Winter Solstice and Chickens

Crikey, it’s incredibly dark this Winter Solstice morning.  We are relatively new to hen-keeping; it’s our first winter of having them, and we’ve had to educate ourselves a little.  This shortest day of the year finds us almost eggless.

Happy free range hens
Happy Hens

The humble egg has impressive health credentialsEveryone knows about their nutritional value, that they are a very good source of inexpensive, high quality protein. More than half the protein of an egg is found in the egg white along with vitamin B2 and lower amounts of fat and cholesterol than the yolk. The whites are rich sources of selenium, vitamin D, B6, B12 and minerals such as zinc, iron and copper. Egg yolks contain more calories and fat. They are the source of cholesterol, fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and lecithin – the compound that enables emulsification in recipes such as hollandaise or mayonnaise.

In particular, the health benefits of free-range eggs was the prompt for us to have our own chickens in the first place.  Compared to eggs from caged birds, free range eggs provide:

Twice as much omega-3 fatty acids.

Three times more vitamin E.

Seven times more pro-vitamin A beta-carotene.

A quarter less saturated fat.

A third less cholesterol.

Other tests have demonstrated that pastured eggs have up to six times more essential vitamin D than regular supermarket eggs. They have also been shown to have significantly more B vitamins than a factory produced egg.

Egg yolks are also a known source of lutein and zeaxanthin, two important antioxidants for the health of your eyes. They help to protect the delicate macula region of your eye from damaging UV and high-intensity blue light.  To protect your vision as well as improve your overall health, look for the deep yellow / orange yolks you’ll find in real free range eggs.

However, hens are sensitive to day length and in particular to the direction in which the daylight hours are changing. As hens require around 14 hours of daylight to maintain optimum egg production, once the natural daylight falls below 12 hours, production naturally tails off and will possibly cease altogether during the winter months.  Currently we are lucky if we get one egg each day.  We’ve noticed also that our hens are eating more layers pellets than usual – this is normal apparently and they do this to bulk up a bit and give themselves some insulation against the winter cold.

Laying can continue through the use of artificial lighting to extend the natural daylight hours and commercial farms will use artificial lighting in order to produce eggs during the winter as well as summer months.  We will not be doing that with our chickens.  The whole point of our having hens in the first place was so that they could lead a happy, natural scratching way of life.  And they do.  Their eggs are fantastic.  We will happily take care of our hens through the dark unproductive days of winter and be grateful for the few eggs we do get.

Meantime I may have to actually buy some free-range eggs to supplement our own.  Where to begin though?  We are so used to our lovely rich orange yolks, that all shop-bought eggs pale into insignificance in comparison.  Roll on Spring I say.

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When Does Winter Start?

Being a country girl, I’ve always known when the shortest day and the longest day is, and the start dates of each season and so on.  Or so I thought.

December Solstice (Winter Solstice) is on Tuesday, December 22nd 2015 at 4:49 AM in London. This day is 8 hours, 49 minutes shorter than on the June Solstice. In most locations north of Equator the shortest day of the year is around this date.  The earliest sunset this year is on December 13th 2015.

Sunset 21st Dec 14
There was this incredible sunset last year on 21st December 2014

How you define the first day of winter, however, depends on whether you are referring to the astronomical or meteorological winter.  The day in our calendar that marks the first day of winter usually refers to the astronomical seasons which are a result of the Earth’s axis and orbit around the sun. However, the Met Office often uses a meteorological definition of the seasons.  Astronomical seasons are relative to the position of the Earth’s orbit around the sun taking into account equinoxes and solstices. Meteorological seasons are instead based on annual temperature cycles measuring the meteorological state and coinciding with the Gregorian calendar to determine a clear transition and equal length of season.

Sunrise 20th Jan 2015
And we saw some stunning January sunrises in 2015

Meteorological winter season

This year the meteorological winter begins on 1 December 2015 and ends on 29 February 2016. The meteorological seasons consists of splitting the seasons into four periods made up of three months each.  These seasons are split to coincide with our Gregorian calendar making it easier for meteorological observing and forecasting to compare seasonal and monthly statistics. By the meteorological calendar, winter always starts on 1 December.  The seasons are defined as Spring (March, April, May), Summer (June, July, August), Autumn (September, October, November) and Winter (December, January, February).

Astronomical winter season

This year the astronomical winter begins on 21 December 2015 and ends on 20 March 2016.  The astronomical calendar determines the seasons due to the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth’s rotational axis in relation to its orbit around the sun. Both equinoxes and solstices are related to the Earth’s orbit around the sun.

Solstices and equinoxes are considered to be the astronomical transition points between the seasons and mark key stages in the astronomical cycle of the earth. In a year there are two equinoxes (spring and autumn) and two solstices (summer and winter). The dates of the equinoxes and solstices aren’t fixed due to the Earth’s elliptical orbit of the sun. The Earth’s orbit around the sun means that in early January, the sun is closest (known as perihelion) and in early July it is most distant (aphelion).

Many moons ago my village school taught me the seasons astronomically and until recently I had only a very basic knowledge of the meteorological seasons at all.  In fact I found myself getting into an argument with friends over it, which is why I’m writing this now.

There is of course also a third theory of how the seasons work, and it’s the one I can relate to the most.  It’s based on what we can actually see around us, and it’s the one that farmers and countrymen use.  It’s true that some years Spring manifests itself earlier than in other years, depending on the weather conditions; sometimes it’s very late.  And the same can be said of every season.  Mother Nature controls the weather and the seasons follow accordingly.

Just yesterday, on 17th December 2015, whilst on a Christmas shopping trip to our county town, Mr Midlife and I were astounded to see that the beautiful willow trees overhanging the River Witham which runs through the town centre were still in full leaf.  Yes, some of those leaves were a little yellow, and a few were lying on the river bank, but most of them were still blowing in the breeze attached to their branches,  Unbelievable considering that we have had howling winds for many days, strong enough to blow roofs off.  What an incongruous sight it was, to have the willows defying the seasons on the left hand side of our view, yet to the right we were watching children dressed in hats and gloves skating on a real ice rink which has been especially installed for the Christmas period in the market square.  But then it has been an incredibly mild Autumn.  Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me.

There’s blossom on some of the town garden trees I noticed, and I shouldn’t be surprised if the hedgerows were to burst into leaf before New Year.  Absurd.  Every year there are elements of Nature that astound and mystify me, which is why I think my understanding of the seasons will continue to be defined by what my natural world looks like when I’m out and about.  And roll on 22nd December next week, as it will be getting a little lighter every day thereafter.  Fact.

(Many thanks to the Met Office website and to http://www.timeanddate.com for the above facts and dates.)

Monday Morning Rush Hour

My determination to be at my desk for 8am this morning has paid off – just. I’ve caught the 8am pips and Moira Stewart launching into the news.  Welcome to another day on Planet Earth on Monday 14th December 2015.

I only just made it though. I wasn’t late up; on the contrary, I was downstairs making a pot of coffee at 6.30am.  The culprit that almost caught me out was something I have to tolerate for a further 7 days at least.  Surgical stockings.  Caliper-like tubes of nylon that do NOT give at all.

I can only assume that the inventor of surgical stockings was a contortionist, and therefore had to give no consideration whatsoever as to how a normal human being just out of surgery could possibly manoeuvre and manage these horrendous yet compulsory straitjackets for legs.

It’s taken me a good 15 minutes to put on fresh surgical stockings this morning; to actually bend my poor patchwork stomach to reach my toes. I finally achieved the necessary lunge by lying on my back on the bed and gingerly raising my legs one at a time into the air.  I then had to organise the toe bit.  They are not like an ordinary sock, no, just to confound the wearer, they have an open toe, which might be marvellous in July, but in December is absolutely useless.  So a little bit of stocking has to be pulled back over the toe ends and twisted to make a full sock, then a pair of thick tights has to be fitted over that twisted bit to make sure it stays twisted and in place to keep the toes warm (requiring alternate legs in the air again and me on my back).  I was praying that the thick woolly tights would still be long enough to fit me since being washed at the weekend, as I could not face a repeat performance with another pair if not.  I had already resigned myself to walking around all day with a “dropped crotch”, you know the one, when your tights aren’t quite long enough.

After the tights, I then needed to put on a pair of thermal socks, to get me through this chilly December day. I went for a HUGE brand new pair of mens’ fluffy socks, thinking that they’d be easier to wriggle into than my own.  Again, “beetle on its back” position was required.

At this point I’m very glad that I’ve spent so much time pounding away on my cross trainer over recent months, and even more glad that I have kept up my yoga-style floor exercise regime, so that my muscles are fairly strong and flexible. Even so, I’m definitely NOT a contortionist.

When I finally managed to drag myself off the bed and into an upright position with much huffing and puffing, I felt like getting back into bed for a rest, rather than getting to work at my desk. Good job it’s only a short commute!

I had a theory that a loose knitted dress over woolly tights would be the best option as office wear for a few days, to avoid the waistline chafing of this patchwork of dressings and clips. I wasn’t particularly worried about the fact that I can’t wear a bra for a while, again for the chafing reasons, as I don’t have enough chest to require scaffolding anyway.  I have to admit though that my usual work uniform of jeans and shirt and sweater may have been a better option.  For a start I would not have had that battle on my back with the woolly tights, although I would still have required the surgical stockings and thermal socks.  And I could quite easily have slouched in my office chair with my jeans button undone and the zip down couldn’t I?

I’m also thinking that I could have stumbled out of bed at 7.45 and trundled across the landing to my desk in my jimjams. And stayed in them all day.  Along with my warm slippers.  Because in reality, it makes not one jot of difference what I’m wearing, to do my job at my desk.  Bit slovenly though isn’t it?

Patchwork Tummy

I could very easily have shouted my better half to give me a hand. I didn’t though.  The only place that what I’m wearing to go to work in matters is in the space between my own ears.  It really was a matter of pride that I managed to get properly dressed and organised to be at my desk by 8am today.  And I did it.

 

(Please be aware that I will probably be crawling back under the duvet for a little nap by lunchtime, fully dressed, as I daren’t take off the tights and socks – they will be staying on indefinitely.)

Coincidentally, and ironically too, it would have been BKS Iyengar’s 97th birthday today – he’s the founder of the Iyengar style of yoga if you didn’t already know that. This tidbit of useless information was announced to me by Google when I finally managed to get myself together and comfortably sitting in front of my computer.   I bet Mr Iyengar would have had no problem at all with surgical stockings.