Adam Henson, presenter of the BBC TV programme Countryfile, keeps a variety of rare breed poultry at his Cotswold Farm Park in Gloucestershire. He talked to Your Chickens about the importance of conserving these threatened breeds
At the Cotswold Farm Park we work closely with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) of which my dad, Joe Henson, was the founder chairman. Like the RBST, we are committed to conserving rare breeds for three main reasons: as a living museum to enable people interested in our heritage to come and see the types of animals our ancestors farmed; for research purposes, to study in detail the diversity and variation found in these old fashioned breeds; and, most importantly, to keep our options open for the future – our farming needs are constantly changing and, if livestock breeders are to mould their animals to fit these changing needs, it is vital they have a pool of genetic material to fall back on.
Poultry is no exception. The RBST currently names 38 breeds of chicken, 10 turkey, seven goose and 14 duck breeds as being on the rare breeds list. I appreciate that people have different criteria for their poultry – especially smallholders – but throwing a few rare breeds into your flock will not only add some variety, it will help conserve them at the same time. Add a cockerel into the mix, and who knows how effective your rare breed conservation could be!
People have a variety of pets, from cats to dogs and fish to alpacas, so why should we treat our poultry any differently? Okay, so we may not have chickens clucking in the living room or roosting in the bedroom, but if well cared for they can bring great rewards. Having said that, one of my team had a Black Rock that obviously felt comfortable being the family pet as it was inclined to use the cat flap. Chickens are relatively low maintenance, and will quite happily look after themselves. Not only will you enjoy watching them scratch around the garden and be amazed at their exquisiteness, but think of the benefits to your children; a chance to learn about the food cycle and how to care for animals, while all the time being provided with a healthy food supply. And who doesn’t love a freshly laid egg for breakfast in the morning, especially when produced in your own back yard?
Rare breed chickens that I keep include the Light Sussex, Welsummer, Scots Dumpy, Indian Game, Buff Orpington and dear little Lavender Pekin bantams. My family like variety for our breakfast eggs, so the Light Sussex is favoured for its perfect white shell and our Welsummers for their lovely dark brown mottled colour and amazingly rich yellow yolk. The Buff Orpington has always been great to have around since my kids were young, as they’re so child-friendly, being docile and happy to potter about. Another bonus for lawn lovers of course is that they don’t wreck the garden as much as some of their more prolific laying counterparts.
But don’t worry that rare breed hens don’t make good layers. They won’t perhaps reach the dizzy heights of production of some of today’s hybrids, but, depending on the breed, you could expect to get more than 250 eggs a year. Of course, good nutrition is key to strong plumage and regular egg production. If your soil doesn’t have much grit in it, what we do on the farm is scatter crushed seashells on the ground, resulting in good strong eggshells and happy, stimulated birds.
Adam’s Cotswold Farm Park sells a selection of poultry, from hybrids to pure breeds. Please contact the team for any questions, from choosing the most appropriate equipment and feed, including Adam Henson poultry products – feed from Dodson and Horrell and mineral supplements Imuherb and Invigorate. For more information visit www.cotswoldfarmpark.co.uk www.dodsonandhorrell.com and www.ahsmallholder.com