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Hens back on track

Hens back on track

After the disappointment of our Orpingtons, we happened to meet an old friend who told us that she bought her chickens from Miranda do Corvo market (not far from us) and that they had a wide variety on sale. We had not been to this market before so we decided to give it a go and picked up some more chickens. A couple of weeks later we are really pleased. Although the seller wasn’t sure what breed he sold us, after a search on the internet we are fairly sure they are crosses between Rhode Island Reds and French Marans. Two of them are Bluebells – the Bluebell sisters and the other is now known as Rocky. We still have one Orpington – Bright eyes. And one of them has already been laying eggs for a few days – beautiful brown ones.

A bluebell sister


Meanwhile our two original hens have officially fully retired from laying duties.

And in the third pen the roasties and ducks are about ready for the chop. Once they can eat from the feeder while sitting on the ground definitely means they are ready!

roasties and ducks

Orpington blues

Orpington blues

It’s rare that we start a post with a heavy heart but here goes… I have been wanting to get some different breeds of hens for some time now. The standard brown ones are fine but they don’t lay for very long and they’re… well, standard brown. When we bought the chicken plucker a few weeks back the guy there told us of someone who breeds Orpingtons; one look at some photos and I was hooked. And not only do they look nice but they are also dual-purpose birds so suitable for eating too ie the male chicks aren’t going to be killed straight away as they don’t lay eggs.

Anyway, arriving at the place the first thing we realised was this was a private home not a commercial business. There wasn’t a chicken to be seen. The guy soon turned up in a large truck, he’s actually a builder by trade. He took us through and round the back and it’s clear he has a large, well-organised operation going on. There are various pens of breeding trios and seeing the birds for the first time we understood what they mean by ‘heavy-breeders’ – they are enormous. We were shown inside a room where the chicks are.  They are under a heat lamp. “You have a heat lamp?” Er no… He can’t tell which are males or females so that’s a no go. Another pen has older chicks, still under a heat lamp and still un-sexed. Thinking it was a wasted journey he took us round the back, past some very inquisitive goats, to some paddocks with small white marquees in. On opening one of the doors an assortment of hens flew out which he said were about 2 and a half to 3 months or so. I had really wanted the golden lace winged ones (as pictured above) but he only had one. So in the end we took that, a brown ‘chocolate’ one, a black one and a striking black lace winged one.

Just as we were leaving, hens all boxed up, he said that in fact these hens were all under a lamp too, there was a table in the middle and the lamp hung from under it. We were astonished, we have never used a lamp. And later we thought it was odd that he hadn’t let them out until we were there, it was well gone 3 and a hot day…

We took them home, popped them in their new coop and stood back. First days and first impressions were not so favourable. They seemed very dull and lacked interest in anything. Ah well, they looked nice. It soon became apparent that they were listless rather than docile. They ignored any of the ‘grown-up’ food preferring a mash of baby food and water. Despite the warm weather we worried they had not acclimatised to their new habitat but research confirmed that chickens do not need any type of heat lamp after 3 – 6 weeks, depending on the breed. Basically, once they have feathers they’re fine. These hens were all at least 10 weeks old!

One by one the hens were obviously not well and taken into a special box in the barn, a borrowed heat lamp installed. Only the black one, with her huge beady eyes, seemed fine. She took to perching immediately and was always the first one out in the morning, the others stayed sulking inside. The three died. We have gone through various emotions, animal welfare is very important to us, the very reason we want to have and look after our own is so they can have the best lives possible. We don’t know what happened really but we think that the change of environment was too much for them and they hadn’t built up any defences. They weighed nothing.

The remaining hen doesn’t want to be called Billy-no-mates so tomorrow we are going to buy her three friends. I hope they all get on. Orpingtons are known to be gentle and can be picked on by other hens, fingers and feathers crossed for her.

Not to end the post feeling down-hearted I must say that the garden is looking lovely in the May sunshine, it is alive with flowers and birds. The white lillies, already in the garden when we bought it, are just splendid next to the red bottle brush:

The rose, clematis and blue nigellas also look nice:

Along with the nightingales, robins, blackbirds, black caps and great tits the frogs add their voice, we must have at least 50 in the big pond right now:

And we have finally finished – hurrah! the painting of the blue around the courtyard:

So we are appreciative that we can eat all our meals outside in such nice surroundings, we are now looking forward to enjoying our own eggs once again.


November, nice

November, nice

It’s been a lovely November really. We’ve had some rain, some frost and some wind. But mostly we’ve had sunny days and quite mild nights. The wood burning stove went on for the first night on the 5th, appropriately, and always heralds the start of the chilly season and cozy evenings. But we’ve still been having lunch outside and the garden still feels a welcome place to spend some time.


Both in the countryside and the garden the autumnal colours are on full display, this robin (we have loads here) was checking up on me one afternoon:


Pomegranate and vines ablaze:


We’ve both been busy chopping, pruning, bonfire making, last of the jam-making, and planting. Another lot of daffodils and irises went in recently although previously planted bulbs are already peeking through. We just have three kiwis waiting to go in. It’s been great weather for pottering about in wellies. On one lovely countryside walk we managed to get the last of the medronhos (left), strawberry fruit, for some jam. I think these on the right are wild pistachios:


But frosts we have had. The veg patch had a silver sheen on it one morning:


I’m amazed how things survive. The broad beans had become frozen favas and only the smallest of the pea sprouts had been protected overnight, but neither have been affected by the frost.


Meanwhile the old broccoli from the spring planting, from which I’d only cut off the main heads, are giving us a second crop (left), slightly smaller but just as good. And the September plants have the first of their heads appearing:


So we’re eating these as well as leeks, jersualem artichokes (what the voles haven’t had), peppers (yes!), and different kinds of squash. I’m hoping the sprouts will be big enough for our Christmas dinner. The purple sprouting broccoli meanwhile is the best yet (ready in the spring) and the oranges are almost ready:


The main task for me this month has been dealing with the asparagus. Why oh why don’t the books tell you it will grow into a huge hedge where no light can penetrate. I really would have put them in a different place.  First task then was to cut the plants down and clear the bed of weeds:


I started to remove the soil around the plants carefully, using just a small and large fork but it soon became evident that the ‘simple’ task of edging them out, despite the recent rain, would be no such thing. I scraped and levered and tugged and coaxed the plants out. Nothing. I spent another thirty minutes doing the same thing. Nada. Eventually, I got one plant out; it had taken almost an hour. This was not going to work. In the end I got the spade and hacked at the plants and their enormous, tough, penetrating roots. I broke my favourite spade 🙁

Anyway, I got three out and placed them in their new bed. If they don’t work never mind as I still have another healthy, productive bed. But what a bother.


The garlic is in. In the last post I talked about mulching the beds. I just couldn’t face any weeding at all, there wasn’t a great deal as the bed for the garlic had already been mulched over the year (I decided to let that bed be fallow) but there were certainly some grasses and bindweed (my nemesis) that should’ve been pulled out. But no, I simply covered it with chicken feed paper sacks, made some holes and plonked the garlic in and then covered it with the grass Richard had strimmed and fallen leaves.  I have no idea if this will be all right, time will tell but a task that normally took a few hours was less than one. Green fingers crossed.


The main task for Richard this month (apart from the strimming) has been reducing the number of our roasties and ducks. All the ducks are now dead and there remain four, increasingly nervous, roasties.


A new thing for us, inspired by our road trip to France in May, was to make confit de canard. It was surprisingly easy to make and we’re looking forward to having that with some home grown veg.

While we’re on the fowl front the hens have been slow at laying. The one which moulted over the summer is looking fine and dandy, but the other two now seemed to have mistimed their feather dropping and are looking rather sorry for themselves and one has lost its tail.  They bullied the third one horribly so it serves them right. But none of them are producing eggs so it looks like we’ll have to get replacements in the spring… are you listening chooks?


So as we hunker down in front of the fire, chestnuts roasting, we hope that December will be as pleasant – well for us, less so for the roasties 🙂

Duck weather…

Duck weather…

…but the ducks are no longer with us to enjoy it.


Yes, Richard has been brandishing his sharp knife and, making the most of a sunny morning, did the deed. D-day for the ducks. One we have had already, friends from Paris popped by last weekend and we enjoyed roast duck and some of our buttercup squash. The other two are in the freezer and one will be on the table for Christmas. Richard has also dispatched two of the fat ‘roasties’, one which we had last night. Seven to go and then that’ll be it until next year. The duck experiment was definitely a success and we will get more now.

Meanwhile the rain, most days, is with us. Faithful readers may well remember that this time of the year we talk about the olive harvest. Well, if there’s one sure thing about living here it’s that there is no such thing as a sure thing. Our olive trees have no olives, nada. Either they fell off during the summer storms or, if they survived that, they rotted on their branches. Not just us of course, most of our neighbours have the same problem so the familiar sound of olive branches being bashed, the familiar sight of those large green nets on the ground and precarious ladders, and the familiar smell from the oil factories is not with us this year. We still have a little oil left over from last year but, for the first time since we arrived here 5 years ago, we’re going to have to buy some oil. Unthinkable! The vineyards roundabout have suffered the same fate so no vino for the locals to drown their sorrows either.


But, talking of roundabouts, there are swings too. The rain has come with mild temperatures which has fooled, yet again, nature. The bulbs are up and the wild iris have flowered. Our buddleia is looking lovelier than it ever has, and the bottle brush is blooming. There is blossom on some of the fruit trees. There is green, green grass.


Our new hens are no longer allowed on the patch of land where their hut is to allow the grass to grow. Richard has set up a tunnel system whereby they go into the next door field. That’s worked well. One has been moulting quite badly and lost its tail, it got very offended when we laughed at it.

chicksWe end on a slightly sad note though. This photo was taken exactly 4 years ago, our very first hens. Our new hens have no names but the first lot soon became known as Nervy, Pecky, Blind Betty and Brownie. They have all gone now, the last two this week. So the new hens are now just the hens. Long live the hens.

It’s the weather, stupid

It’s the weather, stupid

We are often asked, What’s the summer / winter like? Our answer is always, It varies from one year to the next. We have just passed our five year mark and it remains true: the seasons have been different every year. However, there has been one constant: September. A few off days maybe but in general hot and sunny, perfect for the seaside or river beach. But now even September has let us down. We drove off at the start of the month in rain (a short sojourn in Spain) and for the 5 days we’ve been back it’s rained and rained. Sometimes a downpour is followed by blue skies, other times there’s relentless greyness and drizzle. Ho hum. The grass is green, there are field mushrooms galore and the fat hairy one is enjoying the puddles again. There’s a distinct smell of autumn in the air, and we’ve not seen one plume of smoke from forest fires over the whole of the summer, a first for us.

And the veg patch? Well, September is pepper month for us. This year I planted 5 different types, safe in the knowledge they’ll do well come late summer. We did have, before the hols, some large green, and even red, bell peppers which were wonderful. They were large enough to stuff (the red ones with cubes of potatoes and feta in pesto sauce, mmm). We also had a couple of dishes of some new types. Visitors to Spain may well be familiar with a popular dish: pimientos de Padn. They’re smallish green peppers which taste wonderful fried in smoking olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt. However, their fame rests on the fact that occasionally one is fiery hot – and you can never tell which one is going to explode in your mouth! I was really chuffed with those.


The others, alas, are suffering from the rain. There’s another variety of sweet red peppers, some hungarian wax peppers and some fiery red hot chillies. I’m hoping as I type this, and listen to the heavy raindrops on the vine leaves outside the study window, the weather forecast holds true and there are some sunny days ahead. That means we’ll have some more peppers and I can make some roasted chilli oil.


Meanwhile, the Cheeky Charlie saga still continues! We came back from (sunnier) Spain to discover the nice Kiwi couple who looked after our house and animals had caught him (her) and put him with the 4 new hens. Unfortunately, we got to see first hand how horrid chooks are to newcomers. Poor old Charlie was stood on and his neck, always featherless, was bled from being pecked. (It’s dog eat dog in the chicken world, as Richard would say). So I put him back in the old pig pen and made a fine hideaway in the field to encourage him to stay and not jump out and into the brambles. This did not work. He wasn’t interested in the brambles anymore, he wanted to be out and about.

charlieSo right now he’s in the third, spare hen field, next to both sets of hens for company but protected from them. He still jumps out at night into the 4 hens patch (while, they’re tucked away) but he seems ‘happy’ in his new field which has plenty of brambles growing through and plants for coverage. I have no idea why I spend so much time fretting about him when he should have been killed and with his old mates in the freezer. There’s something about his audaciousness and pluck (ha ha) which was lacking in the other ‘roasties’. I’m sure we’ll have Cheeky Charlie chicken casserole one day…

The birds, the birds… and foxy

The birds, the birds… and foxy

The birds 1 First up the chooks. Well, we are really pleased that at least one of the new hens we bought back in September is now laying. Not the biggest of eggs but small and perfectly formed. The remaining hens (now called the old hens) are trying to make amends for their past poor performance and recently we’ve had 3 eggs a day from them.


They’re a little miffed at the mo. The new hens have been taken from their original patch and put in a new one, full of luscious green grass. The old ones are left to dig around in the dirt having eaten every blade and scratched up every root.

The birds 2 January is always a good month for bird watching from our living room windows. It’s not uncommon to see 15 different kinds of birds at one time, mostly the various finches on and under the feeder, but also warblers, pipits and wrens. For some reason the tits have turned their beaks up at the fat balls we put out but the great tits are happy with the seed.


A first for us here at Casa Azul was a short-toed tree creeper doing it’s thing around the olive trunks. And we were really surprised to see a hoopoe preening itself in the plum trees, they’re summer visitors and shouldn’t be here until April.

Foxy We treated ourselves recently to a wildlife camera, one of those that takes photos and videos when something walks past. I’d chosen what I thought was a good spot, opposite some kind of underground nest, but nothing. So after a few weeks chose a different spot where it looked like animals had passed. Success! One night the shot of a passing tail and then a short film of a curious fox. Just keep away from the chooks, foxy!


And then there were three…

And then there were three…

We bought our chickens almost two years ago for a couple of euros each. We decided that three would be enough but got four because we were sure that they wouldn’t all make it. Since then four healthy chickens have given us 1750 eggs and, of course, we’ve become a little attached to our galinhas (as did my Dad!). We’ve also got used to their clucking after they’ve laid an egg and turned a deaf ear to their complaining from the bramble bushes when it’s been too hot. But yesterday afternoon one of them was making a right racket – not usual at all. She was in the connecting field to the one where their house is and calmed down a bit when I came out; I didn’t worry too much that I could only see three. But when she carried on squawking after I left we decided something was up. Richard went into the field and sadly, under the brambles, he found a headless chicken. No wonder there was so much noise, she hadn’t wanted to pass her sister to get back home. We now noticed the feathers everywhere and I hoped she’d been attacked quickly.

This morning the remaining three were rather reticent to leave their caged run let alone go into the next door field, something they usually do first thing. What to do? We decided that the third field, empty now except for a house and run because the ‘roasties’ had all been dispatched, would be the perfect option. It doesn’t connect to the exterior stone wall, it’s a little nearer the house, and the olive tree gives good shade. So that was all cleaned and re-strawed and the hens found themselves a new home.

So what was it? Not a fox, it would have killed all four and there would’ve been more carnage. Richard reckons an Egyptian mongoose (we’ve seen them here) or some kind of weasel. No doubt it’ll be back for a second helping of hen head but right now they’re locked away (with much complaining) and will be earlier in the day now until, I hope, the enemy gives up. RIP Pecky!

Here comes the summer!

Here comes the summer!

Walking into the courtyard the heat hits you and there’s no relief to be found under our shelter – it’s reading 35C in the shade. The hens have disappeared deep into the brambles (you can just hear the occasional moaning cluck), the roasties are inside their hut with their beaks permanently resting in their drinking water (which has been put inside for the mo) and the dogs are not even bothering me for a run; they have collapsed on the tiled floor, legs akimbo and slightly snoring. Our bees like drinking from the pond’s edge (careful where you stand while looking for the frog!) and there are now bricks in the dogs’ outside bowl as mice and shrew keep drowning in it overnight. The wild birds are also grateful for the pond and start their morning with a splash.

And the pigs? Well, they love their mid-afternoon bathing session:

Meanwhile the raspberries are giving us a bumper harvest, a perfect afternoon for making ice cream!



End of May, beginning of June is the most colourful time of year at Casa Azul. The flowers are having a last hurrah before the heat of the summer kills everything. Strangely enough roses are really popular round these parts and everyone seems to have at least one in their garden. We are no different and they look great at the moment.

We have also been cultivating some wonderful bright yellow flowers – I believe they are called dandelions. Here they are in all their glory before they were strimmed to death.

The long hot summer is great for lavender though and we have plenty of it. We had a bit of a worry with piggy number one recently – she had a nasty abscess on her neck. When it burst it was even worse. I’ll spare you the details. I had to rub in some cream and attempt to keep it relatively clean which wasn’t the easiest of things to do but it seems to have healed remarkably quickly. Apparently they are quite common but I don’t fancy nursing the pigs through any more.

On the roastie front, the last lot have met their maker and we’ve already had the first for supper. Needless to say it was really delicious. I look forward to the rest of them. We don’t hang about though. No sooner had one lot been dispatched than we got another lot. They’ll be ready in a couple of months.

November newsround

November newsround

A mild, if not rather wet, autumn so far. Everything’s getter greener and taller, a bit like spring really without the flowers. Some evenings there has been a beautiful light and pink or yellowy grey clouds depending if it’s going to be sunny or rainy the next day. Richard’s away in the Isle of Man so I’m here defending the fort, or rather the farm, alone. Meanwhile, here’s a round up of casa azul news.

Veg etc
I have to admit to being a rather fairweather gardener, although I don’t mind digging in the frost on a cold but sunny day I really don’t like working in the wet – who does? So I’ve only just pulled up and cleared the last of the tom beds, this included removing the nasturtiums which we’re growing well but I’ve now got masses of enormous nasturtium buds which will be turned into poor man’s capers. The asparagus have turned a beautiful bronzey yellow, these are soon to be cut back and mulched along with the raspberries.

In the polytunnel there are lots of wild flowers coming up (from seed collected throughout the year) plus yet more edibles – mainly brassicas. These will go in soon, and tomorrow more onions are being planted and, at long last, I’ve got the garlic.

I’ve also got plenty of rocket growing, this has just never worked in the heat so it’s fingers crossed for a winter attempt. Lettuce seems to thrive in the cold, and isn’t affected by the frost, so I’m hoping rocket will too.

Elsewhere in the garden mushrooms are supplementing our diet. I don’t know if you read the account of Nicholas Evans and his mushroom fiasco in the guardian but it makes fascinating and sobering reading.

The ones on the left have opened and are now huge, tempting grub but am definitely sticking to the field mushrooms.

I don’t know if it was beginner’s luck but last year the sprouts grew without any bother, I hardly did anything with them. This year, alas, they’ve been plagued with grey aphids and some of the heads didn’t open properly, and a few of the stalks are massive with enormous leaves but few sprouts. I also spotted the other day that one of the stalks was completely inundated with caterpillars – how come I never saw them before? I counted at least 30 chomping caterpillars, and the one on the left was found the french tarragon.

So what to do with a box of bugs? The hens love snails and giant slugs so decided it would be an early Christmas present…

The chickens
The hens aren’t quite up to their full laying capacity, 2 or 3 a day but that’s fine. They’re slightly sulking now because our plan to keep them off the growing grass, well weeds, is working well and their plot (which looks like something from the WW1)  is surrounded by green. Once the roasties are dispatched the hens will go over there, and their mud bath of a plot can have a chance to regrow.

Along with the fact they they realise that the grass is greener on the other side one of them is moulting and looks very funny without a tail.

So I was hoping that my gift of grubs would cheer them up. I tossed the caterpillars on the ground, the hens came dashing forward and then stopped in their tracks and squawked loudly. They eyed the crawling mass with trepidation and then, with beaks in the air, walked off. They weren’t interested at all! I covered the caterpillars with corn but the hens simply ate the corn and left the caterpillars. As these were all now gallivanting off in different directions I ended up having to stand on them all. So much for good intentions. At least the lettuce and purple sprouting broccoli leaves keeps them happy.

Meanwhile the roasties have been let out and are enjoying the grass and opportunity to stretch their wings. They are the biggest, fattest birds I have ever seen and Richard’s number one task on returning is to sharpen the knife. I swear when they walk the earth trembles.

The wild boar
One of the nice things about being in the countryside of course is that we are surrounded by nature. In this part of Portugal that includes the javali – wild boar. Up until recently I have enjoyed the fact that they come to the neighbours’ fields but now the beggars have trotted into our garden. Before Richard left we were given loads of prickly pears and agaves to plant in our garden and I wasn’t best pleased to see that most of these had either been knocked over, dug up (some dragged into bushes), and, it seems, eaten. After the second visit I’ve had to block the entrances to our garden with cut down olive branches, a temporary measure. Richard’s number two task on returning is to get the saw and hammer out.

Before and after replanting, can you see the teeth marks?!

So that’s it for now. The bees are still buzzing, I think they were disappointed that the nasturtiums were cut down. And, of course, I’m not really alone. The hairy one continues to prove she’s Portuguese, having eaten many of the olives she delights in munching walnuts and looks longingly at the roasting chestnuts on the fire. Which reminds me, time to get the wood burning stove going and have a glass of something. Cheers!