We eat quite a bit of chicken and one of the relatively few specific goals we have come up with since starting down our path to farming was to become self-sufficient in meat. So that means raising a lot of chickens. But we also want eggs, both for us and also to sell to friends, neighbours and colleagues.
Keeping several flocks of different breeds of chicken didn't seem a viable option to begin with so we decided that we needed to look at dual purpose or utility strains. Combined with our desire to support rare and native breeds this narrowed the list further and we ultimately picked the Sussex.
The Sussex chicken comes in a number of colour strains but sourcing hatching eggs proved a challenge initially - perhaps because we were looking for them in October as we really wanted to get going as soon as we moved in. So we ended up with an incubator full of a mixture of Light Sussex, Buff Sussex and a few Rhode Island Reds to make up the numbers.
Our first ever experience of hatching went reasonably well and 15 eggs from the 27 we started with hatched. One needed to be euthanised and two more died over the coming weeks as they simply weren't developing properly. However we raised 5 RIR, 2 BS and 5 LS to adulthood.
The four cockerels have since ended up in the pot proving that we really can hatch, raise, slaughter, pluck, hang, gut, cook and eat our own chickens. The eight hens form the core of our laying flock and between them laid hundreds of eggs by the time they went into their first moult in mid-summer.
Since then we have decided to focus on the Buff Sussex as this is a rarer strain of the breed and we have incubated two more batches during 2018, hatching 8 (from 11 fertile / 24 eggs set) and 17 (from 19 fertile / 24 set) chicks, only losing one chick along the way. The group of 8 joined the main flock in late July and we sold one of the two cockerels to another local keeper later in summer.
Now that we had the foundations of our flock we needed a cockerel to be able to collect fertile eggs to hatch replacements and birds for meat. We were lucky to find a Buff Sussex cockerel advertised online and after work one Friday went to collect him. On arriving home late that night we put him in to a quarantine pen in the lambing shed within view of the pen of 8 youngsters and headed for bed. It was a warm summer night so we had the windows open only to be rudely awakened at 4am by raucous crowing! Luckily the neighbours weren't disturbed and he has since reined in his crowing to more sociable hours. King George as he is now known enjoys strutting his stuff around the yard and keeping the flock in order.
He has since been succeeded by a cockerel from one of the hatches who had the additional job of keeping all the other young cockerels in line. Of the 16 chicks from the third hatch it turned out that 11 were males!
When we moved in we made the decision to split the former workshop into two halves by using an old shed side as a dividing wall. One half has become the indoor run providing space for the chickens to scratch about in all weathers and sheltering them from the worst of the winter cold. It is also completely secure from predators - important since we know foxes roam the area (including our garden) and by keeping the feed inside and away from wild birds we can easily abide by the restrictions that come into play during outbreaks of avian influenza as well as avoiding creating an attraction for rodents.
The indoor run has a pop-hole to an outdoor run that is also secure meaning the birds can be left with access to the outside every day. We have a second pop-hole that opens into the farmyard meaning they can free range during daytimes when we are at home.
Next year the challenge will be to move the laying flock out to one of the fields freeing up the workshop run for growing on meat birds, which we will need to raise in larger numbers to achieve our self-sufficiency goal.