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 began 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. They joined the main flock in summer and we sold a couple of the cockerels to other local keepers who were impressed with the quality of our birds.
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.