Andrew and Sue Bowden have been saving rare chicken breeds for 40 years. They spoke to Tessa Waugh; portraits by Richard Cannon.

‘I’ve always thought that chickens were great fun. Watching hens having a dust bath is a delight and the noise they make is very calming,’ explains rare-breed-poultry enthusiast Andrew Bowden.

Canon Bowden and his wife, Sue, have been keeping poultry since the 1970s.

‘We had an old-fashioned rectory with three walled gardens in Byfield, Nortamptonshire, which we filled with chickens,’ he recalls.

‘People were starting to get involved in self-sufficiency and it was a very exciting time.’

©Richard Cannon/Country Life

©Richard Cannon/Country Life

The Bowdens were founder members of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) and Mrs Bowden was instrumental in the rediscovery of the Norfolk Grey breed, which was thought to be extinct.

‘My wife went to a farm to buy a hen house and noticed some unusual chickens scratching around,’ says Mr Bowden.

‘She was astonished when the farmer told her they were Norfolk Greys, so she bought six hens and a cockerel and began the recovery of the breed.’

At one point the Bowdens had more than 15 different breeds of poultry, but now concentrate on their favourites: Belgian bantams for Mrs Bowden and Andalusians for the Canon, which he describes as ‘active, vigorous, vibrant, elegant and beautiful as well as being very good layers’.

©Richard Cannon/Country Life

Andrew Bowden with his rare poultry ©Richard Cannon/Country Life

Canon Bowden is working with the RBST and the Rare Poultry Society to encourage a more structured approach to breeding for the Andalusians so that the gene pool can be preserved.

‘Many rare breeds are down to 100 or even 15 breeding hens,’ he explains.

‘Over the years, the old breeds have been maintained in the showing fancy, but those breeders’ focus is on producing show birds. Unfortunately, this trend may compromise the birds’ genetic variety and can lead to fertility and egg-laying problems. It’s about changing the culture.’