Life in Spain: We dream of becoming self-sufficient

Heath Savage decides it's finally time to fulfill a childhood dream and build a hen house at her rural property in Galicia.

Life in Spain: We dream of becoming self-sufficient
Photo by Tim Cooper/Unsplash

My creative interpretation of the Spanish language is both well documented, and infamous. Mixing up my pollas and pollos was one of my first and finest attempts at a conversation with our neighbour Belen. But we have moved on. She keeps chickens, and has been very helpful in getting us started with our new obsession.

According to a Spanish friend who is in-the-know, we are establishing a local reputation as decent sorts, who try to live as close and respectfully to local ways as possible. Which, she tells us, people appreciate, despite our atrocious abuse of their language. We are embracing our new, rural, life.

Traces of the suburban dilletante linger about us like a bad odour though; my other half recently got some very posh purple rubber boots for her birthday, that wouldn’t be out of place in Chelsea, and I mince about the huerta wearing floral gardening gloves!

Our long-range plan is to become as self-sufficient for food as we are able to comfortably manage, without actually killing anything. We’d like to have our own milking goats, and maybe a sheep, which will act as a pet and a living lawnmower, then eventually die quietly of old age. Keeping chickens has always been my dream, since I was a little girl, collecting eggs on my family’s farm. I used to love hanging out with the hens, enjoying their contented murmurings and comical antics.

I was less enamoured of the cows, having been variously kicked, peed and crapped on a number of times will I was learned the art of hand milking. I’m fond of pigs though, and our friends in Viris, who plan to raise an English heritage breed, will keep ours for us, and attend to the animal’s inevitable transformation into roasting joints, bacon and sausages.

We are novices, so we have to be practical, for the well-being of the animals as well as ourselves. We agreed that we will keep three chooks, to start with, just to get the hang of them. So, our friend’s talented son built us the Taj Mahal of chicken coops, then he and I constructed a pretty secure run.

All set. I bought all the gear from our local farm store, and came home with three gorgeous pullets in a box in the back of the car. Two reds, a black and bronze. A local breed renowned for good egg production and hardiness.

We tipped them into the coop, fed them, and kept them inside the first couple of days to settle them in. I picked the wrong night to roast a chicken for dinner. Not thought through. A tiny notion flitted briefly across my mind: become vegetarian. Then I smelled the bacon-wrapped stuffing, and the notion flitted off.

On the third day, we left the coop door open, and waited for the ladies to emerge. The boldest and bossiest of the three, Mary, predictably came down first. She was followed by Martha. Matilda teetered down last. Matilda is still the timidest of the three – the odd girl out. We can tell Mary and Martha apart, because the former has a very pretty “lace collar” of creamy feathers about her throat. They are all bonny hens, and seem to be very content in their luxurious digs.

The girls like cabbage and nasturtium leaves particularly, and they clamour for the fresh herbs I mix in with their feed. Is it a bit naughty to give them scraps of sage, stale bread and onion, I wonder?

Our girls won’t begin to lay until spring, so it’s our job to keep them warm and safe all winter. Local dogs, foxes, pine martens, mink (escaped some years back from a local fur farm), and wild boar all pose a threat to their well-being, but our chooks are safely locked in their luxury coop at night, so even if some intrepid creature does manage to breach the fence, they won’t get near the hens, unless they bring a drill and a circular saw!

Since the arrival of the hens, our little adopted dog, Stumpy- Mario, is showing indications of Mastin lineage. He likes to lie beside the chicken run most days, keeping a watchful eye on the girls without showing any signs of bothering them.

Poor little Mario recently experienced a bad mauling, by one of the feral dogs in the area. He required emergency vet treatment at five o’clock one morning. His alarming whines and whimpers actually woke us from a deep sleep.

Mario has proven to be a tough little chap, though, and he has lost none of his sweetness, despite suffering some nasty bruising and bites. Once he healed, we had him de-sexed, and we are keeping him in at night, to stop the amorous gallivanting that led to his encounter with the notorious thug who leads the feral pack. So now Mario guards his girls, and sticks close to home.

These two old hens are happy about that.


Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.


Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 


Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.


Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.


The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.