Something live-changing happened to me a few years ago. Life changing in very small and delightful way. A friend was moving and looking to re-home her four hens. I had no interest in hens at the time but a colleague of mine thought it would be perfect for me and encouraged me to go for it.
At the risk of sounding trite, its the best thing that’s happened to me in the last few years. These little fluff balls lit up my world in the most unexpected way. Since then I have become a fervent chicken enthusiast. I haven’t reached full mad chicken lady status just yet, but I’m getting there.
Chicken keeping has been growing in popularity for some time in the western world. In fact, during the first corona virus lockdown, people weren’t just panic buying loo roll and flour, they were also scooping up all the chickens. Breeders across the UK were selling out of hens, ducks and even guinea fowl, as people rushed to secure a supply of eggs.
It used to be much more common place for people to have a back yard brood. Industrial poultry keeping in the UK hardly existed prior to the 1890s but people have been keeping chickens domestically since prehistoric times. And it has mostly been a female history, in the UK and the US, at least. We have lived so closely with chickens they’ve entered our lexicon – “she’s broody” is a term to describe when a hen’s mothering instincts kick in and she sits on eggs. The pecking order, hen-pecked, cock-sure, ruling the roost, and so on. We use chicken terminology to describe aspects of human behaviour because in many ways we are so alike. They hate wind and rain, love to sunbathe and are hostile to outsiders. These sociable, quirky, curious birds can be both adorable, funny and clever and stubborn, stupid and mean. Sound familiar?
When I took on my new brood I knew absolutely nothing about hen-keeping. My friend reassured me that they’re very low maintenance pets. She said, “don’t worry, they’ll teach you”. The most important thing was fox-proofing their living quarters. We installed their house and run on the brick patio, as the main way foxes break into a run is to dig their way in. So having the hen house on hard-standing removed that risk. They need to be able to scratch around though, so we covered their floor with hard woodchip. Then all you need to do is provide food, water and bedding, clean their house out every now and then, and collect their eggs.
I discovered a huge community of chicken enthusiasts on Facebook where you’ll find dozens of chicken-keepers groups, with thousands of friendly fellow chicken owners offering advice and encouragement. I’ve have spent hours marvelling at people’s awe-inspiring array of breeds, from the all-black (even their bones) Ayam Cemani, the bearded Arauncanas, the poof-ball headed Polish, fluffy beyond belief Frizzles, and the majestic Padovana. The members of these groups range from the tough utilitarians who are realists about rearing poultry for eggs and meat, to the “snowflake” end of the spectrum, where I belong, who’s hens have become their beloved pets. Through these groups I’ve learned the harsh reality of keeping livestock. As some farmers say, “If you’ve got livestock, you’ve got dead stock”. A motto in the chicken keeping world is “don’t hatch if you can’t dispatch”. This relates mainly to the fact that you can’t have too many boys in your brood. Roosters in large numbers will be very noisy (imagine ten cockerels endlessly crowing the morning chorus?) In large numbers they can be too aggressive and competitive and the ladies would be overly harassed by too many frisky roosters. For this reason it’s hard to re-home the boys. The best, and most humane way to deal with them is to kill them yourself. And the most sensible thing to do after that is eat them. But, like the majority of us Brits who’ve become so sheltered from the visceral realities of life on the farm, I can’t fathom the idea of killing my feathered friends myself. This is the only thing holding me back from buying in loads of hatching eggs and expanding my flock.
The problem is if you spend any time with chickens you’re in danger of completely falling in love with them. Even my neighbours, who look after them when we go on holiday, are besotted by them. A Ghanaian friend of mine told me the story of her Grandmother in Accra, who kept chickens and goats, as is very common in Ghana. But what is less common is that she fell hugely in love with her animals, and eventually she no longer killed any of them because they’d became like part of the family. This being quite unconventional in Ghana, who are on the utilitarian end of the spectrum when it comes to animals, and her son (my friends dad), when he came to visit from the UK, wasn’t aware of this special relationship. While she was out one day, he thought he’d treat her to a special meal, and when she arrived home he presented her with a delicious home cooked feast, with one of her dear friends as the centre piece. To his bemusement, she was mortified.
Spend any real time with a chicken and you can see why people fall for them. They’re sweet, comical creatures whose unique personalities reveal themselves to you. We have a very bolshy head-honcho called Gwen, who’s bold, brassy and bossy. She’s the smallest yet always the top of the pecking order. Gracie, my favourite, is the most affectionate yet also the most aggressive. A ridiculous bumbling mass of grey fluff, one minute she’ll be viciously attacking my feet, the next she’ll be cuddled up on my lap enjoying a stoke. They’re great company, they always cheer me up.
One of the biggest lessons the hens taught me was from Evie – our tall sleek white leggy hen. She was a hybrid breed – a cross of several commercial pure breeds. She was our star layer. Our other hens are heritage breeds – Pekins – a small variety, bred more for their feathery feet and fluffy bums than their egg laying potential. Evie towered over the other girls (but was still subservient to the inimitable Gwen), was more ruthless and harder to catch and cuddle. But she laid without fail one large white egg every day. What most people don’t know is eggs are seasonal. As the daylight hours reduce in winter, so does the egg laying. Our heritage hens lay very few eggs from November to February. But not Evie, she kept going. We’d joke that the others weren’t earning their keep. But the following summer Evie’s eggs started getting bigger and then she started laying two a day – one in the morning and another in the evening. But the second one had a soft shell as she didn’t have enough calcium to form another shell so quickly. She seemed to be in pain and bemused by these second floppy eggs of the day. One morning she didn’t get out of bed. She was so weak she couldn’t move. We bundled her up and took her to the vet. She died on the vet’s table. Over her lifeless body the vet solemnly explained to us that because hybrids are bred to lay eggs continually it’s this constant egg laying that kills them off early. Their reproductive systems never get a chance to rest. Hybrids tend to be short-lived as a result. In a commercial hen farm they will usually be discarded at 2 years old as the egg-related complications mount up after this. Basically, her star egg laying status was her downfall. She was completely worn out at the tender age of four. Other breeds, like our Pekins can live for 10 to 12 years. This is the same story with commercial breeds of dairy cows, who produce vast quantities of milk in their short lives, their bodies wasted by their second or third year from this unnatural over exploitation. The Hoads Farm exposé taught us that even “free range” chickens endured horrific conditions but I hadn’t realised the cruelty extended to the very breeding of them. I couldn’t eat another egg for about six months after losing Evie. Now, when my remaining brood take time off, I’m glad for them. For the winter months when they don’t lay, we just accept it now. We don’t buy eggs from elsewhere, we just make do without. I’ve discovered you don’t need eggs to make delicious cakes, cookies and pancakes. And another breakfast is possible.
I try to encourage everyone I know who has a garden to get hens. Most people’s concerns are about foxes, or about the effort required to clean out their housing. But really they are very little bother, once you’ve fox-proofed and got into a monthly muck-out routine. And they give back so much more than you think. Not just eggs, but great company and endless entertainment. Not a day goes by without the hens making me laugh at their daft behaviour. I’m definitely a happier person because of them. And when the world seems a harsh and baffling place, I just go out and sit with my hens in the garden and enjoy the simplicity and pure joy of their existence.