One of the chickens' redeeming features was that they were producing delicious fresh eggs every morning - that, and the kids and Tom love them. But they have now stopped laying.
Our farmer friend suggested that it may be magpies or rats coming in and stealing the eggs. He then went into animated detail about how to train rats to turn against each other, thus producing one killer rat who keeps all the other rats at bay. 'Oh right' was all I could muster in response. He also suggested that the hens might be laying the eggs and then eating them themselves - and if that were the case he would 'wring their bloody necks' for us.
I wondered whether Betty and Dolly had traumatised them by trying to stab them with a garden fork (it's a game). Or whether the culprit might be the bogeyman who lives in the hedge with his axe - you know, the one that terrifies me at night when I am home alone.
I was eager to set up my camcorder in the coop and catch whatever it was, but my mum told me it might scar me for life if I saw what went on in there, away from prying eyes. I am unsure exactly what she meant, but I promptly shelved the idea anyway.
Yesterday (while Tom was out) I did an experiment and I kept them locked in their little house until lunchtime, so that, firstly they would get bored and lay some eggs because there was nothing else to do, and secondly we would be able keep the egg-stealer out, and thus work out whether it was someone/something stealing the eggs or if the chickens just were not laying. When I let them out at 1pm there was one egg, four really angry hens, and a very hot, smelly hen house. I was none the wiser.
My friend came over to identify how old the chickens are - she can do this by looking at their legs - she said that the smooth, slender appearance of their pins meant that they were all quite young and should be in their egg-laying prime.
So, in a last ditch attempt to get to the bottom of what the heck is happening, I have just placed some shop bought eggs in their laying box - if they disappear then there is an egg-loving criminal mastermind at work, and if they don't disappear then the hens were never laying the eggs in the first place. The suspense...