Twelve months ago tomorrow, our three young chickens arrived. I remember being so nervous about going to collect them. I was sitting waiting for Sean to come and get me and I sent a text to our chickenman, one of the guys who inspired us and showed us we could do it, Evan.
He said, ‘Bells are you afraid they won’t like you?’ and although he was probably joking, he tapped right into the core of my fear. I have always said I don’t get animals. I’m not a pet person. I don’t understand attachment to animals. I realised I’d been harbouring visions of me standing over three detached chickens that I could never get near, that it would always just feel clumsy and so not me.
What on earth was I signing up for? You know how get you get a romantic notion in your head – be it of a moment, a person, an animal, an experience – and you feel in your belly that you’re going to be disappointed?
That feeling didn’t leave me for a while. A man at Bellchambers reached into a long, low cage and pulled out whichever chicken I pointed at. He wanted me to choose. From hundreds! How could I? What if I made the wrong choice?
Is there a wrong choice when it comes to a chicken? I don’t know. What I do know is that a year on, I love deeply those three rusty-brown hens that scratch around my yard, dig up my raspberries, call to us in the morning and give us the most sublime eggs.
Do you remember when they arrived? When they wouldn’t even come out of the coop?
It took them a couple of days to come out. We were all a bit shy I think.
Eventually they emerged and I spent a happy afternoon sitting with them (back when there was grass!) just getting used to them.
I remember feeling so brave, sitting there like that. It was a big moment. And then I named them. It took a few days to find which chicken matched the literary names we’d chosen ahead of time. But soon enough the biggest, bravest one was Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the reddest one was Shirley (after Anne (Shirley) of Green Gables) and the quietest one was Miss Matty from Cranford. I was so happy.
The next great moment was introducing Alice to the chickens. She’d been climbing in the pristine coop for weeks, but then we had to show her that it was the chickens’ house now and oh how timid she was back then.
Early on, she dubbed them the ‘doos’. Why? Well might you ask. It was derived from her believing they were roosters and that they said ‘cock a doodle doo’. Pretty soon she abbreviated it to ‘doo’. Before long, she was greeting them with a wave and a ‘Hey doos!’. I still call them the ‘doos’ sometimes, fondly remembering the days that are now passed. She calls them chickens now and loves to collect their eggs.
Which brings me to another great moment. The first egg. It took only three weeks for them to mature enough to the point of laying. I came home from work and found a smooth, brown egg nestled in the straw. It had felt like it was never going to happen. Then it did and I was amazed.
I called and texted my sisters, my parents, my brother, friends. You’d think I’d laid the egg!
There have been so many lovely moments since then. A year of chicken keeping has taught me that their personalities are vibrant and cheeky; that they are affectionate and like to be cuddled (this may not apply to all breeds); that they are not afraid lawn mowers and that no space in the garden is sacred. A chicken will get into and dig up any space she can, when she can. We employ frequent use of wire mesh to keep them out.
Another favourite moment is the day in early winter when my enthusiastic nephew, Willem, spent probably more time than any adult would have the patience for running around after them until he caught one. I adore this photo of him, proudly showing us he’d finally done it. As someone who has lost hours to chasing them when they’ve escaped, I get his sense of achievement.
A year on, I have no regrets. I have no concerns that they like me. We all exist happily together in our big back yard.
A regular occurrence in our house is that Sean will be in the kitchen and will look out the window to see me walking around the yard with three hens (or the Sister Hens as we dubbed them early on) close on my heels. To them, I’m the Lady with the Food. We make no pretence that this isn’t a relationship based on them getting what they want from me. But you know, I get what I want too. I get eggs. I get company when I’m out in the yard. They get shelter. We get three other bodies to care about besides ourselves, which for a couple without children is no small thing. You can become a bit insular, the two of you alone. If you knew how many of our conversations revolved around the care and protection of our chickens, you’d think we were talking about children.
I love this photo and the memory of how seconds after Sean took it, Shirley crapped on my apron. Love your work, Shirley!
It’s been a great year of fun, learning and clucking. And oh so many eggs.