Great Eggspectations

This ain’t no chick flick filled with love and romance, it’s a block-buster disaster at Crockern!  Our hens are not laying eggs.  They haven’t slowed production, they have stopped.  Even our new point-of-lay hens which I picked up about a month ago, haven’t produced a single egg.  In real terms:  No omelettes, no soft-boiled eggs, no cakes, no nothing.  Production is one big-fat-goose egg.

We have a mixed flock, not just breeds, but ages.  On average, each of our hens is capable of 250-300 eggs per year.  Our eldest hen, who is about 7 years old, may have slowed to one or two eggs a month, but she’s fed us well for over 5 years.  Our other 9 hens range in age from 7 months to 4 years.  On the low end of expected production, that is 3-5 eggs a day for a flock this size.  So where are the eggs?

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Over five years of keeping chickens, and we’ve never had this.  We have had broody hens, flighty hens, friendly hens and darn right angry hens.  We have nursed hens with coughs, bound eggs and uterine prolapse.  We have lost hens to natural causes and grisly fox, badger and dog attacks.   Our hens have laid soft eggs, weirdly shaped eggs, and the most beautiful, delicious eggs.  But we have never had weeks of no eggs.  Like any hard-boiled detective, I turn to our chicken library in search of plausible reasons for hens to stop laying.  Where is that book, bok, bok, booook?

The most common reason cited is diet.  But, we haven’t made any changes.   We are feeding the same pellets as in the past.  Our hens get plenty of bugs and worms as they free range all over the yard, including a drive-by feeding at the bird feeders.   And they have ample access to water.  For heaven sakes, we’re on Dartmoor!

We know three are busy moulting, but the others have all their feathers.  A quick examination shows all to have clear eyes, healthy coombs and behaving in chicken-y ways, indicating tip-top health.   None are sitting on the nest all day being broody.  In fact, none seem to be heading toward a nest at all.

Could it be daylight?  The experts say chickens need 14 -16 hours of natural daylight.  Okay, so in winter I appreciate the laying slows.  But this has been going on for months, beginning in the long days of summer.  We could put in some artificial light into their coop, but we won’t do that. The chickens love to roam all over the yard and I don’t want to force them into some sort of egg-laying drudgery with a light therapy box in the corner of the roost.  Being a chicken should be fun!

Two months ago, faced with a future of no eggs, I brought home six point-of-lay hens to up the egg game. When we introduced the new hens, we removed the electric fence since the rabbits had chewed through it.  The experts claim chickens love routine and a slight disruption can cause them to stop laying for a brief period. Do our hens really remember a month ago?  Two months ago?  How developed is a chicken’s memory?  Have our hens forgotten how to lay eggs?  Is this even possible?

Fed up with not having eggs, we hatched a plan and examined every inch of property.  We looked under fallen branches, up in the rafters of the barn, behind shrubs and even in the obvious nests boxes.  Searching high and low for eggs, we came up empty.  Ome-not-letting it slide and for two days, I spied on the chickens.  I watched their every move – worms eaten, dust baths taken, preening completed — to see if they have a hidden, special spot for a quiet bit of egg-laying.   Sadly, there are no secret nests filled with dozens of eggs, but their daily routines are poultry in motion.

I can hardly say I’ve cracked it, but when I mentioned to my friend Joanne that I thought they were on strike, she quipped, “Are they French?”  We are unaware of any problems with worker rights, hours or conditions, but we do seem to have la solidarité du poulet.

Roger and I are scrambling for an answer and it may be all in the timing:  Winter is coming; our point of lay hens may just not be ready yet; and, the old hens are on vacation.  If we were tougher, we’d be making chicken stew.  Instead, we’ll carry on providing food and shelter, keeping them safe from predators, looking for eggs in all areas of the yard, singing and chatting to them when we are out in the garden, and giving them a winter’s rest.  In the meantime, I’m keeping my sunny side up in hope we’ll have some eggs in the new year.

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Getting Mud From A Stone

There is a popular walk up our track, towards Wistman’s Wood.  For the more enthusiastic hiker, another 20 minutes north of the Woods, through some boggy bits of land, sits a weir, marking the beginning of the Devonport Leat.   A leat is the regional name for an aqueduct and they have a significant history.  The first time I said the A-word here in the southwest, I was immediately and sternly corrected.  I’ve not made that mistake since.

If you look at a map of the area, the Devonport Leat follows a meandering route as it weaves its way across the moors, a bit like the path home charted after last call.  But unlike the drunkard, leat engineers made use of the natural contours of the land skillfully and carefully selecting the routes.  In medieval times, leats were constructed to provide power for mining.  Sir Francis Drake managed the construction of Drake’s Leat in 1591 and the Devonport Leat was built in the 1790s to carry fresh drinking water on a 28-mile course from the heights of Dartmoor to the expanding dockyards in what is now known as Plymouth.  Three rivers continue to feed this particular leat as it heads toward a water treatment plant and reservoir, still helping to supply water to Plymouth:  The West Dart, which borders our property, The Cowsic and the Blackabrook.

Devonport Leat

Devonport Leat

Once again, my thoughts are preoccupied with stone.  Specifically, Dartmoor Granite which was used to make the Devonport Leat and to build our house, including the kitchen floor.  When this house was built, there was no fashion-forward thinking going into what is now a trendy material for kitchen floors.  Today’s modern granite floor is smooth and flat and has any number of recommended sealants and cleaning solutions to keep it sparkling.  Not ours.  It’s historic.  It’s rustic.  It’s filthy.  Because this is an old, old, old kitchen floor, the flagstones were laid directly onto the soil.  We are still on the search to determine how old Crockern is, but we suspect that at one point in its history, the now kitchen was shared with livestock providing shelter for the farm animals who would in turn create extra heat in the house.  This floor has seen centuries of dirt and mud.

I hadn’t given any of this too much thought until I got it into my head to clean the stones.  You read that correctly: clean the stones.  Now I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place, because how to do it?  All those whizzy power brushes just can’t deal with the irregularities of our floor.  Cleaning solutions?  Not certain how our historic and unsealed stones would respond.  After hours of trolling the Internet I had learned next to nothing to guide this particular project along.   Even Martha Stewart and her team of DIY experts failed to provide “How To” suggestions, so I opted for my own solution and put together a mixture of water, mild dish soap and vinegar.  A strong brush, kneepads, rubber gloves, bowl of clean water for rinsing and several sponges comprised my list of tools.  To complete the process, I would surely require a little blood, sweat and tears, and not the jazz-rock band I hasten to add.

Cinderella scrubbing floors (found on Internet)

Cinderella scrubbing floors (found on Internet)

It’s crazy where the mind wanders when the body is engaged in tedious and repetitive hard labour.  I thought a good deal of Cinderella dreaming of attending the ball while she scrubbed the floors.  I mused over 17th century farmers and how they cleaned floors.   What did the Rubbles and Flintstones do?   Might a Victorian servant from a manor home show up and lend a hand?  Reflecting on Jack Black’s explanation of the History of Rock provided welcome distraction from my imaginings of the lives of prisoners and slaves.  So too did the idea that germinated long ago:  I always wanted to live in an old farmhouse and do farmhouse-y things.

Is scrubbing a granite floor of 200-plus years of dirt farmhouse-y?

When we came here, we were drawn by a place which would slow down our pace of life, commune with nature, focus on giving life back to an old place in great need of TLC, and pursue more creative outlets – such as writing a blog about how an American woman, an Englishman and their dog move to Dartmoor to live the dream.

Or instead, we could spend days hefting granite stones onto walls, making compost, shoveling shit, building a greenhouse, and kicking around endlessly how to approach the next big home improvement project:  The entire downstairs!  To look at our combined life and work experiences, there was no indication that this was to be our destiny, but here we are.

Being a chronic list maker and believer in “the small bite” approach to big projects, I gave myself 8 days to complete the floor cleaning by adhering to the following parameters:  three rows of stones a day (that’s about 4 stones per row), each approximately 18” x 36”; mornings spent on my hands and knees scrubbing stones; and, afternoons assisting Roger with finishing the greenhouse.

Wisely, I’ve also built in a day off from this project for a long walk.  Just about every time I’ve thought about taking a walk along this part of the leat, starting at its source, I’ve been waylaid by projects, swollen rivers, or an appealing adventure elsewhere.  As reward for days of floor scrubbing, we took our scheduled day off.  The sun was bright and the ground dry as Roger, Sam and I headed north of Wistman’s Woods to the weir and the beginning of the Devonport Leat.

Sluice Gate at beginning of Devonport Leat

Sluice Gate at beginning of Devonport Leat

Arriving at the weir, I was struck that gravity is the key thing with leats.  From source to destination, it’s all downhill.  They tend to start above a mill or reservoir, making use of a sluice gate to divert some of the water from a river or stream.  A weir often provides enough of a mini-reservoir for such diversions.  The leat then runs along the side of the valley.  Leat builders were very skilled because if the water ran too quickly it would flood, and if too slowly, it would stagnate.  The leat opposite our house has such a subtle gradient at times it appears as if the water is running up hill.   However, rather than marvel at the engineering tricks to build this leat, I was more taken with the clean and sparkling look of the huge granite stones comprising it.  As if by sorcery, they dazzled!

Leats are fascinating constructions with several practical features still in existence, for example, the “sheep leap” which comprises two slabs of granite projecting from opposite sides of the banks, not connected, but designed instead to provide a landing pad for the sheep as they jump across.  Evidently, these were also put in place to assist rabbits when leats ran past warrens.  Roger, Sam and I found them very useful, as they greatly reduced our likelihood of falling into the water.

The expertise of the men who surveyed the leats must not be underestimated.  Nor can the sheer determination to liberate a centuries-old kitchen floor from its dirt.  The engineers’ skill in finding the right contours and gradients was vital.   Likewise my “wax on wax off” circular approach with the brush worked a treat!  I’ve since finished the floor and don’t intend to revisit this activity for many years to come.  Happily, there are plenty more leats to explore on Dartmoor, instead.

Before and After of granite flagstone floor

Before and After of granite flagstone floor