A year into a new life in Cornwall and we’ve ticked quite a few boxes already: long walks on the beach, enthusiastic attendance of local fetes and carnival days and we’ve even developed a taste for Cornish pasties. Fortunately, shopping on our little high street keeps us in locally grown produce but we’ve always been keen to make a bit more of an effort in the way of self-sufficiency. One of the first things we did was to introduce a trio of chickens to the grounds of Fowey Hall, the lovely luxury hotel managed by my other half, as our feathered contribution to the good life. It’s not the first time we’ve kept chickens and, it has to be said, there is something of a learning curve. If you’re thinking about adding a couple of beaky chums to your family, my diary documenting our early days, with Jasmine & Jessica might help you avoid some of the pitfalls….
The Grand Arrival
Apparently keeping chickens is the last word in trendy country chic. Even Elizabeth Hurley has a flock of Cotswold Legbars, but I’m under no illusions that having a few birds in the garden is glamorous. Friends with their own chickens have told me that chickens are messy, awkward creatures but they are equally clear about the rewards, particularly those with small children who, I would imagine, love collecting the eggs on a morning, but who are probably less enthusiastic about mucking out a chicken coop. We will see.
Our small flock of two is coming from The SPR Centre, near Fontwell, owned by David Bland. A feed supplier, chicken breeder and all-round poultry expert, David was the perfect person to sound out on the suitability of the average family garden for keeping chickens.
For quite some months, I’ve been furtively looking at pictures of different chickens on the internet, flirting with different breeds from fluffy-trousered Cochins to South American-bred Arucanas, who lay beautiful blue eggs, but David soon puts me right. Apparently, a beginner chicken-keeper needs a beginner kind of chicken; something hardy, friendly, easy to care for and a good layer.
I put our names down for a couple of his Black Rhodes hybrids, bred for laying and densely feathered, they are happy to forage outside even in the dead of winter. Technically ‘pullets’, they’re nearly fully grown and should start producing eggs very quickly. A fold unit, the traditional chicken ark, with nest box and small run, completes the order and a sure enough, a few days later, an enormously helpful chap called Steve arrives from SPR with a flat-packed coop, a bag of feed and a large cardboard box under one arm.
Steve kindly puts the fold unit together (I think he can sense my rising panic), extracts the chickens from their box and leaves us alone with the newest members of our family. They are rather beautiful, but goodness they’re odd. They regard us beadily for a few minutes and then stalk haughtily into their nest box. It must be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
I’ve been obsessively reading David’s own book, Poultry For the Garden, which tells me not to let the chickens out of the coop until at the least the next afternoon. But, we’re a bit impatient, and egged on (sorry!) by my husband around lunchtime, I open the door and out they come. Within minutes they have eaten every ant in the garden and are producing an alarming amount of chicken poo, but they look magnificent, with their sleek black feathers and fluffy bottoms. There’s so much for them to do, we reassure ourselves, that there will be no Chicken Run-style escapes from this garden.
There’s been an escape. I return from work to find my husband looking a bit wild-eyed and clutching a pair of sharp scissors. Jasmine has spent the morning in the back field, a boggy thicket of overgrown grasses and nettles and it has taken four people banging roasting tins to herd the chickens back into their coop. It’s time to clip their wings. Gulp. We prop Poultry For The Garden open on the picnic bench and my husband grabs Jessica, the tamer of the two. With scissors in one hand and the ‘where-to-cut’ diagram, I cut tentatively across the feathers of one outstretched wing. No squawk of agony. We grab Jasmine, the escapee, and put paid to her dreams of feathered flight too.
Ten Days Later
We’ve settled into something of a routine. The chickens are really happy pecking around and generally doing what they want. They greet us joyously every morning, devour the little snacks I bring them every afternoon and as soon as they spot a member of their human flock, they come charging down the garden clucking excitedly. It’s all very sweet but where are the eggs? We’ve had a couple, but it’s not until I spot Jasmine hiding under a bramble bush that I realise they are laying eggs everywhere except where they’re meant to – in their nest box. I call David at SPR. He’s quite clear about where we’ve been going wrong. “You are expecting them to be too intelligent and not allowing them to settle into preferred practices,” he tells me. “Whatever others tell you, chickens are not very intelligent and need to be trained gradually.”
We’re not to let them out until they’ve both laid every day and sure enough, by lunchtime the next day, there are two lovely eggs waiting in the nest box. I’m so proud of them! We soon settle into a routine. I keep them in until they’ve laid, they tell me off loudly and then we enjoy a celebratory walk round the garden together. They eat all their tea and then put themselves to bed when it gets dark. I’ve decided they are better behaved than my own children, but they are messier and that’s saying something. However, we’ve worked out a happy compromise. A few hours foraging in the afternoon gives them the full free-range experience but keeps the mess to a minimum. Like all great relationships, it’s hard work but it’s true love.
[stextbox id=”tmk-box”]Find out all you need to know about keeping chickens from the SPR website, www.sprcentre.co.uk, which has a helpful guide ‘Mrs Chicken’ for beginner poultry keepers. [/stextbox]