It’s a Hens Life

This post was inspired by fellow blogger, musician and writer Robin McArthur who recently invited me to send some pictures of my hen house for her blog. Well that just got me thinking about my own hens and how much I value them.

We decided to get some hens three years ago this Summer. It was something I’d hankered after for a while, inspired in part by stories about my Great Aunt Rita and her brood of hens in inner city Dublin a generation ago. She would invite her nieces and nephews to put cocoa in the hen food on Easter Saturday which miraculously turned into chocolate eggs for Easter Sunday, a treasured memory of my mothers. These hens would have been more than a fancy, they would have provided food for the table – breakfasts and suppers and supplies for baking. This lady made a wonderful Buttermilk cake with egg which my mother and I make regularly today – I think of Rita when I make it myself.


Bottoms up!

Bottoms up girls!




There is something important about these simple values – good husbandry and good housekeeping that we are beginning to return to. The pleasure that these productive creatures bring is hard to quantify.

Getting started does involve some work however and some investment. You will need a secure coop with nesting boxes and a safe run for your hens to exercise. Our hen house was a gift from my Dad. It’s a very handsome one and suitable for up to six hens.


Winter coop

Our coop with three hens – ‘Pip,’ ‘Cocoa’ and ‘Muffin’




We started off with two Rhode Island Reds which we were told are the best layers. We reckoned two hens would provide ample eggs for our family’s needs. I had been advised that having too many hens and therefore a lot of eggs is a consideration since you then have to then decide what to do with the surplus. If you have lots of family and friends who would welcome the eggs on a regular basis then this might not be an issue but the eggs still have to be collected and delivered. Once your coop and run are secure, the main threat to your hens is human error. I learnt this the hard way when I left the coop open for the first time in almost two years and the fox took both hens overnight. I’d been in Galway for the day and came home late, forgot to assign the job to another family member and forgot to check myself. I thought that this was just very bad luck but an expert later told me that the fox most likely goes round all the gardens every night. One error is all it takes for a happy fox and a very unhappy hen owner.

After a suitable mourning period ( we have three young daughters ) we decided to get three hens, one for each girl, which they chose themselves. This new brood consists of two Rhode Island Reds and one Bluebell. The Bluebell doesn’t lay as frequently as the Reds who produce one egg each every day but I believe that her laying life will be longer so she will be productive for more than two years. It’s an impressive production and something I feel grateful for on a daily basis – such hardworking girls! If your hens are happy, well fed and have as much roaming around room as possible, they will lay well. They need a bit of extra care over the Winter ( as do we all ) and so you need to make sure they are reasonably warm in low temperatures. I line the coop with cardboard and put a thermal picnic blanket and an old carpet over the top of the house for insulation.

I am the chief hen caretaker in our family and taking care of them is now a part of my daily routine. It takes me less than ten minutes in the morning to let them out, clean out the coop and put out enough food and water for the day. I usually check up on them during the day and I lock them up in the evening  – they can’t see in the dark so they usually make their way in themselves at dusk. I simply could not recommend this way of life enough and apart from the trauma of losing them to the fox ( may you learn by my mistakes! ) I cannot think of a single reason not to have hens. Did I mention that they make excellent models for painting?


second hen - third stage


Hen painting in progress




I leave you with my Aunt Rita’s recipe which is especially nice on the day it is baked with butter and hot tea.



Rita’s Buttermilk Cake

2 Breakfast cups Flour

2 oz margarine

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp bread soda

1/2 tsp salt

3/4 cup sugar

fruit ( a generous handfull of raisins )

1 egg

8 fl oz Buttermilk or sour milk


Sieve flour into a bowl. Add baking powder, bread soda and salt. Rub in margarine. Then add sugar and fruit. In a separate bowl, beat the egg with the buttermilk. Add this mixture to the dry ingredients with enough milk to make a stiff batter. Pour into a greased tin ( I prefer a large loaf tin – my Mum likes to use an 8″ cake tin ) and leave for 15 mins before putting into a moderate oven ( 170 degrees ) for 45 mins. You’ll know it’s cooked when it becomes a warm golden brown colour and the base should sound hollow when you turn it out.


Hen Paintings

Horse Study V by Debi O'Hehir

I’ve been working on a couple of hen paintings this week. I haven’t done any for a long while and we sold the last two of mine in the gallery at the week end. The subjects are our own hens and so I started by taking some pictures of them in the back garden. The two red ones are Rhode Island Reds and the grey is a Bluebell. You may remember I wrote about them during the Summer when we found our first egg.

They move around together and often imitate each others exact movements which is amusing to watch, a bit like synchronised swimming. Well not really..


Photo of hens by Deborah Watkins




I especially like the triangular appearance of their bodies when they lean over, it’s such a striking shape.


Photo of two hens by Deborah Watkins




Bottoms up girls! I love this pose too as they remind me of ladies in old fashioned bloomers..


Photo of three hens by Deborah Watkins




Here’s how the first painting started. I used a small 4″ x 4″ canvas which I think suits the nature of the subject and also makes for an affordable finished piece.


First stage of bluebell hen painting




Here’s the same piece straight on.


First stage of Bluebell hen painting from another angle




And here’s the finished painting.





I worked this in two sittings. I find the first stage easier as I am mainly concerned with getting the gesture of the hen across. The second stage is always more difficult as I tend to slow down and work more finely to get the detail right. I often find that I lose some of the energy of the pose while doing this.

Here’s the start of the second piece. I continue the painting around the sides as you can see. G will frame these in his own hand made box frames which will display all sides of the canvas, like the one underneath this image.


First stage of second hen painting by Deobrah Watkins




Framed hen painting




Here’s the second painting  after some more colour has been added.


Second stage of hen painting




This is the same stage but taken straight on.


Second stage from a different angle




And here’s the finished piece.


Finished hen painting by Deborah Watkins




This one has lost some of the brightness and liveliness it had at the earlier stage but not too much I hope. I find these a completely different experience to painting landscapes – it’s a more direct way of working so I find myself caught up in trying to get a reasonable representation of the subject. I’m less concerned with intangibles like atmosphere or mood. The hens are dear to my heart however as we’ve had the pleasure of owning our own for several years. It’s also something that has had a bit of a revival around the country so I find that people generally react well to the finished paintings.

First Egg

We have three new hens in the family – two Rhode Island Reds and a Bluebell chosen by each of our three girls. Sadly, we lost our last two hens to the fox but we’ve added some extra security measures so that hopefully this won’t happen again.

The new arrivals are only a few months old and not yet laying or at least that was the case until a few days ago. I was taking some pictures in the garden when I heard the familiar sound of a nesting hen ( lots of noise, poor girl ) so I had my camera in my hand when I went to take a look. Sure enough, the bluebell was in the nesting box. One of the other hens was keeping her company and feeling a little camera shy..


Nesting hen





Our girl got up just a few seconds later and turned around to see for herself just what had happened!


Photograph of hen examining egg





Job done, she followed her pal out of the coop..


Hen leaving the coop





and down the ramp for a well deserved drink of water. Well done Missie!


Hen drinking water