Counting their chickens

6th May 2011 at 01:00
Pampered hens are bringing pupils out of their shells and helping with numeracy and other skills, writes Jean McLeish

Even when it's windy and rainy, the hens are pleased to see you when you arrive to feed them. They've been well named the "Happy Hens" by the pupils from Dornoch Academy.

This morning they're giving Steven and Mrs Nichols a noisy welcome, as they battle through the mud and rain to give them their feed. Off on distant Ben Bhraggie, you can still make out the statue of the Duke of Sutherland towering over the windswept Highland landscape.

Sally Nichols, a support for learning assistant, pulls her woollen hat down over her ears to save her from a bad hair day when she gets back to school. It's not the best of days, but you get the feel-good factor from the fresh air and from retrieving a clutch of seven brown eggs snuggling in straw in the hen house.

Pupils spent several months building the hens' new home last year and the hens arrived in the summer to be used across the school curriculum.

No wonder their eggs make such a perfect picture - these hens must be among the best looked after in Scotland. They have an impressive terracotta painted hen house built by pupils, with one wing where they lay their eggs and separate en suite facilities in another wing.

"We normally feed the hens when we come up and we clean out their poo," young Steven Fraser (S3) explains delicately, as he's gathering the hens' eggs and boxing them up. The labels are marked "Free Range" and, true enough, the hens roam a two-acre field and a sizeable enclosed run protected by deer fencing.

"There's seven eggs today, so that's good. We usually get six or seven eggs every day. I don't like eggs, which is a shame really," says Steven.

A group of students with additional support needs look after the hens, including Sarah Smith and Morgan Mackay, two 16-year-olds with Down's syndrome. Sarah is frightened of animals, apart from horses, and coming here has helped her become more accustomed to the hens.

This land belongs to the school's depute headteacher, Lyn Gordon, whose home overlooks the field a few miles north of Dornoch. On holidays and weekends she keeps an extra-watchful eye over the brood - a fox among the Happy Hens does not bear thinking about.

"We come up three times a week - Monday, Wednesday and Friday," says Mrs Nichols. "Lyn looks after them at the weekend and she opens them up every morning and locks them up at night."

They had eight hens, but lost one during the heavy snow last winter. They're quite vulnerable, she explains.

"It's good coming up here, because it stresses the responsibility to the children that once you've got them, you've got to keep going - which is good for them.

"There are a lot of benefits from them and I think the fact that they are so tame is rather nice," she says.

Dornoch Academy is an Eco School and pupils use a polytunnel, which means an abundance of produce in the summer months.

"We grow onions, strawberries, raspberries, tatties, parsley, peas and beans - nearly everything," Steven smiles, as the hens get busy with their breakfast.

Learning from hens

The Happy Hens sit perfectly within Curriculum for Excellence. Pupils with additional support needs sell the eggs for an enterprise project and learn about numeracy and caring for the hens. They also use the eggs for baking in home economics and study them in science.

Students on the school's vocational studies programme include the hens in their work too. Teenagers who chose rural skills as a Skills for Work Intermediate 1 programme built the hen house last summer and others now learn to care for the hens in an animal husbandry unit.

"They designed and made the shed as part of their course and we bought the hens in Aberdeenshire, so that our additional needs pupils could run an enterprise project," explains Dornoch Academy's depute headteacher Lyn Gordon, who teaches rural skills.

It brings in numeracy, because they keep records of how many eggs they get.

"They clean out and feed the hens and cook with the eggs," she continues. "One of our additional needs pupils, who is autistic, is very worried about using eggs from caged hens, so we always make sure he has free range eggs to cook with."

The hens are given top-of-the-range feed and their eggs are sold at school for pound;1 for half a dozen, which goes towards their feed and maintenance.

Happy Hens also feature in the managing environmental resources programme. "We talk about what the hens need to live, how they produce an egg and what would happen if the eggs were fertilised," says Sally Nichols, a support for learning assistant with a background in ecology.

For the moment, though, this enterprise is confined to egg production. "We have an incubator, but we're not going to put a cockerel in here because it would just cause mayhem. We may incubate something else at some point, like pheasants, though," says Mrs Nichols.

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