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Open Features: A Bird In The Hand

...Whilst chickens can never be taught to ‘speak’ on command like a dog or watch motionless from the gatepost for the return of their owner, like a cat, hens do have personality. I refuse to believe they are birdbrain or without feelings. Oust one from a picnic spread or barbecue table and make no mistake, that hen will display a real flash of temper....

Mary Pilfold-Allan points out that keeping chickens is now officially chic.

To read more of Mary’s ever-interesting columns please click on http://www.openwriting.com/cgi-bin/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&search=mary+pilfold-allan

Chickens are no longer the prerogative of country folk. The age old scene, conjured up in active urban imaginations as taking a daily stroll down some rose festooned garden to gather new laid eggs from happy hens, who are content to part with their offerings in return for kitchen scraps and a handful of corn, is well and truly defunct. Keeping chickens is now officially chic.

In the name of doing your bit for self-sufficiency, hens are the new ‘way to go’ and the sought after items of celebrities keen to be seen doing their bit for the planet. Getting photographed clutching a clucking chicken is ticking a box for responsible lifestyle and admitting to enjoying eggs laid on your own land, even if it is in some swanky part of London, rates a double plus.

And why not? So there may be a touch of cynicism about the idea of the rich and possibly famous donning green Wellies and tripping over manicured lawns to collect a couple of eggs for scrambled oeufs with a dusting of truffle shavings. What the A, B, C or even Z list do today will be featured in the glossy magazines of tomorrow and a whole new set of people may realise that eggs have another origin than neat boxes of half dozens on supermarket shelves.

Just like people, hens come in all shapes and sizes. What appeals to one person may leave another bemused. Rhodes Island Reds seem to be the workhorse – or should that be workhen – of the egg-laying world, although rare and unusual breeds like Plymouth Rock and Marans with their attractive colouring may well qualify for a higher place in any poultry beauty parade.

As for Bantams, they are my own particular favourites. The varieties seem endless and exotic. Booted and unbearded, frizzled, flecked, cuckoo, the descriptions go on and on. Pekin are said to make good pets, small enough to eat the slugs in the garden without ruining the plants. A likely story…

Anyone thinking of signing up for the ‘Good Life’ needs to be aware that chickens, rather like goats, have a go at eating most things. They also like to indulge in dust baths and can quickly turn an herbaceous border into a barren wasteland of dirt wallows (a contradiction in terms if ever there was one) where they can bask in the sun to their hearts content.

Whilst chickens can never be taught to ‘speak’ on command like a dog or watch motionless from the gatepost for the return of their owner, like a cat, hens do have personality. I refuse to believe they are birdbrain or without feelings. Oust one from a picnic spread or barbecue table and make no mistake, that hen will display a real flash of temper. Likewise, a gentle stroking of feathers, especially whilst a chicken is comfortably ensconced on a lap watching television, brings on a type of hen hypnosis. You think I am joking? Try it.

The latest cult is to rescue battery hens. After a relatively short period of peak egg production, battery birds are discarded. Anyone considering poultry keeping could do a lot worse than seek out one of the rescue-a-hen websites and offering a few birds a new life. I’m told some come with knitted jumpers to keep them warm while their feathers grow back. Am I being conned here? Possibly, but it’s a nice thought. Once the hens have recovered their condition and learnt to live free-range, they start rewarding their owners all over again.

No one thought twice about keeping hens at one time, it was part and parcel of the way we provided for our families. Then the supermarket made it all so easy. Run out of eggs. No more cajoling words to the hens. No more bothering with extra grit to counteract soft shells or being obliged to make the Christmas cake in October before the chickens stop laying. Now shelves are stacked high with small, medium, large and double yolked. Quails eggs, bantam eggs, speckled and plain.

Personally I haven’t yet succumbed to buying a cute coop for the space under my Silver birch but I do try to buy my eggs locally, from hens I can see scratching around and enjoying the benefits of what comes naturally. My eldest daughter however, has a one-part share in a flock of three. The hen in question is called Mayo, a rather attractive bird who, despite not being quite on a par with the goose that laid the golden egg, does do a nice line in deep yellow yolks!


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