Here, there, everywhere when you want them in one basket

Eggs in the hedge, in the woolshed, in the mint patch; eggs on a shelf in the garage, down the driveway, in the coppice: we're sick of our hens running wild and laying everywhere but the henhouse.

So recently I decided I would remind them of what they ought to be doing.

The trick to getting eggs from free-range hens is to shut them in at night and let them out around lunchtime, once they've laid. But there are two problems with that if you work.

The first is that you aren't home at lunchtime to let them out. You have to do it before work and they can still scatter around the property to lay. The second is that by the time you get home after work, especially in the winter, they've already gone to their roost, and it's seldom in the henhouse. Ours like to perch on the branches of the century-old macrocarpas that shelter their paddock. They cling on up there through howling gales and driving rain, like battered Christmas decorations.

But it was the weekend, and I was home to lure them in with a tasty supper and shut the door. All went to plan and I was making mental breakfast omelettes with the eggs I planned to get in the morning, when I heard a loud cheeping. A chicken.

The trouble with tracking cheeping chicks is that when you get close to them, they go quiet. However, this one hadn't read the rule book. It carried on cheeping as I approached, then, as I was about to pounce, it ducked under the fence and into the coppice, dodging frantically through the trees.

The chick was obviously on a mission but I couldn't leave it alone in the big wide world, so I chased after it. But the tiny fluff ball was quicker than me as I lumbered around the tree trunks until it made one false move and toppled over a tiny bank into a pile of leaf litter.

"Gotcha!" I thought as I bent down to grab it. It wasn't anywhere to be seen. The sky had darkened and rain started to fall on my back as I searched fruitlessly for what felt like ages.

Eventually I gave up and retreated soggily to the henhouse to look for its mother, so I could let her out to babysit. No luck there either.

But just as I was giving up hope, I heard another cheep from the coppice. Back across the paddock and over the fence I went and there was the chick, shivering, waterlogged and waiting for salvation beside the bank.

In the end I tucked it under a broody hen for the night, where it would be warm and dry. I got pecked for my trouble, but she guarded the wee thing safely until the morning, when it was reunited with its mother.

And I collected half a dozen lovely fresh eggs at breakfast time.



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