Pooches rule the roost at chicken farm
THE pecking order is clear when it comes to chicken farmer Hugh Maurice and his 3600 chooks. Although the chickens have power in numbers, it's their overprotective guardians that rule the roost.
Nestled somewhere between Dubbo, Mudgee and Orange is a long, bumpy, dirt track to a property called Gillinghall. Here, Hugh runs his thriving business, Farmer Brown's Pastured Eggs, where his chooks produce more than 2800 eggs a day.
Divided into three flocks and placed strategically across the property, each flock is cared for by two or three unlikely security guards in the form of large, woolly Maremma sheepdogs.
The dogs are majestic, like proud lions protecting the savanna.
No threat to the glossy hens stands a chance. The breed is renowned for its protective qualities, but watching them round up a swarm of a thousand chickens really is an unusual sight.
Acting as a personal alarm system for the hens, the dogs alert them at any sign of a threat.
Be it a fox, a snake, a bird of prey, or a human, it's the Maremmas' job to bark at anything that poses risk to the egg-laying machines, and they round up the flock and send them to safety in the coops.
"During the day the dogs are pretty inactive, they're pretty sleepy and just keep a general ear out," Hugh explains.
"It's an ear out all day and an eye out all night - their eyesight is insane.
"The hens spread themselves out at first light and last light, and that's when the dogs really kick into gear.
"At dark, all the hens pile into the caravan (mobile chicken coop) and the dogs stay outside to make sure nothing goes in."
As cuddly and puppy-like as the dogs appear, they are rather stand-offish. They know they have a job to do and there's no luring them out of protection mode for a sneaky pat.
Hugh treats these dogs as if they were his own children. Acutely aware of their individual personalities, he translates their every movement as if he were a Maremma mind reader.
"It'll take three weeks for Big Dog over there to get used to someone new. Ropey is a bit more friendly," Hugh reassures.
Now 34, Hugh lived in Sydney for most of his life, working in irrigation, only moving back to the family farm five years ago.
Previously Gillinghall was mainly a crop and stock farm, but upon Hugh's homecoming he somehow wound up purchasing a small egg business from some family friends and, as they say, the rest is history.
In his words: "I didn't choose the egg life, the egg life chose me."
Well spoken, with a slight husk to his voice, Hugh is charming and cheeky but a little shy all at the same time.
He's the kind of guy who will work himself to the bone from sunrise to sunset, but treat himself to 3 or 4 "dippy eggs" at lunch time.
His eyes are a striking shade of blue and his smile is warm - Hugh's a good-looking rooster, if you will.
"I've always been an animal person," he admits. "But I never thought I'd end up back here on the farm."
His chickens aren't just good for their eggs. Their manure is incredibly nutritious fertiliser for the soil, making it healthy breeding ground for crop.
After a two or three-day shift on one particular patch of land, the hens are moved on to another quadrant of the property to ensure the entire farm becomes a blanket of fruitful goodness.
"The goal is to have soil that's as fertile as possible and to grow as much as we can. In growing good grass, then in turn we get good eggs," he explains.
Currently distributing his eggs to delicatessens, butchers, cafes and select supermarkets around the Central West region, Hugh also does a fortnightly delivery to the big smoke.
His orders for the week are hand scribbled in a small notebook - there is no sign of posh technology in sight.
The pride he takes in his chooks and his determination to deliver nothing but the freshest, highest quality produce is admirable - and delivered with help from his unusual guardians.