If you look up the definition of ‘henwife’ in most dictionaries, you’ll find it given as something along the lines of ‘woman who keeps poultry’. But that isn’t it at all: a henwife is so much more than that, as so many folk and fairytales from Ireland and Scotland show. In those tales, the henwife is often a herbalist or a healer, and is always synonymous with the Wise Old Woman archetype: the Cailleach personified. Think, for example, of the fine Scottish tale ‘Kate Crackernuts’, about the henwife and her cauldron of wisdom. Or the old Irish tale about three sisters, ‘Fair, Brown and Trembling’. The fact that the henwife also keeps hens is part and parcel of this archetype, but although the heroine of the story may go to her looking simply for eggs, she always comes away with rather more than she bargained for.
I have kept hens since 2003, and for the past eleven years I’ve never been without them or without a sufficiency of eggs. I love hens. Every breed has its own character, and so do individual hens. Over the past years I’ve kept Light Sussex, Speckled Sussex, Rhode Island Reds, various kinds of Auracana, Cream Legbars, Marans (standard and Copper Black), Wyandottes, Silver Duck-winged Welsummers, Leghorns, and probably a few others that I’ve forgotten about by now. (As well as ducks and beautiful Roman geese.) But when we moved to Donegal recently we had to leave our hens behind, and it’s taken a little while for us to get to the position where we could start again. David has been busily banging away on the small overgrown, sycamore-lined patch of land we have on the bank above and behind the cottage, and this amazing hen fortress has come into being:
I say ‘fortress’, because in this place we are surrounded by fox and mink, and so we need to have housing which will protect the hens from both when we lock them in at night (though during the day, of course, they will be allowed to roam freely. Who knows when they’ll find their way down to the river?) This coop, then, has a weld-mesh roof as well as sides, and the sides are dug six inches into the ground and concreted to prevent a mink from digging its way in. But this is something of a palace as well as a fortress; in constructing the extension to the right of the photograph which houses three new roomy nesting boxes and a little hallway which runs alongside them, David has also made the hens a window!
And so this morning, filled with excitement at the thought of living with hens again, I drove to the monthly Churchill poultry fair, and bought hybrid hens: two Black Rocks, two Bluebells, and two of the common brown laying hens that we call simply ‘henny-pennies’. They’re not the most beautiful of hens, but we have always found them to be the most characterful and adventurous, as well as the best layers.
When I got home and opened the car boot, Nell knew exactly what was afoot. She’s missed her animals since we moved here from what was once a busy croft, though she gets an occasional run at some sheep to keep her on her toes. But here she is, peering in at the hens in their crate, wagging happily.
The hens were shut inside the house for a little while, so they could figure out where the food and water was, and decide that this is where they live. Shortly afterwards, I opened the lid of the nesting box and found golden treasure: the greatest gift that can be offered to a henwife. Now, both Nell and I really feel as if we are home.