Converting the polytunnel into a temporary chicken barracks seemed like a great idea when the avian flu prevention order was for 30 days only. I told the girls they'd be out by 6th January, and now ,thanks to outbreaks across the UK, their prison sentence has been extended to 28th February. I haven't told them this in the hope that their sense of time passing is not as highly developed as their sense of injustice.
By the end of week one they had stripped every shred of greenery from the rocket plant, flattened the chicken wire protecting the strawberries, flattened the strawberries, found a way under the netting protecting the over-wintering herbs & greens, eaten the spinach, covered the tat soi with soil, kicked over the chive pots and trampled the parsley. By the end of week three, one bed was peppered with dust bathing bomb craters and the top soil on most of the other beds was no longer in the beds but liberally distributed hither and thither. The girls spurn the carefully constructed roosts and reject the nest boxes transferred from their usual home, preferring to lay in the cat box and roost and poop on top of and all around it. The polytunnel is not a happy place.
Poultry forums and magazines are awash with suggestions for keeping your chickens entertained during this prolonged period of confinement. Hanging greens are ignored by my girls. They flung soil over the half apples I provided, but must have descended upon them the moment my back was turned for by tea time no trace of apple remained. Perhaps they buried them.This week I shall be testing their vanity by dangling shiny reflective CDs from the polytunnel crossbars. When they tire of those I'll wow them with the multi-coloured baler twine streamers. The transformation from polytunnel to poultry poop and play palace will be complete.
I wrote the above on Monday. On Tuesday I realised that all was not well with the flock. Whilst the girls were scratching about and eating as usual, closer inspection revealed tell tale signs of an outbreak of scaly leg mite. We've never encountered this in our seven years of having a small free ranging flock. Confinement to the drier environment and bare soil of the polytunnel must have provided perfect conditions for the mite to flourish. Not all the girls have been affected, but a couple have bad scale lifting, making their legs look enlarged, rough and white in colour instead of smooth and pale yellowy-brown. I'm furious that this is the result of trying to abide by the DEFRA orders, when plenty of chicken-keepers blithely make no attempt to separate their flock from wild birds despite outbreaks of avian flu that get closer and closer to home.
I don't want my chickens to catch avian flu and be the reason that my and my neighbours' chickens are culled by DEFRA, but neither do I want to compromise their health in any other way. We made the decision to return them to their run and house but to use the fruit netting as a temporary roof, propped up with a wonky washing line. I had specifically avoided doing this in the first place for fear of the garden birds becoming entangled - we've had to free angry, terrified blackbirds and robins on more than one occasion when the same netting protects the black and red currants in summer. I hope that perhaps the absence of the chicken feeder for over a month might have disrupted the routine of our garden birds. So far so good. So far still scaly.