Raising your own chickens

Raising and killing your own chickens

Last weekend, I cooked a chicken that was large enough to give a turkey a run for its money (9lb), with a flavour that provoked misty-eyed reminiscences about ‘how chicken used to taste’. The most exciting thing about this chicken was that I had looked after it for the majority of its short life: I knew exactly what it had eaten and how it had spent its days. I also knew that it had been killed humanely, and how it was prepared for consumption, because I had performed all of these operations by my own hand. Stephen Wigginton from S. and T. Poultry, a company that supplies table birds, believes that I’m not alone. ‘I’ve noticed an increase in the number of ‘weekend farmers’ stocking up on our birds. There is a definite trend towards going back to the good life.’

The experiment began when I bought 10 five-week-old Cobb chickens (four cockerels, six pullets) from a local supplier (you can also buy them as day-olds or, if you wish, buy an incubator and start from scratch by hatching the eggs). The white-feathered Cobb is the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the chicken world, with a broad chest and large feet to support the weight of its mighty drumsticks. They are kings of the intensive broiler system (therefore most likely to be found on the supermarket shelves) because they have been bred with a ferocious appetite and a rate of growth required for them to reach saleable size (4½lb) in five weeks. Using my less-intensive fattening programme, I hoped to get them to a good weight for consumption in 12 weeks (obviously, you can vary this depending on how large you want them to get). Charlotte Large, a poultry enthusiast from Tisbury in Wiltshire, has experimented with a variety of table birds. ‘I kill out the Cobbs at 18 weeks, but the Light Sussex take much longer. They’re only fit for coq au vin if you keep them for more than 12 months.’

I bedded my chickens on straw in a fox-proof enclosure at the end of a barn, as well as providing an outdoor run, roughly 65ft by 65ft, in which to put them during the day. I fenced the area with electric netting and erected a primitive shelter for them with some bricks and a piece of corrugated iron to protect them from sunshine and showers. On most days, unless it was extremely wet, I would take my chickens out to their patch of grass, where they could peck around to their hearts’ content (with food and water on hand). Encouraging them into this new regime was a struggle at first, but, within a week, they’d got the hang of it, and each morning, I’d swing open the gate and enjoy their ungainly 300-yard sprint to the run.

A roomy outdoor run provides all the elements required for chickens to satisfy their natural urges. As the weeks went by, the grass and clover became noticeably shorter as they pecked away at it, and bare patches emerged where they had excavated bugs and grit. Grit is an essential part of the chicken’s digestion process, because they have gizzards instead of teeth to grind food. To facilitate the grinding process, the gizzards employ pebbles and other hard, indigestible objects that they collect while foraging. If you keep your chickens inside, ensure that they have an unlimited supply of poultry grit.

I fed my chickens on a constant supply of blended, non-GM maize meal (which gives the meat the yellow colour that gains a premium in the supermarkets) and soya from a local feed merchant, but Graham Smith from the Utility Poultry Breeders’ Association says: ‘You can’t go wrong with a proprietary pelleted feed: five-week-old chicks can be fed on poultry grower for the first few weeks, and finished on finisher pellets.’ I supplemented the meal with scraps from the kitchen-fruit and vegetable peel and bread soaked in water, which they attacked with gusto. It’s a good idea to buy feeders that you can hang from the ceiling, as this prevents them from standing and defecating in the food. You must also make sure that they have a constant supply of water-chickens drink a lot.

After six weeks, my chickens had quadrupled in size and the behaviour of the cockerels was making it clear that their thoughts were moving beyond the feeder. Mrs Hookins, my supplier, was appalled when I told her that I’d heard one’s first shaky attempts at a cock-a-doodle-doo. ‘They won’t fatten once they’re on with that,’ she said. ‘You’ve done the easy bit. Now you need to start killing them.’

It’s best to starve your chickens for 24 hours before you begin, as undigested maize can get in the way of the butchering process. D-Day arrived, and I entered the barn and grabbed one of the cockerels by the legs. The ancient method of ‘pulling a chicken’s neck’, when conducted firmly and decisively, is recognised as one of the most humane methods of killing them. It involves grasping the legs of the bird in one hand (stroking the bird’s back at this point has a calming effect) at the same time as grabbing the top of the neck, near the head with the other, and pulling firmly in opposing directions until you hear a click (the sound of the neck vertebrae disengaging.) The bird will quiver and flap briefly before becoming still. If you’re uncertain, check for the dilated pupils that show the bird is dead. Next, hang the bird by its feet and cut its throat to allow it to bleed for a few minutes-this means less mess when you come to dress the bird. After this, you can begin plucking, which is easier while the bird is warm.

Practitioners will tell you that dry-plucking results in a pinker, well-finished carcass, but if you’re doing several birds by hand, it makes life easier if the carcass is dropped into a bucket of hot water (51 degrees centigrade to 53 degrees centigrade) for 15 seconds to 2½ minutes beforehand. These temperatures and times must be controlled to avoid scalding the bird, and the water bath should be cleaned and disinfected thoroughly before use. Plucking by hand should take about 20 minutes per bird. Avoid the temptation to pull too many feathers out at a time, as you can rip the skin this way.

If you have a chiller, you may choose to hang the bird for a few days to allow for an increase in flavour. I left them for 24 hours. For the process of drawing and dressing the bird, I took my lead from the Soil Association’s website, beginning by removing the head, then cutting the neck skin from body to head, cutting the neck away from the carcass. Then, I carefully cut around the vent at the other end of the bird, making sure that I didn’t cut into the intestine. Having made enough room to put my hand inside the bird, I was able to ‘draw’ it, that is remove the innards and the crop (which is where the chicken keeps undigested food). I saved the separated liver, gizzard and neck for the purposes of gravy and stock. Having checked for any remaining offal inside the bird, I trussed it with string so that its legs and wings remained in place during the cooking process.

The chicken made its debut on our kitchen table four days later, and a friend who sampled another emailed me, saying: ‘The hen was superb-flavour delicious-and it was so huge that it carved in “sheets'”, as my father used to say.’

You’ll make a reluctant return to the supermarket bird once you’ve sampled your own.

Facts about chickens

* Approximately 860 million chickens are reared for their meat in the UK each year. Chickens can be reared

in one of three systems-indoors, free range or organic

* Hens are housed in one of the following systems: 63% in battery cages, 6% in barn systems and 31% in free-range systems

* Under new European legislation, conventional battery cages will be banned in 2012

* In commercial intensive farming, a chicken generally lives just six weeks before being slaughtered and may only have living space equivalent to the size of an A4 sheet of paper.

* A free-range or organic chicken will usually be slaughtered when it’s about 14 weeks old

* Following the discovery of vitamin D in 1922, it became possible to keep chickens in confinement all year round. Before this, chickens were scarcely available and expensive during the winter months, as they suffered from a lack of sunlight

Where to buy chickens to keep

Cyril Bason (Stokesay) Ltd (01588 673204; www.cyril-bason.co.uk) or R. C. Hookins (01747 821047) for Cobbs; Poulet Anglais (01790 763066) for Hubbard-ISA table breeds, day-old chicks and hatching eggs, or S. & T. Poultry (01945 471478/07885 718195) for Sasso breeds

Try the poultry section of your local newspaper or the classified sections of magazines such as Practical Poultry and Country Smallholding for listings of poultry suppliers. Alternatively, visit www.poultry.allotment.org.uk/chicken/Poultry_Breeders

Where to buy chickens to eat:

S. J. Frederick & Sons, Essex (01279 792460, www..sjfrederick.co.uk); Simon Cattermole, New Buckenham, Norfolk (01953 860264; www.scatty.co.uk); Childhay Manor Organics, Blackdown, Dorset (01308 868709; www.childhaymanor.com); Ash Farm Organics, Dereham, Norfolk (01362 683228; www.ashfarmorganics.co.uk); Brown Cow Organics, Shepton Mallet, Somerset (01749 890298; www.browncoworganics.co.uk); Eversfield Organic, Okehampton, Devon (0845 603 8004; www.eversfieldorganic.co.uk); Higher Hacknell Farm, Umberleigh, Devon (01769 560909; www.higherhacknell.co.uk); Higher Fingle Farm, Exeter, Devon (01647 281281; www.exmoor-organic.co.uk); Pipers Farm, Cullompton, Devon (01392 881380; www.pipersfarm.com); Berkswell Traditional Farmstead Meats, Meriden, Warwickshire (01676 522409; www.farmsteadmeats.co.uk); Providence Farm Organic Meats, Holsworthy, Devon (01409 254421, www.providencefarm.co.uk); Pierce-bridge Organic Farm, Darlington, Co Durham (01325 374251); Rutland Organic Poultry, Ketton, Rutland (01780 722009)

Also, Freedom Food-labelled, indoor-reared chicken is now available at Asda, Budgens, The Co-operative, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Somerfield. Freedom Food chickens are inspected by the RSPCA and farms adhere to strict welfare practices. Visit www.supportchickennow.co.uk/freedomfood.

Breeds of chicken

Light Sussex

Strong and hardy all-British table-and-egg breed. White, with black-striped hackle feathers. Takes about nine months to fatten


Strong and hardy all-British table-and-egg breed. White, with black-striped hackle feathers. Takes about nine months to fatten

Ross Cobb

Most factory-farmed broilers are variations on the fast-growing Cobb breed. In a natural habitat, it’s a good eater


Bold, upright breed with a wide chest and a small head and tail. Gentle birds, tolerant of toddlers and smaller dogs

Indian game

Somtimes called Cornish. An extra-ordinarily wide bird resembling a bulldog. The distance between its thighs gives it a characteristic waddle. A delicious table bird.

Marsh daisy

A rare breed well suited to damp situations. Good to eat, and a ‘good laster’, laying and breeding for five to six years. Averages 100 eggs a year


Both varieties-Single-Combed and Turkey-Headed-are big, upstanding birds and exceedingly hardy. A fine table bird, prized for its succulent, juicy flesh.

Rhode Island Red

As it names suggests, this breed has rich red plumage. It’s also an excellent layer, producing good-sized tinted brown eggs

* Top tips for keeping chickens