The first animals we ever bought for Lalande were three lovely chickens called Myrtle, Clothilda and Pertelote. They were Rhode Island Reds and lived in a little blue hen house in our orchard. All three were excellent layers and we doted on them.
A couple of years later we lost Clothilda to a buzzard attack, and the chateau inhabitants went into mourning. I was worried that it would happen again, leaving only one lonely chicken, so we bought a couple of Berrichon chickens to join our ladies.
We lost two more to a ferret who was able to scale the stone walls of our walled garden, which contains the orchard. I realised then that, short of putting them in a covered pen, I had no way of protecting them, so they may as well be completely free range. So now they live in an outbuilding in our stable courtyard, and can be seen wandering all over the grounds. They always look tremendously busy.
Then one day, in England, I saw an advertisement for some fertilised blue chicken eggs. The shells were so pretty and I thought the colour would match our kitchen perfectly! So I bought them and brought them to Lalande by car, where they went straight into an incubator. A few weeks later we had the prettiest cream Legbar chicks and within months were eating our very own blue eggs.
The only downside was that the introduction of chicks meant…cockerels! Up until this point we’d been happily running a chicken nunnery, with no fertilised eggs. Now we had too many cockerels, and the possibility of being overrun by chickens if we didn’t find all their fiendishly clever nesting sites! For a while all was well and we were eating eggs as fast as we could find them (we eat an insane amount of eggs in this house). We gave a few cockerels away and had a well balanced flock, when tragedy struck. A ferret (we think) took one chicken every few days until only Mr Darcy and Myrtle were left alive. Admittedly, she was not the original Myrtle. By this time we’d had chickens for over 10 years, and I can’t remember what number Myrtle she was. Because we have a strict rule here – there must always be a Myrtle chicken at Lalande. This is in memory of my English grandfather, Alfred Jarvis, who kept chickens in the tiny garden of his London house. Myrtle was his favourite and would often wander into the house.
I was desolate and stared dolefully at the last five remaining eggs from our poor departed friends. And then I remembered the incubator! I couldn’t bring them back to life, but if their eggs were fertilised I could possibly give life to their children! We put the five precious eggs into the incubator and clucked over them for weeks, barely hoping that it would work. And finally, just before Easter last year (2018), one of the shells started to crack! We couldn’t drag ourselves away from it, and a few hours later, in the middle of the night, an adorable black chick appeared. We called her Catwoman, as she was dressed in black and full of energy. The following day, a yellow ball of fluff called Spud joined her.
Then the last of the gang burst out of her shell. We named her Ludwiga after my then boyfriend, Ludwig, who’d cared for those eggs more devotedly than any chicken could have!
They lived under a heat lamp in my bathroom, and every day Ludwig and I would take them for increasingly longer walks in the garden, until they were soon running after insects and scratching in the ground and gaining independence.
It was at this stage that I realised that Myrtle had started sitting on her own eggs! Presumably spurred on by the same urge to save the flock that had made us use the incubator. And so our three chicks were joined by The Jackson Five. Numbers were healthy again.
As they grew, it became clear that we’d misnamed our chicks. Catwoman and Ludwiga are magnificent cockerels, and Spud is female, but their names have stuck. Ludwig and I split up amicably, but as he left I got the strong impression that he was going to miss his babies the most…
And the latest breaking news? One of The Jackson Five (we never were able to tell them apart) is sitting on a nest of gorgeous blue eggs!