Splay Legs

Fitted with a hobble made of insulating tape

After my disastrous hatch of grey partridge at the weekend, I was fairly irritated by the fact the most promising survivor developed a dramatic case of splay-leg and quite rapidly became totally unable to move around the brooder. As I thinned out the stragglers and realised that I was only going to be left with two viable chicks, it became apparent that if I didn’t fix the problem, I might as well just wipe the slate clean and start again with another batch of eggs.

Looking through some old poultry keeper’s guides from between the wars, I hit on a technique which seemed somewhat improbable, but which promised to fix and restore the effects of splayed legs. By taping the ankles together and giving chicks something rough to walk on for extra grip, the old text explained that serious splay leg can be completely fixed in just a few hours. To be honest, I looked down at the sprawling chick and decided that I was so sick of things going wrong that I was prepared to try anything.

It’s not easy to tape a wriggling chick’s legs together, and I immediately felt bad for the poor little blighter as I put him down and he fell straight over onto his breast with his legs stretched out behind him. I decided to give him a couple of hours and if there was no improvement, he would go the way of his siblings. When I came back, I was surprised to find that I couldn’t see him amongst the swirl of day old quail which had been put in with the partridges. When I had found both partridge chicks, I couldn’t see which one had the splay legs. It was only when I picked them up that I saw the tape holding the legs together, and it was amazing to see how quickly the chick had adapted to the makeshift hobble.

Over the next few hours, he learned to move about quite freely, and I was pleased to see him feeding and drinking with all the other chicks. I hope to be able to take the tape off him tomorrow and set him back to the arduous task of growing up, and it was a good perk to an otherwise gloomy first encounter with grey partridges.

I daresay most people would have euthanased two grey partridge chicks after a duff hatch and I understand their logic, but I honestly believe that these two little blighters are made of sufficiently tough stuff to make it through. I’m not trying to make money out of these birds, and even though they are now sharing their brooder lamp with quail, I would still have footed the electricity bill for bringing them to adulthood alone. I know it’s early days and all sorts of things could still go wrong for them, but the case of the hobbled partridge carries something of the flavour of the old GWCT expression “every one counts”.

Idiosyncratic Poultry

Difficult to manage, but showing signs of being a good mother

With two broody hens sitting and another three dozen grey partridge eggs in the incubator, I’ve hit a bit of a problem. So far, I’ve been using the GWCT’s “Complete book of game management” as my bible, and while not everything has been plain sailing, the advice written down in the 1970s is serving me very well.

I get my broodies up at the same time every morning and let them out for a feed and a shit, but one of them just won’t play ball. She used to belong to a shepherd down by the Solway who was famous for having savage collie dogs. As part of their struggle for survival, all of his hens were as wild as the heather – they needed to be, otherwise they would have quickly become dog meat. When he threw in the towel with poultry keeping (possibly because his hens went feral and began laying in hedge bottoms miles away from his house), my mother managed to catch a couple and take them for herself. Over the next couple of years, the handful of rescue bantams mellowed alot, but always kept their wild streak.

I took one of them on when she turned broody, and while she’s perfectly manageable, she is a little unpredictable. She won’t get up with the other silkie x sussex and only comes out to feed when she thinks that nobody is watching. Her broodiness has made her extremely secretive, and I only managed to take this photo of her (above) by hiding in the house and waiting for her in the upstairs bedroom window.

She’s not sitting on pheasants, but has been chosen instead to incubate a mix of pekins and silver sebrights. I know that she’s a good mother and that she’ll do a good job, but there’s a picky part of me which resents her not fitting into a neatly regimented timetable like the silkie. Next year, I’ll have a legion of well drilled broody hens who follow the words of the GWCT book to the letter, but until then, I have to work around a hen with every sign of post traumatic stress disorder.

…And Not So Good

The only real contender from a hatch of 12

Having expected the partridges to hatch on Friday night, I was getting worried by Sunday morning. The shells had started to chip on Thursday, but no further activity whatsoever was cause for concern. When one partridge hatched at lunchtime, I was sure all the others would be close behind, but there was no sign of progress whatsoever by eight o’clock. Taking one of the motionless eggs, I chipped away a bit more of the shell to find a live chick inside, but the membrane had dried like leather and he was stuck fast. Checking the hygrometer, I saw that the humidity reading was 80% relative, so it was hard to understand why the little blighters were so badly stuck in dried up eggs.

Determined not to be left with a single chick, I began the long and ultimately hopeless process of helping the partridges to hatch. It’s not a pleasant job, and so delicate that you’re almost certain to do more harm than good. However, there would be no point in bringing on a single chick, so rather than wipe the slate clean and start again, I stuck at it. After a couple of hours, all the chicks had hatched to some extent, but it was clear that there weren’t going to be many do-ers.

In the meantime, the one stuffy chick had developed horribly splayed legs and could do little more than just sprawl around on the mesh floor of the incubator. Deciding to leave them all to it, I went to bed.

This morning, all the chicks were still alive, but some so obviously weak that I euthanased the worst of them. Three showed signs of progress, including the splay legged bird which, apart from its odd legs, appears to be perfectly healthy and happy. Following advice from an old book on poultry, I hobbled his legs together with a bit of tape which should keep them at a reasonable angle and help him get his act together. Another one of the three is actually quite game, so it looks like I might have at least two to bring on. Unless the others show serious signs of progress in the next few hours, I’ll euthanase them and concentrate on what I’ve got.

The last 24 hours have actually been surprisingly distressing, and it has redoubled my resolve to get properly set up with broody hens. There’s something quite brutal and unsympathetic about circuit boards and thermostats – I almost feel guilty that I passed on the care of vulnerable, pulsating animals to a hard, unfeeling machine which wasn’t designed to trouble-shoot or provide natural care. I don’t know what went wrong, but you’re playing with fire when you think that you have all the answers for a biological process which verges on the magical. The freakish, distorted chicks will be a reminder of how things can get out of hand, and the next batch (which come this week) will hopefully be the last that I incubate artificially.

Good Chicks…

This guy and his two siblings have been hanging around the house

June is a great month for spotting young birds, and living where I do now, I’ve had some great chances to see chicks of all different species. The most conspicuous have been a pair of seapies (oystercatchers) who seem to have managed to bring off three chicks in the hayfield between the house and the loch. I can hear them chipping away all day and night, and they attack anything even remotely resembling a predator with gusto. I watched them chasing a pair of red kites yesterday, and they kicked hell’s bells out of a buzzard who happened to be passing at the wrong moment. The chicks vanish into the grass at the slightest sign of danger, leaving the parents to “scramble” and intercept whatever it is that has caught their attention.

Down on the loch itself, it was great to see that the great crested grebes have also had a trio of chicks, beautifully marked in vertical black and white pinstripe. These little birds are almost impossible to see against the rippling water, and they can already dive down after their parents. Most of the time, however, they seem to prefer squabbling over who gets to sit at pole position on the adult’s back.

Three smart little chicks for the grebes (one submerged)

A Silkie Cockerel

The new silkie

It would be easy to have a blog devoted entirely to poultry keeping. In fact, there are many already online, and just a quick flick through some of them reveals the obvious fact that, like children, people find their own hens much more interesting than anyone else does. As a hobby and pastime, keeping hens is generally great, but when it comes to blog articles about birds described as “ladies” and “chooks”, it’s clear that they are probably a great deal more fun to write than they are to read.

In order to keep this “grouse” diary on course and true to its original purpose without writing self-indulgent screeds about the various captivating personalities and traits displayed by my rapidly increasing flock of bantams, I won’t keep on posting about my new birds ad nauseam. I am keeping them so that they will help me rear gamebirds, and while it all seems rather distant at the moment, this apparent diversion will link back up with the theme of grouse and sport in due course.

In the meantime, it’s worth mentioning that my girlfriend and I collected a silkie cockerel this afternoon from some poultry keepers near Thornhill. While two of my bantams are sitting, the hen run is occupied only by an old light sussex hen and the two silkie x sussex chicks which I hatched in May, so if nothing else, the young white cockerel will keep the community alive during the temporary incarceration of the broodies. In the long term, this cockerel will cross with the pekins (which are on their way) and the others to create the next generation of clockers.

Silkies certainly are ridiculous looking birds, and it’s hardly surprising that the first silkies in Britain were brought over by freak shows which billed them as being a cross between a rabbit and a hen. However, you can’t argue with their track record as sitters, and this pom-pom headed bird will hopefully act as father to many capable clockers.


Game On

All systems go

Just worth posting that I set the my first ever batch of eggs beneath my silkie x sussex bantam this morning. Having acquired 13 pheasant eggs from the game farmer down the road, I turned them yesterday while the final preparations were being sorted out, then set them this morning when she was out for her daily “eat all you possibly can, do a shit that a labrador would be proud of, then go back indoors” session.

I powdered the nest with some diatomaceous earth to keep on top of any mites which might try and set up camp in the coop, and although I was originally worried that she was too small for so many eggs, they’re now all tucked up underneath her in a very promising fashion.

I’d be much more excited about this little side project if it wasnt for the fact that a second bantam is following close on the heels of the first, and she has been put into a coop which is so new that I only finished waterproofing it this evening. Although “waterproofing” is a rather grandiose way of saying that I tacked a Marsden’s bag over the roof. It’s all rather chaotic, and there hasn’t been time to really get as overexcited as I thought I would.

It has turned out that I couldn’t get hold of any grey partridge eggs to coincide with the sitting of my two broodies this summer, but the chicks (due to hatch tonight), along with several others in egg form which I ordered today, will become part of a longer term project for next year.

Grey partridges might seem like a bit of a diversion from the grouse theme of this blog, but given that there are many similarities between black grouse habitat and hill partridge habitat, they are a convenient and appealing way to learn about upland management. What works for grey partridges will, to some extent, also apply to black grouse, particularly insofar as brood rearing is concerned, and the lessons I’m learning about keeping, hatching and rearing gamebirds will certainly come in handy when the time comes for me to start building an enclosed breeding stock of black grouse. I must admit too that, since there were greys on the Chayne within living memory, I do like the idea of being able to add another column to my gamebook on the Chayne in the long term.

Seedling I.D.

(from left) Turnip, radish & kale – anyone who tells you that they can see a difference is lying.

When I sowed the game cover, the thought occurred to me that I might not be able to identify the plants which grew. This first game cover project will hopefully serve to show me what will do on the Chayne and what won’t, so if I can’t even identify what (if anything) takes to the ground, the exercise is wasted in part.

With an unusual amount of foresight, I decided to make things easier for my future self by taking a seed from each of the acre packs of radish, turnip and kale and planting them in a seed tray on my windowsill. I labelled each little compartment and relaxed with the smug thought that I could use what I learnt from growing seeds in a controlled environment out on the field.

After ten days, I have come to the conclusion that I should stop trying to be clever. The promising seedlings all look precisely the same as each other, and by the time that it’s possible to differentiate between them, it’ll be perfectly obvious which is which. My dim, distant days as a biology student have stirred up the extremely pleasing word “dicotyledonous” to describe the little plants – I understand that the word is entirely appropriate in this context, but it makes me marvel at the fact that it’s been rattling around in my head unused for fifteen years, only to pop out when it was finally needed.

In the meantime, the recent (and ongoing) rain is drawing young plants out of the soil like a magnet over iron filings. The bee mix seems to be coming on the strongest so far, and some of the triticale is already three or four inches high. The main mix is just starting to show through, and it’s all looking extremely promising.

Action Stations

A further addition – a black rock x bantam mongrel

I am in no way a republican, but there is a small part of me which grudges the Queen holding her birthday celebrations on such an awkward date. I now have two full broodies ready to receive clutches of partridge eggs, but the post hasn’t been operating and it’s going to be a struggle to get partridge eggs before the weekend.

The silkie x sussex bantam went into a separate coop this evening to sit on some plastic pheasant eggs for a few days, and my new arrival (pictured above) is already bursting to brood something. Inevitably, I have been longing for these birds to go broody for months, and when it all happened, I couldn’t get through to any of the game farmers I’d planned to deal with, presumably because they’re all eating cucumber sandwiches and waving Union Jacks around.

Hopefully, there won’t be such frantic pressure next year when I have a few more broodies to work with and I have a better idea of what to expect, but I must admit that I’m pretty peeved. I may crack before too long and buy some clutches of pheasant eggs from the game farm down the road, but that’ll only happen once every last fine strand of my patience has worn through and I can wait no longer to get started…

Even in a worst case scenario, I suppose that the black rock might getting on for being a little big for grey partridge eggs, and it could be that she’d suit pheasants better anyway.

Aerial Combat

A rare opportunity to see three raptor species competing for food

It’s getting late in the season for larsen traps, but as long as mine keep working, I’ll happily keep on emptying them. I was coming off the hill this morning with a corbie in the bag just as the first magical drops of rain started to turn the beige soil of the cover crop into a sticky and promising mass of chocolate brown. I don’t know why, but something caught my eye way up above the hill on the neighbour’s land – it was a red kite and it was behaving very strangely.

The kites over the Chayne are usually languid, lazy brutes, but this bird was swooping, arching and turning back and forth on itself at quite a height. It was only when I got my binoculars out that I could see that it was chasing a smaller bird. Unlike so much of the publicity concerning red kites, I do believe the fact that they are harmless to adult birds, so it was hard to imagine why a kite should be pressing another bird so closely when it was clear that hunting was not the order of the day.

It was only when I realised that the other bird was a sparrowhawk that the scene made a little more sense. The smaller bird had no problem outmanoeuvering the flambuoyant kite, but it was burdened by a small parcel in its feet and wasn’t quite so nimble as it could’ve been. I watched the two chase back and forth across the sky, assuming that the kite would soon get bored of a contest which it clearly wasn’t going to win, when all of a sudden, a buzzard smashed into view. It had come in on a long stoop, and it was moving so quickly that the hawk was outgunned. After a very short chase, the sparrowhawk dropped the bundle, and I saw a twig-legged wader chick spiral down into a bank of bracken.

The kite and the buzzard raced each other down to the ground to gather the prize, and two corbie crows drifted in on the offchance, but the buzzard made sure of his meal. He crouched in the bracken and gobbled it up while the kite wheeled ineffectually overhead and the crows settled nearby. By the time that I had run up the hill to see precisely what had caused such close competition, the buzzard had finished dining and took to the air with a lazy swagger; a changed bird from the thunderbolt which had struck the sparrowhawk just moments before.

I am pretty sure that it was a curlew chick, but not being able to find even a scrap of evidence amongst the bracken stems, I can’t be certain. In a meagre gesture, I then moved a larsen trap up the hill to where the corbie crows still waddled and yelled in the gathering rain. With so much danger lurking in the skies, the most I can do for the curlews is deal with the crows.

Incubating Incubators

A new incubator for a new side-project

It says a great deal about the time of year that most of this blog is currently dedicated to eggs and seeds – I suppose that in winter it’s devoted to ferrets and wildfowl, so there’s probably some sort a balance between the two.

Just wanted to document the fact that my girlfriend has embarked upon a quest to breed some of the greatest broody hens ever to sit on eggs. The old gamekeeping techniques which I’m working towards relied upon a good supply of hens to hatch pheasants and partridges and then brood them to the stage at which they could be released. I’m still waiting for my bantams to go broody this year, which is pretty frustrating. The biggest problem is the fact that I only have two birds which are eligible for service, and waiting for them to settle doesn’t fit very neatly with the arrival of eggs.

It’s obvious that I need to expand my flock a little, and while one of my silkie x sussex bantams is finally showing signs of settling this evening, I need more birds to give me more options next year. Part of the problem is that the old gamekeepers used to hire or keep their own purpose bred broody hens, and there was a demand for birds which could reliably sit. Nowadays, the demand has diminished to such an extent that unless you’re prepared to keep your own birds, you’ll struggle to get hold of suitable candidates come hatching season.

In order to bulk out our incubation potential, my girlfriend has been online and bought silkie and pekin hatching eggs. Both breeds are known for their ability to brood, and the pekins have the pleasing potential to take care of little partridge eggs where larger birds might struggle. She then plans over the next few years to cross breed them all into an incubation task force of clocking mongrels which ought to fit the bill nicely.

The entire cocktail of eggs has gone into a new incubator (ex demo model – an Italian Corti fully automatic forced air 50 egg which buzzes and hums to such an extent that you can hear it from two rooms away), and God only knows what will come out in 21 days.