Lifestylers engage in fowl pursuits

21:01, May 28 2013
Rebecca McEwen
POULTRY ENTHUSIAST: Rebecca McEwen with her blue and black orpingtons on her lifestyle block where she breeds heritage poultry.

Rebecca McEwen has barnevelders, silver birchen pekins, blue and black orpingtons and a few other breeds of chook.

They're attractive birds and she and her husband David McEwen have 50 on their 0.4-hectare block of land just north of Marton.

Some are in chook pens and some are free ranging in the paddocks. Some are in small free-range plots.

"We keep them all separate, because the hens are with roosters we want them to mate with," Rebecca McEwen says.

So it is all about getting the genetics right.

The farmlet has silver birchen pekins which are small, light, fluffy-footed hens and there are two roosters running with them. They're classed as a bantam.


Then there are the barnevelders, an in-between or medium-sized heavy breed.

There are two young black orpington roosters, still to develop all their long-tail feathers.

And in the paddock are orpingtons which are a heavy breed - big and powerful.

It's a ‘dual purpose' breed, which means it is suitable for egg production and meat, says Rebecca.

She says all the hens are kept for eggs and they also sell a few heritage hen breeds.

Rebecca says they would like to show some of their breeds.

The roosters they don't keep for breeding end up being fattened for the pot.

When the eggs are hatched, depending on the split, about half are pullets and half are roosters.

The McEwens can generally sort the gender of a chicken at three weeks.

They can pick out subtle differences between breeds.

"The cockerels develop faster. They get bigger and grow a comb and wattles more quickly than the pullets."

As the days shorten hens lay fewer eggs and during the time they moult (drop feathers each year) they don't lay, Rebecca says.

"During autumn the hen will moult. This is her body's way of replenishing itself and getting ready for the time she's laying eggs. Egg-laying actually takes a lot out of a hen, so she needs a rest."

In commercial operations hens are kept only for about 18 months. They lay the most eggs in their first season. After that the number of eggs laid falls slightly. But it is too late for many hens.

"In an ideal world you'd only run the roosters with the hens for long enough for them to have fertile eggs, then the rooster would come out. If he is left there, he keeps trying to fertilise the hens."

Anyone who has seen a rooster continually mounting hens, which are trying to escape it, knows what this means.

If she can, Rebecca tucks fertile eggs under a ‘clucky' chook (one continually sitting on a nest).

"The worry is that hen may stop being clucky halfway through sitting on the fertile eggs. If that happens, and there is no room in the incubators, you hope there's another clucky chook, and you can put the eggs under her."

The McEwens have two incubators, but like the hens they're a bit temperamental.

A fertile egg takes 21 days to hatch.

Rebecca says she starts collecting fertile eggs in spring and divides them between clucky chooks and the incubators.

She takes me to check the blue and black orpingtons which are free ranging in a paddock, with Bella the sheep and her two ewe lambs from last year.

Rebecca takes bread to attract the orpingtons, but Bella the sheep is keen and chases some of the chooks out so she can munch on the bread in peace.

She also loves marshmallows, and when Rebecca had some to toast Bella was snuffling at the ones in her pocket.  Bella went to visit the ram down the road, and hopefully she's in-lamb again, due in early August. 

Rebecca says she started keeping hens about 10 years ago when she was living in Bulls, then six-and-a-half years ago the McEwens moved to Marton and the lifestyle block.  She got more hens, as she had more room.

And she wanted to run something that didn't take up too much room - a cattle beast would need most of the 0.4ha.  That was the beginning of the chook breeding. 

"People interested in heritage breeds rely on breeders throughout the country for their fancy breeds."  Rebecca is a member of the 30-strong Wanganui Poultry Club. 

"Some are breeders and others are people with just a few chooks in their backyard for eggs and pets and want to learn more." 

She talks about the 50 hens and the few roosters she has. 

"They all have their own personalities.  "They're like sheep - most farmers have big flocks and don't see it. But if you have a few, you see that." 

She says that having had free-range eggs, she's never going back. 

"Nothing beats the taste of a fresh egg. And I'd never go back to store-bought eggs."  

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