It’s official – spring arrives next week. The Met Office tells me that March 1 is the key date on which spring starts. The weather forecasters say it will last until June. Yeah, right.
The snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils have already had their own ideas. But the event which really tells me if the year is making any progress is when the hens start laying eggs.
Like all of my pseudo-agricultural pursuits, this is a strictly not-for-profit venture. If I tried to calculate the cost of time spent letting the birds out of their shed every morning, shutting them back in at night, along with the daily feeding, watering and cleaning out the poultry manure every week, then I’m sure I run at a substantial loss.
But the eggs are their own reward. They tend to come in all shapes and sizes, and thanks to the recent addition of a couple of Light Sussex hens I now get large brown eggs alongside the slightly smaller pale blue ones from my rare-breed Cream Legbars.
During the winter months, when I try to buy “free range” eggs from supermarkets, I am invariably disappointed that the yolks are not particularly yellow. The eggs seem very bland and I end up pouring on loads of salt just to get any taste at all. And this is despite the “free range” label on the box.
It’s probably not widely known that the “free range” label is one of the more controversial ways of selling eggs. It is quite possible to buy “free range” eggs which have come from a farm at which thousands of birds will have been kept in a huge hangar, with “access” to an outdoor run.
Nearly half of all eggs produced in the UK are “free range” – which means that the hens enjoy unlimited daytime “access” to least four square metres of vegetation per bird. At night, free range hens are housed in barns furnished with bedding and perches, with nine hens allowed per square metre of inside space. There is no limit on flock size.
Poultry farming is a relatively recent invention, hardly existing before the war. Indeed, during the war many people would supply their own need for eggs by keeping their own hens, no matter how modest their garden.
But since the 1950s, the farming industry has bred two distinct types of chicken – laying hens for eggs and broiler chickens for meat. Many laying hens have their beaks removed to prevent feather-pecking and bullying. The average lifespan of a commercial broiler chicken is just 39 days.
My Cream Legbars are not as prolific as many other breeds – which is possibly why they are thought of as “rare” – but each bird still gives me about 100 eggs per year. I currently have eight chickens, which is more than enough for me. I started with just two.
There’s also something reassuring about the sound of a cockerel early in the morning. I’m lucky that none of my neighbours (so far) has complained.