Rise of the urban chicken

Enthusiasm for keeping chickens has increased dramatically, due to greater awareness of poultry welfare and the ‘Good Life’ zeitgeist, and many converts are city dwellers. Last year, Battery Hen Welfare rehomed 29,272 hens; this year, it has already reached 42,000, with 2,000 birds going out every weekend. Customers include Jamie Oliver and the Duchess of Richmond. Jane Howorth, its founder, explains: ‘People are more aware of the provenance of food, and they want to buy into the rural idyll. Our hens go everywhere from small, suburban backyards to country houses, from prisons to old-people’s homes.’

Environmentalist Nicola Baird keeps two Araucanas, which lay attractive blue eggs, in her north London garden. She bought them from Freightliners Farm in Islington, which ‘babysits’ them when she’s away. ‘We did have a tragedy with a fox at the start of our chicken-keeping career—we never let them out in the garden unsupervised,’ she warns. ‘I transport them on the back of my bike and even took them to a PTA meeting once.’

Anna Paul of Cambridge Poultry, which, in its first year of trade, sells 500 birds a week, says: ‘We always had chickens wandering around our farmyard, and after so many people asked to buy them, we had to rear more for ourselves.’ Figures suggest that about 1,000 chicken houses are sold each week, a year-on-year increase of 30%. The company Omlet, which sells the popular Eglu and runs courses for first-time keepers, has had to double its staff and buy twice as many chickens. Founder James Tuthill reports: ‘January, which is usually quiet, went bananas, we think due to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s and Jamie Oliver’s television programmes [about chicken welfare]. People are also getting interested in different breeds.’ Simon McEwan, editor of Country Smallholder, says: ‘Television has been influential, and its also to do with food costs and miles. Not everyone has room for a flock of sheep, but you can keep a few chickens.’

Ironically, this upsurge coincides with problems in the egg industry. An NFU survey predicts many empty sheds this winter, as production costs chiefly feed—have risen by 26.4%. The organic-egg market was down last month by 13%. EU laws on battery hens change in 2012, but Mrs Howorth points out: ‘There are misapprehensions about this. The new law doesn’t ban the practice; it insists on better conditions, such as larger cages with “furniture”. Other countries will not be subject to these regulations and we could be swamped with imports from them. This is why it’s so important to back British farmers 100%.’