Shore is the good life
When Olivia and Graham Uney moved to a remote Scottish island, they wanted to keep some chickens as part of a new, self-sufficient lifestyle. It has been such a success that they are thinking of getting some more
When my husband and I moved to Canna, we’d decided we’d keep a few hens before we even arrived. Ultimately we want to be as self-sufficient as we can - getting supplies to this tiny, remote island just off the west coast of Scotland isn’t easy: there are no shops or roads, and any goods come over on the ferry, which runs just three or four times a week.
‘What are we going to call them?’ was the big question, and, after much debate, we decided to call them after the characters in one of Eddie Izzard’s bizarre comedy routines. And so our four Rhode Rock Blacks arrived amid much excitement to discover that they were called Agatha, Tabitha, Bagatha and James Mason.
The first problem was actually getting the chickens to Canna. We’d ordered four pullets from a breeder on our neighbouring island of Skye, which meant a bit of a rotten day for them – about six hours in a cardboard box and two ferry journeys. But they survived OK, and were clearly glad to arrive at the luxury of their bright-blue-painted mansion.
At first they were very ‘clingy’. When let out in the mornings they’d come out and hang around as long as I was there, but as soon as I went indoors they retreated to the safety of their own little house. Gradually, though, they got braver, and though they’re still very responsive to human contact – all you have to do is go outside and start talking to them (even if you can’t see them) and they start crooning back, and invariably come to see what you’re doing – they now disappear out of the garden quite regularly
We were a bit worried at first that, having such free rein (technically they could go absolutely anywhere on Canna if they so wished), they might simply abscond and join our neighbours’ hens – both Murdo and Winnie have flocks. Murdo’s are confined to his garden, but Winnie’s roam freely all around her house, from shore to the hills behind.
This was what we wanted for ours – hens feeding themselves on seaweed and tasty titbits from the shore as well as beetles and bugs from the meadows and machair. Plus, of course, expensive layers’ pellets and grain in their own garden!
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Anyway, we needn’t have worried – so far, they’ve come home to their own house every night. Even when it was moved around the bay to another neighbour’s garden while we went on holiday, and they ended up free-ranging a completely different bit of seashore and hills, they still knew where to go to bed at night.
While most chicken owners have to worry about things like rats and foxes, it’s a bit different on Canna. There aren’t any mammalian predators: no, the threat to our chooks comes from the skies. It’s now autumn and the juvenile white-tailed eagles have left the nest, and can often be found hanging around our house. The hens would be easy prey for them, so it is a bit of a concern. We’ve not heard of a hen being taken yet, but Winnie tells us she lost a Muscovy duck to an eagle once.
Also, the weather can be very wild, wet and windy on Canna, so we built the hens a shanty-town-style shelter next to their house, using a piece of corrugated iron, some old fish crates and some big, heavy rocks (you have to make do with what you can find on an island like this!) and though it doesn’t look great, they really seem to appreciate it when a hard rain sets in. Otherwise, these hardy little hens don’t really seem to mind the weather at all – they’re usually out with their feathers blowing in the wind, pecking and scratching, no matter what it’s doing.
There was great excitement when we got our first egg and, from then on, it seemed like the dam was broken and there was no stopping them. It doesn’t seem to have given James Mason much of a complex, having a bloke’s name – she was the second to start laying. We’re now getting four a day and they all very conveniently lay in the same box in the hen house – so no scrabbling around under bushes or searching the fields behind the house to find stray eggs (at least not yet).
Our hens are friendly, entertaining creatures and our only complaint is that they insist on sleeping in the egg boxes and filling them up with poo! But we’re told that’s just because they’re young and they’ll grow out of it. Essentially we’re so pleased with them, we’re thinking of getting some more.