Brian Viner: Country Life

'My face was all but obliterated by a gooey mess. It was not comforting that Robert Mugabe had suffered similarly'
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The Independent Online

It must be five years since I picked up a forlorn-looking hitchhiker on the A44 who sniffed the air in the Volvo and asked whether I was a chicken farmer. We hadn't been living in the country for long, so it was nice to know that I was already fitting in, smell-wise. I wasn't offended at being mistaken for a man with 10,000 or so chickens, even though we only had four. It made me feel, for the first time, like a horny-handed son of the soil.

Last week, however, came the latest reminder that I am anything but. I read some poultry-keeping tips in a newspaper and realised that we've been doing it all wrong. For the past year or so, ever since I was told by someone that corn supplemented with kitchen scraps offers chickens a perfectly balanced diet, we have been scraping our leftovers into a box known to the family as "the chicken bin". Jane or I – or occasionally, rather grudgingly, one of the children – would then tramp up to the orchard with the chicken bin and watch our flock – currently 13-strong – tucking with obvious delight into yesterday's cauliflower cheese, mashed potato or whatever.

As a recycling scheme, this pleased me greatly. Little food was wasted and the chickens were happy. Only gradually did it dawn on us that egg productivity had reached an all-time low. Our flock take the winter off, but by the end of March we would normally expect five or six eggs a day. We were getting less than that a week. Then I read the piece, which said that kitchen scraps should be kept to a bare minimum, that poultry get all the sustenance they need from fresh water and corn, perhaps boosted by layers' pellets. So the chicken bin has been binned, egg production is back on track, and the children get yesterday's cauliflower cheese.

The article also recommended that coops should be mucked out regularly, because chickens have sensitive respiratory systems and prolonged exposure to the whiff of their own poo can kill them. This, I'm embarrassed to admit, rather explains the recent mysterious deaths of a Warren and a White Sussex. Not that we don't muck out, but it seems we need to do it more often. So we decided to start lining the coop with newspaper, making the mucking-out process a more straightforward business. Traditional broadsheets turned out to be singularly useless as a means of lining the coop, being so large and unwieldy. In this regard (and, I like to think, in a good deal of others) the more compact Independent proves its superiority. It is exactly the right size for the roosting platform.

Unfortunately, for those of us whose mugshots appear on these pages, this means that mucking out the chickens can now be a dispiriting affair. It was my turn yesterday, and I found that Jane – not on purpose, she insists – had used one of my sports interviews in precisely the part of the coop where, not to put too fine a point on it, the chickens crap the most. My face was all but obliterated by a gooey browny-yellow mess, and it was not at all comforting to see that Robert Mugabe had suffered a similar indignity.

Anyway, once I'd got over my indignation, I tore up the newspaper and transferred it to the compost intended for the vegetable garden; at least I know that my defaced mugshot will, in a sense, contribute to the well-being of our runner beans this summer. On the other hand, I have been made to feel, by a charming new book, that perhaps I am not being as creative as I might be with animal droppings.

In Nature's Playthings (published by Merlin Unwin Books of Ludlow, priced £16.99) a grandmother called Alison Wilson Smith recalls how she and her childhood friends spent the 1940s deriving endless entertainment from the fields and the hedgerows, without any need for the Nintendo Wii. She explains how to make grass whistles, quill pens and even itching powder out of rose hips. But best of all, she advises that a cowpat that has dried in a perfect circle makes a fantastic frisbee.

I've duly told my kids that if I don't soon see them playing cowpat frisbee in the next-door field, they can start mucking out the chickens.