Alan Titchmarsh: My chickens are scatty, stupid, selfish and bullying – but I wouldn’t be without them

Chickens are scatty, stupid, selfish and bullying, says Alan Titchmarsh – and yet he wouldn’t be without them.

Every now and then, I see a glorious picture in a magazine of colourful chickens being allowed to roam free in a garden with a velvety lawn and borders brimful of flowers.

The sight is guaranteed to draw a hollow laugh from me, because, in my experience, gardens and poultry don’t mix – if they do, the result is not comfortable.

We first kept chickens more than 30 years ago and haven’t been without them since – everything from glorious Buff Orpingtons that look like amber muffs that go broody at the drop of a hat (rather than producing the hoped-for egg) to feather-footed Lavender Pekins which seem as if a puff of wind would blow them away.

Our current brood – or rather two broods – comprise three Mille Fleur pekins, which are a glorious speckled mixture of cream and caramel and are known as the Beverley Sisters on account of being dressed in identical costumes, and four Bluebell Marans, which are kept in order by a handsome orange-liveried cockerel known as The Admiral. Their eggs have shells the colour of cocoa.

Among them all clucks a golden-brown silkie who’s been with us now for at least five years – probably more – and who, amazingly, still manages to squeeze out the odd egg. She owes me nothing and a handful of corn a day seems a small enough price to pay for her decorative qualities and her Audrey Hepburn-style fur hat.

I know that four hens will produce enough eggs to keep the average family well fed for nine months of the year (they go off-lay in autumn, when the days shorten, and come back on in the new year), but we have children and grandchildren who can use our surplus.

‘I know that some poultry keepers (who probably cuddle their birds every day) say that they’re friendly souls, but mine have habits that are not, to my way of thinking, endearing’

‘Grandchildren fill a space in your heart you didn’t know was empty’ says the embroidered cushion given to us by a friend. They also fill a space in the chicken house, as they’re fascinated by the big fat birds (once they’ve learnt to cope with the shock of a sudden fluttering or squawk) and particularly by egg collecting.

Our four – two boys and two girls, aged between three and seven – race to check the coop for eggs the moment they arrive. In summer, this is second only to picking strawberries and raspberries in the kitchen garden – few of which make it as far as the kitchen, as red-stained fingers and faces bear witness.

I love my grandchildren dearly, but I can’t say the same for the chickens. Oh, I know that some poultry keepers (who probably cuddle their birds every day) say that they’re friendly souls, but mine have habits that are not, to my way of thinking, endearing.

They’re scatty, stupid, selfish, bullying and constantly surprised by life. P. G. Wodehouse wrote a novel entitled Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen. I can confirm that neither are chickens and yet I wouldn’t be without them.

‘The place for chickens is in the orchard, where they have plenty of rough grass that’s capable of withstanding their claws and beaks and where a strand or two of electric fencing will protect them from the fox’

Watching them strut around and forage is endlessly fascinating and, as our house is at the end of the village, we hear no complaints about The Admiral’s early-morning vocalising. (Chickens lay eggs without the need for a cockerel, but he marshals his girls well and I marvel at his livery.)

But in the garden proper? No, thank you. Chickens that are allowed to roam free scratch up seedbeds and the lawn and anything newly planted is in danger of being uprooted in the search for a tasty morsel. Yes, they do help control slugs among hostas, but this is a job that I’d rather entrust to myself as the gardener than the chickens, who are earth-movers after the JCB fashion.

The place for chickens is in the orchard, where they have plenty of rough grass that’s capable of withstanding their claws and beaks and where a strand or two of electric fencing will protect them from the fox. Then, when the pippin blossom is breaking and the petals of plums and damsons are cascading around them like confetti, they are picturesque.

Few garden sights are sadder than a chicken run that’s little more than compacted mud. It’s not pretty to look at and it offers the poultry nothing in the way of vegetarian and insect-rich sustenance to go with the mixed corn, crushed maize, husk-free sunflower seeds and the freeze-dried mealworms that mine get as an early-morning treat.

Rich-golden-yolked eggs are so much better flavoured than pallid battery eggs and there’s no doubt about it: given the right sort of accommodation along with a healthy diet, chickens fill a space in your garden you didn’t know was empty.

Alan Titchmarsh’s My Secret Garden is out now.

little angry chicken standing on earth and shouting