Hens & eggs

Just under 4 years ago, I got my first three hens. Today, I’m not aware of anyone in Lewis, possibly the Western Isles, with more than me.

I remember when I was wee, asking my parents if we could get hens, but being told no as the mink would kill them all.

The mink are now long gone (due to SNH eradication scheme) so that meant no ground predators here, just as had been the case.

Anyway, my first three hens came by accident, almost. My cousin Erica was recently married and was building a house with her husband. She had 4 hens at a house they were renting, but there wouldn’t be space for them at her new house. So, in early 2011, I took them on. Unfortunately one had been run over, so it was only 3 of them that made the journey to Ness.

Here they are, 4th April 2011

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I don’t think any of those ones are still with us, but 2 weeks later I got a cockerel. This was him when he arrived, and he’s still strutting his stuff!

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Slowly the numbers started creeping up. People who got no longer wanted their hens started leaving them with me and before I knew it, there were 45 hens!

18 months ago, I moved them all into one largish hen house but by then I had already made up my mind to go bigger.

I had seen a gap in the market for local eggs and kept meaning to give it a go myself. I was selling eggs at work and covering all my feed costs, so knew it wouldn’t be a loss.

Around this time last year, I decided to change the way I worked. After 10 years on committees and supporting local community groups, I decided to take a step back and help myself instead. I’ll go back to the community stuff at some point in the future – when I have the time, energy and patience. In the meantime, I just wanted to do my own thing, so I just went ahead and ordered 320 hens.

They arrived in July and I have been soldiering on with them since then, until this week. After months of selling eggs privately, things finally came together this week and I got into the shops. I had registered with the Government back in the summer and had an inspection in September. That was all fine but I couldn’t get into the shops until I got my labels and environmental health gave the the all clear, which they did this week.

After a sleepless night on Sunday, I got through my inspection at the first time of asking and got eggs into the shops within minutes! This has been one of the most hectic and exciting I’ve had a a crofter, and it’s given me a taste for more!

My eggs are now available in the two Ness shops, Swainbost & Cross, WJ MacDonald in Stornoway, the shops in Tong and Point, as well as the Community Co-op in Leverburgh, Harris.

Make sure you buy some eggs!

Late night birding

The last two nights have seen a lot of late night hen house action. Being back at work means that I have to do most of the croft work either before or after work. Being a night owl, the mornings are a last resort!

Fortunately my father is looking after the sheep this week, so *all* I have to do is tend to the hens.

Because the weather has been so poor the past week, the hens have barely ventured outside. This means that they are eating A LOT more feed. I usually fill the feeders once a week, with around 18 bags. This week’s 18 bags lasted from Saturday until Wednesday! Another 15 taken up then, in the pitch black.

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Tonight was even worse, sorting out eggs and collecting them from the hen house in 60-75mph winds! I was extremely concerned I was going to get caught by some flying debris!

Anyway, all done for the evening and preparing for heading to Aberdeen in the morning. Doing a spot of filming there and then back home on Saturday morning – all weather permitting.

Hatches battened down

Finally sat down and had my dinner after coming home early to get ready for the storm that’s about to hit us.

Last night, this is the forecast that we had for Fri/Sat (this is from xcweather, the site I use almost exclusively)

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96mph, which usually means that we will have gusts over 100mph. The weather station that was formerly Eoropie Tea Room has been relocated to my village, so should be interesting to see what it reads. I’m pretty sure it’ll be over 100mph. In the past few hours though, the forecast seems to be dipping ever so slightly, so I’m hoping it won’t be as bad as feared – but still very very bad.

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Because of this, I came home early from work today, to make sure everything was as secure as it could be. On Monday, I put the blackface sheep out onto the moor. They are hardy and can find plenty of shelter out there. As you can see from the picture, though, there is absolutely no shelter on the crofts.

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So I went to take the Cheviots back from the field they were in at the bottom of the croft, and leave them in front of my house for the night, where they can shelter. That was supposed to be a 5 minute job, until I noticed the rope on the gate had snapped (probably in yesterday’s mini-gale) and the sheep had disappeared!! Fortunately, they came when I started calling them, they had gone down to the shoreline – probably the worst place for 100mph winds straight off the Atlantic!

They followed me all the way out, nearly a mile, and I treated them to some feed in front of my house.

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Everything else tidied away, bins put in the barn and peats taken in. One more job was to check the hens. I am pretty sure the hen house itself won’t move, but I am concerned about the roof. One section tore away in December but hopefully the repairs will see out the winter and then I’ll replace it with box-profile.

One wee issue has been wind-driven rain coming in under the ridge. This is because the roof has a shallow pitch, so wind doesn’t have to fight gravity when pushing rain in. I think I have plugged most of the holes with expanding foam

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Now I’m in by the fire, all gadget fully charged, torches to hand and ear plugs by the bed. Hope I sleep, although worry and wind will probably keep me awake.

One thing is that I bought a generator this week and it’s sitting in the back of the pickup, at the back door, ready to be put to use if (or probably when) the power goes out.

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I just hope the hens are all ok in the morning!

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My thoughts coming into a new year

As the year draws to an end, I have been thinking about it a lot in the past few weeks.

2014 didn’t get off to a good start for me at all, as I felt some backlash, both locally and nationally, for arranging the world Guga eating championship. Afterwards, I made a conscious decision to move away from community-involvement and focus on my own plans. I had been involved in numerous community groups over the past 10 years; Ness FC, Social Club, Comunn Eachdraidh, village Grazing Clerk, Ness Golf Club & the Community Council, but decided to focus on my own plans after this.

And focus on them I did. As soon as lambing was over, I ordered 320 hens. The thinking was to provide some kind of sustainable income from the croft. The sheep and everything else washes its own face, but I needed something that would make a decent profit. Having done the sums and spoken to shops, I decided that hens were the answer.

Another big step was at the end of June, when I reduced my hours at work. I now work 3.5 days a week, having every Monday off, as well as every 2nd Friday. This has been invaluable during the winter, as I’d have no time to get anything done otherwise.

There are plenty folk who were trying to convince me to work full time or who thought I was crazy in doing it, but I have always been of the opinion that work is there to fund life, life isn’t there to sit in an office. Work to live, not live to work. I know what I want to do and 18 months of hard work will get me where I want to be.

The hens arrived at the end of July and things have gone well since then. They started laying semi-regularly by mid-September. Things have been ticking over since then and I hope to hit the ground running by the end of January.

There are loads of things going on behind the scenes too, but I can’t share all of those quite yet, as things are at a sensitive stage. I cannot wait for 2015 though, I know it is going to be my most successful, profitable and happiest year as a crofter.

Monster Saturday

I’m lying in bed on Sunday morning, feeling like a broken man. Not because of a hangover, but because of how much I did yesterday!

Last week was one of these rare Saturdays when I actually managed to do everything I’d set out to do. Funnily enough, I repeated that feat again yesterday.

I didn’t do anything until after 10am, as we had strong/gale force winds overnight and they didn’t ease off until mid-morning. I had arranged to help my neighbour Donnie take his ram from the ewes, and then he’d help me do the same with mine. We got them all in the trailer and moved them, with me travelling with them in style 🙂

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We put the rams together on another croft that I have started using – more on that in a few weeks. They’ll be happy there for a while & are easily accessible to keep an eye on and feed, right out on the main road!

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After this I caught up on tagging this year’s lambs. Lambs need to be tagged within 9 months of birth, so I tagged the last 5 today, as well as upgrading the slaughter tags in 5 I had bought. You can put a single slaughter tag in a lamb, which apparently markets & buyers prefer, but it means they have to be slaughtered within a year. The ones I bought will be 18 months before they’re slaughtered, so I need to upgrade. I just have 2 ram lambs to tag and that’s it all done. Hopefully I’ll do that on Tuesday.

The 24 lambs I have we’re drenched for fluke and then I moved them to Cross, the next village, where they’re on good grazing for the next month or so.

By this time, it’s getting dark. Back home and to the hen house to collect the day’s eggs and sort them. I now have 95 boxes of eggs ready to go. Anyone fancy some???

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In an unusual act for me, I am going to work tomorrow. I haven’t worked a Monday for a while, but the weather is rubbish and Tuesday looks a lot better. I think tomorrow will be my last day of the day-job this year. No rest for the wicked though, plenty to be getting on with over the next fortnight!

Good & bad

I’ve had such a hectic few months I’m now in Glasgow for the weekend, relaxing. My mind never drifts far from the croft, though.

I have a sense of satisfaction this weekend, I have made progress in the right areas and I am confident that the croft is going to provide a viable income.

Through the day job, I had to pop out to the dump in Stornoway, where I took the opportunity to ask a question about a subject that I’d been thinking of for a while; using old tyres as an animal shelter on the croft. My crofts are flat and offer little in terms of shelter from the wind, and this is a (hopefully) cheap way of doing it.

It was recommended that I contact SEPA though, as there may be an issue in terms of pollution. I did that and applied for a licence which now means I’ll be able to take old tyres from garages etc and create wind breaks with them for this winter.

I’ve also been working on the efficiency of the hen house. I think I’ve got my system in place for ensuring the maximum number of eggs remain clean (I can’t sell dirty ones in shops) and now all I have to do is get my lighting situation sorted and I’m good to go! I think I have finalised my labels too, so hope to get them finished shortly.

I’m on a week’s holiday from work now, so I’m getting round to sorting out all the wee jobs that I can’t get to in a normal week.

The one aspect of the hen house I have to improve is the mucking out; I spend too long moving wheelbarrowloads of it and end up reacting to the wood shavings I put down. This is how I combat it!

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One negative from this week was an apparent otter attack on one of my young ducks. I found it like this on Thursday night.

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I’ve lost a couple of birds to a buzzard attack in early 2013, but never any to ground predators. I’ll perhaps have to be more vigilant now.

Progress, progress, progress

I can’t wait for winter. There, I said it. This summer has been the busiest I’ve ever had; 320 hens, sheep, filming, football and a job are all catching up with me. I’m looking forward to getting into a routine and being able to focus on getting things running properly instead of getting them started.

I have 2 sheepdog filming trips in the next fortnight, the World Trial and International, while our football season ends next week with a cup final on Saturday night. That should mean a little more time to myself, once they’re done.

There has been so much happening here in the past 3 weeks and I haven’t been updating this as much as I should have, purely down to long long days.

The hens are settled and starting to lay their eggs. Buckie, the joiner, has built a fantastic hen house and decorated it in his own unique style.

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I’m currently getting around 20-50 eggs a day, a far cry from the 250 I need to fulfil orders. I hope to be in the position to sell eggs when I’m back from filming, probably week beginning 22nd September.

Buckie has also been busy getting the portacabin ready too. One of the rooms is where I’m going to have my egg packing station. It’s coming together nicely. Just about ready, just needing a clean.

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I also hope that I’ll be able to show you my egg box labels some time this week. Fingers crossed anyway!

I’ve also been fortunate in that I’m now using a barn on the croft next to mine. It has been particularly useful for storing feed and Buckie was also hard at work here, fitting large double doors that make it much more practical.

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I was at the lamb sale in Stornoway last Wednesday and ended up buying 17 sheep; 9 lambs and 8 ewes.

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I’ve since agreed to buy a few more ewes, so I’ll have to sell some lambs soon and maybe move on a few sheep. I have twice as much land this year, so I have plenty scope for expansion. I’m not sure my father will agree, though!

On that, I am putting sub-tenancies in place on the crofts I use. First up is my mother’s croft, which I received confirmation of this week.

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