This afternoon I let the hens out for a run. This was more momentous than it sounds, since it was the first time we'd let the new Speckeldies out of their enclosure. I'm not entirely sure how that happened. I know we didn't set out with any intention of not free ranging the new hens, and it goes to show how a situation can creep up on you by degrees.
We got the new little chickens only a short time before getting the new kittens in May, and at that stage they were far too small and too timid to risk letting them out into the garden. Then we were very busy with the kittens, or perhaps the kittens were more appealing and the new hens did not command the attention they would have otherwise. My last cold lingered on well into May, while the foxes grew ever bolder, sauntering past the front door well before the stage of the evening when the hens would have gone back into their run. Although the fox menace is always there when you keep chickens it peaks in June and July when the vixens have cubs and are desperate to feed them. I don't know why we didn't let the hens out in August, except that by then we'd got into the habit of not letting them out, then in September we were about to go on holiday and it seemed mean to dangle the prospect of freedom in front of them then snatch it away again. Since then I've been meaning to start releasing them while being so busy around the garden that I've kept putting it off.
But yesterday as I saw them staring at the grass on the other side of the wire I thought I really must let them out. They don't need to be out all day, but a couple of hours of scratching around unearthing things to eat and nibbling on leaves cheers them up. I warned the Systems Administrator that I planned to release them, so that it would not come as a shock if it got to dusk and I had to confess that I'd let the hens out and lost one of them. I hoped the kittens would not bother them, but the SA was sure that the kittens would be fine.
The old lady Maran was out of the pop hole like a racehorse on the starting line at Newmarket, followed by one of the little hens. I can't honestly tell the Speckeldies apart now they've grown, apart from one who is more silver than the others, so I don't know if it was the Maran's original partner in crime or if one of the youngsters was particularly outgoing. The others took a while to summon the courage to venture beyond the run, and stood for a time pecking grass through the pop hole, but they came out eventually. And Mr Fidget and Mr Cool turned up.
Mr Fidget and Mr Cool thought that having the hens running around the front garden was the most amazing thing they had seen since the first time they saw Our Ginger. Unfortunately I could not tell whether their intentions towards the hens were pure. How do you tell whether a fit young cat, that is slinking along on his belly stalking a hen, merely wants to look at it or is timing his moment to jump on it and bite the back of its skull? I did not know whether the cats could kill a hen in a single leap before I could intervene. I did not know whether the hen would react to any aggression from the cat by giving it a good kicking. I did not want any accidents involving scratched eyes. All of our previous cats gave the chickens a wide berth, but thinking back to when the last cats were first introduced to the hens we had a rooster at that point, so they learned respect early. The anxious tabby weighed a stone at his peak and was so long he could stand on his hind legs and rest his chin on the dining table, and I have seen him run away from a broody hen. But Mr Fidget and Mr Cool seemed altogether too interested.
I had to stop putting the dahlia pots away in the greenhouse to watch the livestock. The hens did not seem at all concerned about the cats. Were they better at gauging the situation than I was, or was it simply that they had not been attacked so far and hens are not very imaginative? The smallest hen managed to wander away from the others, and as Mr Fidget crept up on her from one direction while Mr Cool took a detour round the pond to sneak towards her from the other, my nerve cracked and I scooped up Mr Fidget and shut him in the house, warning the SA that I was shutting the cat in because I was worried about their attitude to the hens.
The old lady Maran and her little mate went and scratched around in the back garden, so then I had two lots of chickens to keep an eye on together with the dubious attentions of Mr Cool. Eventually I managed to catch Mr Cool, and shut him indoors as well. Finally I persuaded the breakaway party in the back garden to rejoin the main body of hens in the front, and after that we all had quite a nice time until it got late enough for me to chivy them back into the run. Mr Fluffy showed up before they'd gone inside, but he was not interested in the hens at all and sat on the drain cover by the front door. We discovered later he'd lost a mouse down there.
I did not like to drag the SA out to help with the chickens, because letting them out was my idea and it was very chilly and the SA has a chest cold and was trying to keep warm. So the SA did not see the kittens in full hen stalking mode, and was inclined to think that they were simply fascinated by the chickens and would not actually attack them. I suppose the kittens are used to seeing the hens in their enclosure, while all other creatures they encounter in the garden run away from them, so free ranging chickens was a huge novelty. But I don't trust them, especially Mr Fidget who we know has progressed to killing adult rats and who tried to chase the Airedale off when it came calling, until it chased him.