History of Chicken-Keeping in UK (Part II)

Here’s the continuation of the feature story posted in theguardian.com entitled “The Zen of hens: the rise and rise of chicken-keeping.” It discusses the history and evolution of chicken-keeping in the United Kingdom.

Alongside a growing awareness of the intelligence and sociability of chickens, there is also an increasing demand for cheap chicken meat. The latter is driving the growth of intensive chicken farming. Last year, for the first time, chicken overtook red meat as the most popular in the UK. Worldwide, 50 billion chickens a year are bred for slaughter, mostly under industrial conditions, in vast, windowless sheds.

Lauriston Primary School in Hackney, east London, is surrounded by high-density housing; it’s not the sort of place you’d expect to find an apple orchard with a few hens scratching contentedly but here they are, four ginger chickens housed in a large walk-in run. For the last few years I, with other parent volunteers, have helped maintain the school vegetable garden here. We planted the orchard and got the first chickens in 2013. The first six were killed by a fox a year or so later (the door to the run had not been secured properly). Undaunted, the school bought fertile eggs and incubated them.

Learning support assistant Stephanie Wilson puts the chickens to bed each night and collects the eggs. “They’re my chickens. I’ve looked after them since they were chicks. I brought them home every weekend and they stayed in a rabbit hutch in my sitting room. I’ve got attached to them”.

Year five pupil Lucas, aged 10, recalls with pleasure the day the chicks hatched out three years ago. “We put the eggs in a cage [incubator] in the library and when you came out of assembly, you checked to see if they were hatching. Lots of people were excited. Classes went down to see the eggs cracking open. The chicks were soft and fluffy, very cute.” For Lucas, the chickens offer a break in routine. “When you don’t have anything to do at play time, you can go and look at the chickens. I think the school would feel different without them.”

Ayman, aged seven, is part of a year two eco-team who help out in the school garden once a week. “I made a swing for the chickens and I put a cabbage in a net for them to jump up to.” He is thoughtful for a moment. “Some children feed the chickens grass and it makes them happy.”

His brother Zakaria, aged 10, thinks that it is a good thing the school has animals: “It teaches you to clean up and be responsible. As you grow up, you take less notice of them but I like thinking about how they use the eggs in our lunches.”

Kim Stoddart has a smallholding in Ceredigion, west Wales, where she grows food, runs gardening courses and offers a calm space for people with autism. She has kept a mixture of traditional breeds and ex-battery hens for eight years and has seen at first hand the therapeutic power of chickens.

“Every person with autism is an individual. There are issues with over- and under-stimulation to do with color and noise but there are so many ways that chickens can help,” she says. “Looking after chickens gives you autonomy and a routine. By giving responsibility, you build confidence. Time outside also helps with emotional regulation and wellbeing. On a practical level, collecting and washing the eggs, and stroking or picking up the chickens, also helps with fine motor skills.”

Each person will react differently. “One lad who came here couldn’t be around animals before. Chickens move fast and make loud sudden noises but he was moving around with the chickens, he had the bucket and the food and dealing with the chickens at close hand, herding them, made him tune into them. This is another thing animals can do, take an autistic person out of themselves.”

For Kim and her son, who was diagnosed with autism a few years ago, the chickens are something to laugh about together. “Arthur finds them hilarious, especially when they jump up high to catch flies.”

The chickens have also helped him gain more enjoyment from food. “Every morning you have to let them out, feed them and then collect the eggs, which you can then cook with. It’s a full-circle connection. Arthur loves cooking, he makes his own breakfast of scrambled eggs or pancakes every day.”

Kim loves to see her cockerel strut and swagger and keep his hens in line – she finds the cockerel’s preening vanity and machismo amusing. “He won’t go out of the hen house when it rains; he likes to keep his feathers clean, so he can look immaculate.”

Tessa Fitch, a hen-keeper and beauty therapist, lives in the village of Aldbourne, Wiltshire, with her husband Eddie Barisha, a chef, and their daughter Grace, aged six. Fitch runs her business from a luxuriously fitted-out shed in the back garden. She credits the hens in her garden with making a trip here a bit different from your average neon-lit salon.

“We wanted a pet that would be low maintenance, plus Grace has allergies to cats and dogs. We started with 10, which we got from a local smallholder. We had one very special ex-battery chicken called Lola and she was the friendliest chicken ever. We took her to the annual animals church service on the green and she squawked and clucked along to the hymns. We were devastated when she was killed by a local dog.”

The last two years have given Fitch a crash course in chicken care. “To start with, they were free-range and kept getting into the churchyard. We realised we needed to fence them better when someone said they’d found some eggs on their husband’s grave.”

Fitch’s current favorite is a large Cochin. “We bought her off a local Facebook group, Wiltshire Mum’s, where people sell stuff. She came with her husband Frederick (now deceased). They told us he wouldn’t crow as he had virtually no voice box, which turned out to be a total lie.” For Fitch, having hens in the garden is much more about their company than their role as food providers. “To be honest, I’m a bit over eggs and Grace is not that bothered either,” she says.

“My customers love looking out at them when they are having their treatments and I love watching them, too, the way they are aimlessly scratching and pecking all day. Chickens are at one with the earth,” she says “you get lost in what they’re doing.”

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