7 June 2007

How we started keeping chickens

It was just over a year ago, I think, that we first had the idea. Only God knows what posessed us, perhaps it was visiting the Happy Hens and feeling fed up that we didn't have room for a goat (they were selling a pair of kids as pets and we so longed to take them home with us!). Perhaps it was part of my desire to have a "real" garden - one that produced things, one that helped us to be truly part of the world in more than a passive consumer sense.

Whatever the reason, we were a little late in the year really and it just didn't happen. I started looking up everything I could find and became totally fascinated with these amazing animals (yeah OK, birds). I started looking at breeds that wouldn't mind being in our backyard, breeds that didn't mind being handled, breeds (importantly) that didn't need too much attention.

It isn't wise to try to keep one hen on its own (they pine, as communal birds they can't be lonely) and we read that the ideal number to start with would be four as you should apparently expect that a couple won't settle in or will die in transit. We weren't having that. If birds die in transit, we said to ourselves, then they mustn't be being transported very well. No failure for us (lol) and certainly no risk of having too many to care for because we only had the money for a medium rabbit hutch and that would have to accomodate them.

Two it was. Looking for suppliers of other things (food, bedding, grit) we found someone who would sell us two hens - luckily of our preferred variety - Rhode Island Reds crossed with West Sussex. If you picture in your head what a chicken looks like, these are they. Utility birds, gingery brown and slightly speckled with white, fat but not too large, feathery and downy and bright in the eye. We loved them.

Delia and Pippin came back to our house in a large cardboard box with holes in the sides, tied up with string and resting on my lap. The baby cried all the way home but they didn't seem bothered and contentedly explored their new home with a little timidity but mostly just the brazen curiosity that is part and parcel of these creatures' personality.

Three months on and they are properly into their first season of laying - we deliberately chose chooks that had just started their first laying season, young birds with a good long life ahead of them (hopefully). To start with we would have an egg every couple of days, but now we have two a day almost every single day. We've eaten a lot of eggs, and learnt a lot of fun trivia. Did you know that a chicken can run at 8mph? Or that chicks take 20 days to hatch, but if the fetilised egg is not warmed up it will remain in stasis and not develop? How about that even with their wings clipped they can fly just over four feet in the air from a good run-up? (We were told they could not do this!)

So, there you have it. We are the owners of some lovely egg-laying pets, and the hobby is only growing in popularity in this country.

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