History of Chicken-Keeping in UK (Part I)

Raising chickens as pets can be life-changing and this practice has evolved through the years in the United Kingdom. Let us share with you a feature posted in theguardian.com entitled “The Zen of hens: the rise and rise of chicken-keeping.”

For more than 8,000 years, chickens have lived close to mankind, their long proximity leaving its mark on our language. We fear things “coming home to roost”, worry about “putting all our eggs in one basket”. Through all those years, the rusty klaxon of the cock’s crow has jolted humanity awake. The cockerel’s miracle-like defeat of darkness has earned him a symbolic place in religions around the world. Heard less often today, a rasping “cock-a-doodle-doo” now conjures a simpler, more rural existence. This rousing barnyard cheer is making a comeback, for a growing number of Britons are discovering the joys of keeping chickens.

Hen-keeping has a long and mostly female history in this country. In the past, “egg money” offered financial independence of a minor kind to the farmer’s wife or, in this case, the vicar’s. In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen lightens the plight of Charlotte Lucas, married off to the pompous Mr. Collins, by giving her a few hens. These provide a welcome distraction. “Her home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry, and all their dependent concerns, had not yet lost their charms.”

In the 19th century, Queen Victoria’s passion for poultry saw her build an extensive hen house in gothic style at Windsor. Her endorsement of breeding and showing poultry sparked a century-long mania for chickens, known as “hen-fever”. Victorian breeders became obsessed with creating ever fluffier and more outlandishly rotund birds, in a huge variety of colors, and many of those bloodlines still exist.

In 1992, Francine Raymond got her first chickens. Four years later, with an evangelizing passion for her new hobby, she wrote and self-published a pamphlet entitled Keeping a Few Hens in Your Garden. It became an underground bestseller. She has been raising rare-breed chickens for pleasure and writing about them ever since. She founded the Henkeepers’ Association in 2006, during the bird flu crisis, to offer health and management advice, and it now has 10,500 members. “I love birds, I feel towards them as others do to mammals. I hate the way chickens are raised for meat,” says Raymond, who no longer eats chicken. She holds her hand out flat: “At six weeks, the age when most birds raised for meat are slaughtered, you can still hold a buff Orpington (a large, fluffy-legged, rare-breed hen) in the palm of your hand.”

Raymond downsized from her Suffolk smallholding to Whitstable in Kent four years ago. “When I first moved here, I didn’t have any chickens but I really missed them. I somehow couldn’t see the point of gardening without them.” Her two hens (she usually has more), have a secure run and a beautiful, handmade wooden coop but are allowed out to garden with her every day. Her most recent book, The Garden Farmer, promotes the virtues of food producing in an urban setting.

“I always keep pure breeds, up to about eight hens. I try and hatch out two new ones each year. In their first year, even rare breeds will lay an egg a day.” The Orpington bantam is a fluffy mass of rusty gold feathers, laced with black, while the speckled Sussex has feathers that gleam a dark rust-red marbled with white. “The Sussex is a vigorous layer but something of a greedy pest when it comes to scratching up the garden. She has drumsticks of steel.”

Raymond’s new garden is already well established with fruit and nut trees, vegetable beds and an eclectic assortment of plants growing out of pots and containers. Her chickens contribute by eating pests and clearing fallen fruits, fertilizing the garden and providing company throughout the year. On a wintry day, they add a splash of color. For Raymond, the decorative beauty of her hens goes hand in hand with their utility. “Growing your own protein gives you power,” she says.

It was Raymond’s hen pamphlet that persuaded journalist and would-be hen keeper India Knight that she could do it, too. Knight moved from Primrose Hill to “deepest Suffolk” three years ago and followed Raymond’s instructions to design the super-secure chicken run she calls Henditz. “We built a seven-foot-high fence, which goes down two feet, and has a two-foot apron going out. It’s made of expensive game mesh, not chicken wire. The chickens are really happy and confident.”

Knight has 11 chickens but plans to get three more this summer. “Chickens occupy that grey area of utilitarian pet. Ours all have names,” she says. “I love the idea of being the Duchess of Devonshire, surrounded by heritage breeds, but they don’t lay enough eggs. I just love ginger chickens and I’m not bothered if they’re a hybrid.”

Knight adores her chickens but is frank about the less alluring aspects of their care. “I can’t stand to see the pecking. It’s raw, bloody and bald and I really don’t like their feet, especially when they get scaly leg mites and I have to brush off the lumps with a toothbrush.” She hastens to qualify her criticisms. “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I do really care for them. In the summer, I sit in there with them with a cup of tea.”

The current boom in keeping hens as pets might owe something to the Eglu. The high-concept, curved plastic hen house was dreamt up by four students at the Royal College of Art. Production of the brightly colored coops began in 2004 through Omlet, the company they formed on graduation, which now sells hen coops worldwide. “We wanted to change the way people behaved, to see if we could get them keeping chickens by making something safe, secure and hygienic. Before, hen huts were mostly homemade, and hard to clean and keep foxproof,” says Johannes Paul, one of the Eglu’s inventors. He has noticed that keepers are getting younger (usually, in their late 20s to 40s) and more discerning.

“People are looking for a pet that’s a bit different. But eggs are still the big draw, as people don’t trust the food chain and this gives them the chance to really connect with where their food is coming from.” For now, he says, “keeping chickens is overwhelmingly a hobby for southerners, although the city with the largest growth is Glasgow, with sales up 1,400% in the last 12 months.” Like Raymond, Paul, too, has given up eating chicken. “It would be like eating one of your colleagues,” he says.

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