to do, and would be glad of pets, you meet a man with gold rings in his ears, who asks you in broken English to buy eggs from the continent.
Wherever there is a cottage family, whether living on potatoes or better fare, and grass growing anywhere near, there it would be worth while to nail up a little pent-house, and make nests of clean straw, and go in for a speculation in eggs and chickens. Seeds, worms, and insects go a great way in feeding poultry in such places; and then there are the small and refuse potatoes from the heap, and the outside cabbage leaves, and the scraps of all sorts. Very small purchases of broken rice (which is extremely cheap), inferior grain, and mixed meal, would do all else that is necessary. There would probably be larger losses from “vermin” than in better guarded places; but these could be well afforded, as a mere deduction from considerable gains.
It is understood that the keeping of poultry is largely on the increase in the country generally, and even among cottagers; but the prevailing idea is of competition as to races and specimens for the poultry-yard, rather than of meeting the demand for eggs and fowls for the table. The pursuit is an excellent one, and everybody rejoices at the growth of such an interest: but the labourer and his family are not benefited by it, as a steady resource, as they might be by a constant succession of commonplace eggs and chickens, to be sold in the next town.
As for any farmer who grows grain and has a homefield and a barn, he must be badly off for wife or daughter if he cannot depend on his poultry for a respectable amount of annual profit. We remember the exultation of a German settler in a western state of America, in speaking of his rise in life, shown by his “fifty head of hen.” Perhaps it is not necessary to go so far as the prairies to acquire a stock in trade — not so large, indeed, but profitable in equal proportion.
The least advantageous way of rearing fowls is just that which is now under our notice — that of a lady’s poultry-yard on a small bit of land in a populous neighbourhood. The fowls cannot have full liberty; they must not trespass on the neighbours; and they are grievously trespassed on by the neighbours’ cats and dogs. Yet the experiment answers in our case soundly and thoroughly, through, the care and interest invested in the enterprise by my companion. She has worked through many difficulties, and raised the project to paying point, and beyond it, to the comfort of the household, her own great amusement and that of her guests, and the edification and benefit of the servants.
Our average stock is twenty hens, two cocks, five ducks, and one drake. Our accommodation will not allow any large increase of our average. The ducks are uncommonly fine specimens of the Aylesbury breed. One cock is Cochin-China: the other of some common sort which makes less impression on strangers. A visitor lately met the Cochin-China sultan in the drive, and was so prodigiously impressed as to take off his hat to his majesty, who is indeed too heavy to be often met out walking.
The ducks were a present, some years ago, and the silk stocking has become worsted, and perhaps silk again, in the interval, from the changes necessary to keep up the vigour of the stock. Besides substituting a new drake every three years or so, we exchange some brood-eggs every season with some neighbour who has the same breed. We have not conveniences for rearing any great number of young ducks, and prefer selling the eggs, of which we have above 600 per annum.
We kill a few ducks for our own table, reckoning their value, not at the London rate, but at 2 s. 6d.each. In London, 7 s. a couple would be asked for ducks which would not have two-thirds of their substantial merit when brought to table. Our duck eggs are in great request for poaching, and puddings and custards; and well they may be, for their cubic contents must be nearly double those of ordinary hens’ eggs.
It might be difficult to say which is cause and which effect in regard to our having two cocks and two poultry -yards. The double arrangement is desirable in every way. There should always be opportunities for separation and seclusion, in that community as in every other. For instance, the favourite aversion of the drake is his own ducklings. He would destroy them every one if we did not separate them from their passionate parent.
The whole feathered colony is, at times, so like the Irish quarter in a port-town, with its brawls and faction fights, that imprisonment or banishment is occasionally necessary, on the one hand, and an accident-ward for the victims on the other. We have one roosting-chamber in the upper part of the coal-shed, and the other in the upper part of the pig-house, each opening into its own yard, and having its ladder without and its perches within. In the small enclosures, made of trellised wood and wire netting, are pent-houses for the nests, which should always be on the ground, for the sake not only of the convenience of the sitting hen, but of the vigour of the brood.
The shallow troughs for food and pans for water make up the rest of the apparatus. The places should be swept out several times a week, and strewn with charcoal in hot weather; and there should always be soft soil enough for the hens to make dust-baths in, and gravel enough to afford them pebble diet, according to their needs. There must always be a little heap of lime in some dry corner, if the egg-shells are to be worthy of their contents.
So much for what may be called the retreats or refuges of the fowls: but their lives cannot be passed there. So we found. They must have a further range. The best plan, where space can be afforded (which is not our case), is to lay out for the fowls a long strip of grass fenced with wire — a regular Rotten Row for their daily trot, race, or stately walk. As the nearest approach we could make to this, we fenced in with galvanised wire netting the belt of plantation which adjoins the lower fowl-house.
There they have room to run and make dust-baths, and strut in the sun or repose in the shade at pleasure. A deep trough is sunk there, and filled with water for the ducks when they must be kept at home, and for the ducklings, which are not allowed to range the meadows, because such liberty is almost invariably fatal to them. Whether it is any particular food, animal or vegetable (we suspect a particular slug), or other dangers — as entanglement in the grass and weeds, cramp, enemies, or what not — it is very rarely that ducklings survive an attempt at a roving life. After witnessing every accident now stated, we believe the deleterious food to be sufficient reason for keeping the broods at home till they are well grown.
The drake and his harem spend the day abroad for several months of the year, going forth into the meadows — where they make a serviceable clearance of slugs — in the morning, after laying, and coming home in the evening for their supper. While the grass is growing for hay, we are obliged to keep them at home; and it is necessary to watch them when young vegetables are coming up and fruit is ripening.
Nobody would believe without seeing it how high they can reach with their bills when currants and gooseberries hang temptingly; and in their love of strawberries they vie with humanity. After being kept at home, the ducks relax in their laying, and their feeding is expensive; but they really seem to go on laying longer every year: so perhaps we may train them, in course of time, to be “equal to either fortune.”
For the sake of the young chicks, we have yet one other enclosure at the service of the fowls. There is a pretty little quarry below the terrace and orchard, from whence the stone for the terrace-wall was taken. A little wire fence is now drawn across the entrance, and the young broods and their mothers have it to themselves.
Such is their mode of life. As for what they live on, we make their food as various as possible, as in the case of the cows and the pig. The most expensive of all food we find to be barley au naturel. Not only is a considerable proportion thrown about and wasted, but much that is swallowed is never digested. We, therefore, give it as a change and indulgence; and by no means as the staple of their food. Indian meal is the best staple, according to our experience.
It is well scalded, that the swelling may be done before it is swallowed instead of after — thus avoiding various maladies and perils from over-eating. Broken rice well boiled is good to a certain extent. Malt dust is a valuable resource. The demand is becoming so great that it will probably soon cease to be a cheap food; but while it remains so, it is a real boon, both to the fowls and their owner. They will eat almost anything that is sprinkled with malt-dust; and a 6s. sack of it goes a long way. A certain proportion of green food, and also of animal food, is indispensable.
Lettuce leaves, turnip-tops, cabbage-leaves, celery, should be thrown to them. They should have access to grass, to pick seeds and insects; and it is well to put a fresh sod into the poultry yard whenever such a valuable thing can be spared. All the worms and insects that come in the gardener’s way should be presented to them; and, when insects are scarce, scraps of raw meat, minced as fine as pins’ heads, should be given. Add finely chopped egg for infant chicks, and I think the bill of fare is complete. As for the peppercorn, which old wives recommend as the first thing to be swallowed, we reprobate the notion as we should in the case of any other new-born creature. In fact, it irritates the crop very mischievously, if it gives out its savour: and if it does not dissolve, it is nothing.
We do not find it necessary to make distinctions of seasons in hatching broods, as some people do. We like beginning early; but we know what we may expect from frosts and storms in March, and are content with what we get. If we have not a pretty full school by June, we shake our heads: but some July broods have been as fine and complete as any others on our list. An autumn brood or two — even a late one — is valuable; for the chickens are short-legged, and make excellent sitters.
By careful management, my companion has succeeded in distributing the moulting over a considerable space of time, and therefore in obtaining eggs in early winter. We have them now throughout the year. We lay by a hundred or more in lime water in the most plentiful season, for puddings in the time of scarcity; and then our small supply of November and December eggs is disposable for invalids, or other neighbours anxious to secure the delicacy.
Under this mode of management, our fowl account has stood thus for the last two years. In 1857, we paid for food 17 l. 1s. 8d.; and for improvements in the hen-house, 1 l., 15 s.; that is, our expenses were 18 l. 16 s. 8d.; eggs and fowls used and sold were worth 18 l. 4 s. 2d. ; ten chickens and one young cock in stock, 1 l. 5s.; making 19 l. 9s. 2d.; which shows our profit to have been 12 s. 6d.; in 1858, the cost of food was 16 l. 8s. 2d.; and of improvement of stock, 11 s. 9 d. ; together making 16 l. 19 s. 11 d.; while our sales and use yielded 17 l. 10 s. 6d.; our profit, therefore, being 10 s. 7d.
London prices would have enriched us mightily; for we had 3,039 eggs, and killed sixty three fowls (including a few ducks). Within a dozen miles of the General Post-Office, our produce would have been worth above 30 l.; but it must be remembered that, in regard to our domestic consumption, we have the benefit of the country prices. As it is, we have a balance on the right side, instead of the wrong, after all accidents and misfortunes are allowed for.
Those accidents are not only vexatious but grievous. The finest young cock we had ever reared was found dead and stiff one morning. His crop, alas! was full of ivy-leaves, which he had reached and snatched from the wall of the house, by some vigorous climbing out of bounds. Chicks, and even hens, now and then are cramped by change of weather, or other mysterious causes. If observed in time, they maybe recovered by warmth, friction, and apparently by the unaccountable influence of the human hand: but if they hide then trouble they will be found dead.
A stray duckling may lose itself in tall grass as in a jungle. A chick may be found drowned in an inch or two of water in a pan. At one time a hawk haunted us, and we either missed a chicken occasionally, or found it dropped, with a hole in its breast. Rats are to be expected wherever a lake or river is near; but they are easily disposed of by taking up a flag, and, when their runs are traced, putting down strychnine on bread and butter. Nowhere but under pavement should that poison be placed, because it may be swallowed by some other creature than a rat: but in a subterranean way it is very useful. We have never made war in that way, as some people do, against the sparrows and chaffinches, which really are a nuisance.
Where a house is covered with ivy and climbing-plants, and sheltered by copses, and where fowls are fed in the open air, free booting tribes of birds will be encroaching and audacious. We fear that a large portion of our good meal and grain goes to glut our enemies in the ivy and the trees. But what can we do? We make nets to cover our sprouting vegetables and ripening fruit; and that is all we can do.
But about the accidents. The worst are from prowling cats. The ladies of the Four Acres lost eight chickens by cats in one night, and we have lost eight chickens by cats in one day. Such a thing as the destruction of poultry by the neighbours’ cats ought never to happen when it is once known how easy prevention is. We educate our own cat, and that at the cottage; and if the neighbours would do the same, there would be an end everywhere to the loss and discontent and ill-will which arise from this cause.
When a cat is seen to catch a chicken, tie it round her neck, and make her wear it for two or three days. Fasten it securely; for she will make incredible efforts to get rid of it. Be firm for that time, and the cat is cured. She will never again desire to touch a bird. This is what we do with our own cats, and what we recommend to our neighbours; and when they try the experiment, they and their pets are secure from reproach and danger henceforth.
Wild, homeless, hungry, ragged, savage cats are more difficult to catch; but they are outlaws, and may be shot with the certainty that all neighbours will be thankful.
My entire poultry-yard, except a few of the old hens on the perches, was in danger of destruction by an accident one summer night, and was saved by what I cannot but consider a remarkable exercise of energy on the part of my companion, M.
Few persons in the north of England will ever forget the thunder-storm on the night of the 24th of July, 1857. At 11:00 p.m., the rain came down in one sheet, instantly flooding the level ground to the depth of more than a foot, and the continuous thunder seemed to crack on one’s very skull, while the blue lightning never intermitted for two seconds for above an hour. The heat was almost intolerable. Our maids, however, who keep very early hours, were sleeping through it all, when M. escorted me (very feeble from illness) up-stairs, settled me with my book in my easy-chair, and bade me Good-night.
Presently I drew up a window-blind, to see the lightning better from my seat. In the midst of its blue blazes there was, more than once, a yellow flicker on the window-frame which I could not understand. I went to look out, and saw a yellow light whisking about far below, sometimes in the quarry, and then mounting or descending the terrace steps. It was M., saving the fowls. She would not allow the maids, who were stirring enough now, to go out straight from their beds into the storm; and she knew it was useless to call the man from the cottage, who was a mere encumbrance on critical occasions.
In fact, he and his wife were at that moment entirely persuaded that the end of the world was come. It was no form of speech, but their real conviction; and it could not have been asked of them to care about ducks and chickens. The maids were lighting a fire in the back-kitchen, and strewing the floor with straw, while M. was out in dress which could not be spoiled, lantern, basket and apron. Some of the hens and chickens were too cramped to move, sitting in the water. Some were taking refuge in the shrubs. Two ducklings were dead, and two more died afterwards. M. went again and again, and to both the poultry-yards, and brought up forty fowls — all that were in danger, every one of which would have been dead before morning.
Of course she had not a dry thread about her, nor a dry hair on her head; but the wetting was a trifle in comparison with the bewildering effect of the thunder and lightning in such a midnight. She did not suffer for it more or less, and our poultry-yard was saved. The poor fowls were dried and rubbed, and made comfortable on their straw. A few were delicate for a little while; but only five died in all. It was not the pecuniary loss which M. dreaded, but the destruction of her whole school of dependents, and the total discouragement which must have followed such a catastrophe. If the deluge had destroyed the colony that night, we should have had no more to tell of our poultry-yard. As it is, we have contemplated the proceedings of our hens and broods ever since with a stronger interest than ever before.
When a neighbour here and there said, “I would have let all the fowls of the air perish before I would have gone out on such a night,” we think these friends of ours have yet to learn the pleasure and true interest of a rural charge, like that of a poultry-yard.
This is an impression often renewed in regard, not only to the poultry-yard, but to all the interests involved in a genuine country life. The ladies of the Four Acre Farm tell us of a visitor of theirs who could not conceive that women who can make butter could care for books. She wondered at their subscribing to Mudie’s. This is, to be sure, the very worst piece of ignorance of country-life and its influences that I ever read of; but it is only an exaggeration of a sentiment very common in both town and country. Some country as well as town gentry may say to us miniature farmers, “What is the use of so much doing for so little profit? A few shillings, or a few pounds, or a certain degree of domestic comfort and luxury — this is all; and is it worth while?”
“No, this is not all,” we reply. When we say what more there is, it will be for others to decide for themselves whether it is worth while to use small portions of land, or to leave them undeveloped. It is a grave and yet a cheerful consideration that the maintenance of our man and his wife is absolutely created by our plan of living; and it is worth something that the same may be said of several animals which are called into existence by it.
As for ourselves and our servants, our domestic luxuries are the smallest benefit we derive from our out-door engagements. We should under no circumstances be an idle household. We have abundance of social duties and literary pleasures, in parlour and kitchen; but these are promoted, and not hindered, by our out-door interests. The amount of knowledge gained by actual handling of the earth and its productions, and by personal interest in the economy of agriculture, even on the smallest scale, is greater than any inconsiderate person would suppose; and the exercise of a whole range of faculties on practical objects, which have no sordidness in them, is a valuable and most agreeable method of adult education.
Whoever grows anything feels a new interest in everything that grows; and, as to the mood of mind in which the occupation is pursued, it is, to town-bred women, singularly elevating and refining. To have been reared in a farm-house, remote from society and books, and ignorant of everything beyond the bounds of the parish, is one thing; and to pass from an indolent or a literary life in town to rural pursuits, adopted with a purpose, is another. In the first case, the state of mind may be narrow, dull, and coarse; in the
latter, it should naturally be expansive, cheery, and elevated.
The genuine poetry of man and nature invests an intellectual and active life in the open universe of rural scenery. If listless young ladies from any town in England could witness the way in which hours slip by in tending the garden, and consulting about the crops, and gathering fruit and flowers, they would think there must be something in it more than they understand. If they would but try their hand at making a batch of butter, or condescend to gather eggs, and court acquaintance with hens and their broods, or assume the charge of a single nest, from the hen taking her seat to the maturity of the brood, they would find that life has pleasures for them that they knew not of — pleasures that have as much “romance” and “poetry” about them as any book in Mudie’s library.
“But the time!” say some. “How can you spare the time?” Well! what is it? People must have bodily exercise, in town or country, or they cannot live in health, if they can live at all. Why should country folk have nothing better than the constitutional walk which is the duty and pleasure of townsfolk? Sometimes there is not half-an-hour’s occupation in the field or garden in the day; and then is the occasion for an extended ramble over the hills.
On other days, two, three, four hours slip away, and the morning is gone unawares: and why not? The things done are useful; the exercise is healthful and exhilarating — in every way at least as good as a walk for health’s sake; and there is the rest of j the day for books, pen, and needle. The fact is, the outdoor amusements leave abundance of time, and ever-renewed energy for the life of books, the pen, and domestic and social offices of duty and love.
Let those ladies whose lot it is to live in the country consider whether they shall lead a town or a country life there. A town life in the country is perhaps the lowest of all. It is having eyes which see not — ears which hear not — and minds which do not understand. A lady who had lived from early childhood in a country-house politely looked into my poultry-yard when it was new, and ran after me with a warm compliment.
“What a beautiful hen you have there; what beautiful long feathers in its tail!”
“Why, S—,” said I, “that is the cock.”
“O — oh — oh!” said she, “I did not know.”
Mr. Howitt tells us somewhere of a guest of his who, seeing a goose and her fourteen goslings on a common, thought it must be very exhausting to the bird to suckle so many young ones. To women who do not know a cock from a hen, or green crops from white, or fruit-trees from forest-trees, or how to produce herb, flower, root, or fruit from the soil, it would be new life to turn up the ground which lies about them.
Miniature farming would, in that very common case, not only create the material subsistence of the servants employed, but develop the mind and heart of the employer. This, and not the money made, is the true consideration when the question arises:
What shall a woman do with two or four acres?
* Studies show that bacon and other processed food cause cancer – they are harmful especially for children.