The highs and lows of henkeeping

Minnie

Keeping hens in your back garden is a glimpse into the good life, a step, albeit small, towards self-sufficiency. They might only provide your lunch and some ingredients for your next cake, but owning chickens allows one a slightly superior air in conversation. “Oh I never buy eggs any more, our girls provide them for us!” you’ll say with a smug look. What you won’t mention, when you’re chatting over the garden fence or standing at the school gate, is all the times you’ve mucked out a coop in the drizzling rain, dropping straw and chicken poo into your wellies, or how they pecked the living daylights out of your new bedding plants, or that time one of them successfully caught – and ate – a mouse in front of your horrified children.

And yet, those feathery little females quickly charm their way into your affections. With their sharp senses and inquisitive nature they’re not as flappy and feather-brained as they might seem at first. Chickens are intelligent, funny and great garden companions. We have three hybrid hens – a mixture of breeds which make reliable layers – and they have certainly done their duty, supplying us with a few hundred eggs between them so far. Not only that, but they regularly provide entertainment and some actual LOLs when we watch their antics in the back garden. One of their textbook moves is to amble casually out of the run when they’re allowed out to free range, then suddenly all three make a frantic, feathery dash to the bird table, racing each other to hoover up any scraps left behind by the garden birds. Or piling on top of each other for a major dustbathing session, rolling and scraping up the dry soil into a massive mushroom cloud of hen happiness. The three of them have created such a large bowl under one of my conifers it’s like they’re trying to dig for Australia.

We’ve got to know our three chooks well over the past three years – each one has a distinct personality. Our speckled hen, Polly, is the boss and makes her presence felt – literally – when there’s a tasty treat on offer, regularly dismissing the other two with a sharp peck. She won’t think twice about stealing a juicy grape straight out of another hen’s beak and gets first dibs on any bowls of porridge supplied on a chilly morning. Iona is probably next in the pecking order and is vain, probably because she’s the prettiest. She’s the first to dive into a dust bath and will spend ages preening her creamy leg feathers, which are so wide and frilly they remind me of French bloomers. Minnie is the most timid but also the sweetest. She’s the last one out of the coop on a snowy day, completely freaked out by all the cold, white stuff on the ground. But if you can catch her she’s content to sit in your arms for a few minutes so you can stroke her back and admire the gorgeous beetle-green sheen on her black feathers.

Polly and Iona in their favourite dust bath

It’s true to say that life with chickens is not all yummy eggs and fluffy feathers – hens can be noisy when they’re alarmed, laying, or just protesting about being cooped up for too long. They can produce some very strange eggs in the beginning and, yes, there’s quite a lot of poo. I won’t even mention the prolapsed oviduct (I would advise you not to google it) which forced me to spend part of a family BBQ at the business end of a rather unhappy hen. But they’re also relaxing to watch, friendly, and their eggs really are better than shop-bought ones. Clearly something about our trio has persuaded me that back garden henkeeping is worthwhile, because I’ve just bought a second coop, a small incubator and 6 fertile eggs..!

Apollo and Rocky – the result of the aforementioned hatch!

This article was first published in Garden Answers, June 2019

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