Chicken Run

12 Apr

Have you ever been in the same room as 2,000 chickens? You probably haven’t; I would count yourself lucky. It is a terrifying experience.

At Overlangshaw farm in the Scottish borders, where I spent 3 weeks in February, I got my first experience with dairy and chicken farming. The first thing I noticed when Bridget and I arrived at our second WWOOF spot was the view. It was one of the most stunning views I have ever seen, and I got to watch the sun rise and set over the magnificent vista everyday for 3 weeks. Every day the sky was different- filled with unique beauty. It was one of those sights that seemed to make everything better and always filled me with an intense feeling of peace.

lovely.

lovely.

After traveling with my dear friend Bridget for a little over a month and sharing most of our time and space together, our relationship was a wee bit fragile. Eventually everyone has to learn how to be in a relationship of any kind. Traveling tends to put a lot of extra stress on any relationship, as Bridget and I quickly discovered. All of our suppressed emotions came to a boiling point that first day at Overlangshaw and right in the middle of collecting some 2,000 eggs we had our first ever row. I am the kind of person who tends to shriek a bit when I am upset while Bridget is very good at remaining calm and manages to still sound human during heated arguments. Had anyone overheard our argument I am sure it would have been tremendously comical.  Both of us needed that fight. Although it was unwise to hold in all of our irritation for so long, at least we eventually we managed to air our grievances. After several hours of cold silence pierced only with curt, formal words things went back to normal and for the rest of that stint of our journey we had a tremendous amount of fun together.

We got up every morning just before sunset and after a hurried breakfast we went out to greet the day and our new best friends: the calves. Our first job of the day was to give the 8 (eventually 10) calves their breakfast. I fell instantly in love. Each one had their own distinct personality. Several of them were actually complete jerks and we did not get along, but there were three that were just wonderful. I felt so supremely lucky to start and end my day with some of the world’s cutest/sweetest animals.

the perfect one

the perfect one

After the awesomeness of baby cows our morning took a slight downturn. It was chicken time. First we had to open the chicken houses. There were 2, each the home for 2,000 chickens. When I opened them up a wave of hot, stinky air would wash over me. Next up: egg packing. A conveyor belt would pick up all the eggs, so all we had to do was pick ’em up, clean the crap off  ’em, stamp ’em and box ’em. After a while we got pretty quick and stopped breaking quite so many. It was then that the truly awful part of the day commenced: checking the hen house. Twice a day one of us had to enter the hen house and walk all around it to make sure everything was fine. It was like something out of a horror film. Try to picture a dark, long room, reeking of chicken shit and hot poultry (to a degree in which breathing is difficult). Imagine that you can barely walk what with all the birds crowding around you, pecking and your clothes and when you finally reach the end, you realize you have to turn around and go all the way back… Despite the immediate awfulness, I must admit that I always felt super bad ass when it was over and ultimately I am very appreciative of the whole experience. But now the awful story and the experience that slightly scarred me.

similar to what I experienced

similar to what I experienced

It was not uncommon to come across a lone dead chicken and I could deal with them without bating an eye lid, but there was one morning, near the end of our stay, when I was in checking on the hens and I turned a corner and what did I find? Not one dead chicken, not even two, I was luck enough to stumble upon 154 dead chickens. That is how I learned about chicken smothering. Chickens are very skittish creatures and the littlest thing can send them into a mass of frenzy. In this case they had run out of food, a fact that Bridget and I had failed to pick up on . When something sets them off they basically just huddle into a corner until they smother each other to death. I now have the deaths of 154 chickens weighing me down. Bridget and I both felt sick, sure we didn’t really know what we were doing and no one actually blamed us, but it felt almost like we outright killed them. I think I will forever be extra nice to chickens.

Moving on to nicer things…

best job ever

best job ever

The middle of the day was very unstructured. From 10 until 5 we rarely had much to do. Usually we would make second breakfast, my new favorite meal and then we would watch some tv and bake cakes. We were always asking for jobs, but usually there wasn’t much for us to do, until we found our calling: ice cream making assistants.  We made vanilla ice cream, chocolate ice cream, cheese cake ice cream, maple walnut ice cream, mocha porter ice cream and much much more. Every batch was made with organic milk and eggs from the farm. It was the best ice cream I have ever had and I got to eat bowls and bowls of it every day! If you ever want to gain some weight I recommend eating second breakfast and eating ice cream everyday.

I won’t put this at the top of my WWOOF experiences, but as general experiences go, it was up there. Bridget and I laughed so much that our stomach muscles got sore. We got to live in a place over looking valleys and mountains with incredible sunsets. We learned a hell of a lot about chickens and how not to kill them. And finally we met some really cool farmers and gained a whole world of new experiences.

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Our faithful egg carrier, Landy

Finally, A big thanks to Sheila, Martin, Lucy, the cows and the chickens we didn’t manage to kill, for giving us a great time and teaching us a lot.

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2 Responses to “Chicken Run”

  1. anniespence April 13, 2013 at 2:30 pm #

    Sophie, I thoroughly enjoyed your post. Making that daily walk through the chickens certainly was a right of passage, now, you have gained the status of highly experienced farm worker.

  2. John April 13, 2013 at 5:09 pm #

    Thanks, Sophie. Great story!

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