Why you must keep hens

On an unbelievably hot day last August, I stood, leaning against a fence, eating a bag of cheese straws, surrounded by a battalion of once-white vans. At a picnic table nearby sat three whiskery-faced characters fresh out of Hogarth’s London. There was a quiet buzz of activity coming from a tin shed, in and out of which dashed close-cropped boys carrying cardboard boxes and crates. I was in Swaffham, one of Norfolk’s most unspoilt market towns, and one of the few still holding poultry auctions.

Even 10 years ago, there were salerooms in Norwich, Aylsham, Diss and Fakenham. These were the market-day focus for hundreds of men, women and children, a part of whose lives revolved around poultry. Norwich was the biggest-200 lots were sold on a good Saturday. In the mart’s wire cages, stacked three high, was a captivating selection of domestic fowl (poultry would have been too narrow a description). Guinea fowl and peahens, pheasants and partridges, fat white Cobb chickens to be grown still bigger for the table, forlorn pens of unwanted Maran cockerels and proud, glossy bantams, imperiously crowing.

Then came laying hens, a little tatty, but with life in them yet, or a group of pullets full of promise. There were smart trios of older breeds: Light Sussex with their smart black capes, Buff Orpington puffballs of deep cream feathers, Giant Croad Langshans and Brahmas, and the many varieties of elaborately patterned Wyan-dottes. Further on were the exotic additions: foreign species of duck, Californian quail with their angler-fish topknot and, lastly, the domestic ducks and geese.

Fat Aylesbury or Peking ducklings, from day-old fluffballs to slightly charmless teenagers (they used, rather awfully, to be farmed for powder puffs on the coastal marshes at Salthouse). Khaki Campbells and Appleyards, tiny yapping call ducks with stubby yellow beaks and the strange etiolated Indian Runners, so tall that they look as if they’ve been in the middle of a tug of war.

This extraordinary richness and display, this lavishly illustrated living dictionary of farmyard poultry, was once repeated all around the country. It was different to the picturesque French or Italian markets, where carefully curated lorries full of day-old chicks are sold to the still legion small farmers of the various départements. It was different because the English have a special relationship with chickens that survives from our passionate Victorian love affair with fancy poultry.

The ‘fancy fowl’ was carefully bred-characteristics fiercely protected from genetic invaders-and was a ubiquitous part of Victorian Britain. Poultry shows were big business, and aggressively competed in. The lithographer’s art was stretched to the limit as the feathers of 100 now-rare breeds were illustrated in countless breed books and compendiums of chickens. This was a fad that crossed all boundaries of region and class: duchesses and earls, gypsies and labourers could all compete on equal terms in a class where the entries were affordable.

This love survives still in the pages of Practical Poultry and The Smallholder, and in the great renaissance of chicken-keeping that has restocked our gardens in the past decade. And on that hot day last summer, it was surviving still in Swaffham.

The lavishly named Fabian R. Eagle is the auctioneer under whose hammer more than 100 pens of the breeds described above are sold. He’s young, efficient and handles the lots as seriously, as if they were Impressionist paintings. There is a sense of the theatre about all auctions, and although the prices may be lower (a trio of dark Brahmas tops the market at £50), there’s an added excitement to proceedings; the lots are alive and crowing, the dark room is crowded and the singular purchasers and vendors are a group of characters who show that, Blair or Cameron aside, English rural life changes slowly. This gang are beyond the Big Society and are powerfully real.

This is a rather circuitous way of explaining how I found myself driving home with a box of three Bobwhite quail and a tray of the darkest olive-mahogany eggs I have ever seen. My friend Clifford hatched them for me in September, and I now have two hens and a cock (some kind of über-Maran), who are now laying beautiful prize eggs in my garden. They are my pride and joy.

A garden without chickens is like a film without actors: just a series of lovely background shots, but no action. It’s the little parties of bantam hens, with their attendant cock touring the borders, or the broody hen scratching for insects with her chicks, that complete the picture. Of course, wild birds are lovely, but they are the walk-ons, and it’s the hens that have the main parts.

The only minor issue is that not all hens are good gardeners. They are beasts in a seedbed, particularly if they see it as a vital dust bath, but peacocks and turkeys are much worse. I’ve found myself making quite a lot of anti-chicken defences, particularly defending that most desirable of chicken feed-plants, sorrel, which they will do anything to get at. Regular shooing away does work, and I’ve managed an almost entirely ‘out of bounds’ kitchen for years. But there is little to compare with the pleasure of seeing a newly hatched family of bantams on the lawn (it’s an incentive
to mow-they look so good on the velvet sward), so start casting your own film now. You won’t regret it.

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