In this feature series, we are asking our writers to choose the perfect flock for the back garden, one that is attractive, interesting, stable, harmonious and with a good level of egg production. This month: Samantha Bowles
With so many breeds available to hen lovers worldwide, it can be a tricky decision to choose your perfect flock! Over the many years I have kept hens, I have had a number of different breeds and think that I have finally found the ones that fit my particular requirements.
My main love is for bantams. Smaller variations of large fowl and true bantams have equally found favour with me over the years. My choice of bantams was originally down to the fact that I inherited a really lovely garden, full of pretty borders and a pristine lawn. Past experience has shown that large fowl birds both pure breed and hybrid, can quite easily decimate a lawn or flower bed within a matter of months, laying waste to young plants and scratching up the lawn. The main priority was to choose hens that would do less damage, particularly if I had quite a few (which happens faster than you would think!).
I really wanted my hens to be free-range, so it was important to choose birds carefully. Attractiveness, laying ability and a gentle nature were also high on my list, as I run hen-keeping courses. I also wanted the flock to be happy together, so feisty characters would not make for a good combination. I did make a few mistakes along the way, by letting my heart rule my head and forgetting the original brief! The following five breeds, to me, are serious contenders for my perfect flock, a tried and tested combination, which I have found to be a happy and contented lot!
One breed that for me has become a top favourite is the Appenzeller Spitzhauben. It ticks all the right boxes, but mainly because it is so spectacular. The national breed of Switzerland is named after the strange shaped bonnets worn by the women and girls of the Appenzell region. Both the hen and cock birds have a very extravagant crest, which resembles these hats. They come in a variety of colours with the silver spangled being the most well known. Bantams have only recently been ‘standardised’ by The Poultry Club of Great Britain and can be hard to find. The large fowl version, until fairly recently, tended to be on the small side and could in some cases pass quite easily as a large bantam. I currently have a large fowl silver spangled hen within my flock, but you couldn’t really call her large by any means! My little bantams are a beautiful bunch, looking like a group of young girls dressed up for a night out with their elaborate hairdos and spotty dresses in silver, gold and chamois! Apps are an extremely hardy breed, who are used to foraging on very little. They produce small, white eggs, often throughout the year and very rarely go broody. One of the downsides of this pretty hen is that they don’t like confinement and prefer to be free-range. They will often roost in trees as they can fly very well, which can be a problem if foxes are an issue. I have found that with a little training, they soon learn that the hen house is the safest place to be. Hand taming will require a fair amount of patience as they can be flighty and nervous, but handling when young solves this problem. They mix well with others, as they are just happy to be themselves!
PROS: Hardy, good layers, very attractive, easy going with other breeds.
CONS: Prefer free-range environment, not easy to handle, difficult to source.
Second on my list is the very friendly Booted Bantam, known as Sablepoots in the Netherlands. These are true bantams and as such there is no large fowl equivalent. They come in a large variety of colours and are classed as an ornamental breed and therefore do not generally lay many eggs. The hens I have had have been mixed and some have been excellent layers. Broodiness can be a problem, but they seem to be fairly easy to discourage and I have never had an issue. I chose the Booted Bantam as they are extremely easy to handle and very friendly. They do, however, have a downside in that whilst their feathered feet do very little damage to the garden, the feathers must be kept dry, especially in the winter. These cute little bantams are good mixers, but can be bullied by strong characters as they are quite small and find it difficult to get away due to their long feathers around their feet. However, the cock birds can be quite feisty!
PROS: Gentle, easy to handle, attractive, very little damage to flowerbeds
CONS: Few eggs, can be broody.
Next up, is the bantam welsummer, a fabulously reliable, traditional looking hen, with their beautiful golden brown colour, these are much loved by all who visit my flock. The Welsummer was created in Holland after much crossing of various breeds including Barnevelders but it wasn’t introduced to the UK until the 1920s. The bantam is now fairly widely available and I have found them to be fantastic layers of beautiful brown eggs. Their easy-going nature makes them ideally suited to a mixed flock and their egg laying reliability is a welcome boost to the supply. I have never had a single Welsummer go broody on me, but I am reliably informed that it can happen, but they are easy to dissuade. Neither of my bantams is particularly friendly, but they will submit to being handled and I am sure they would be easier if I had more time to do so.
PROS: Easy to source, excellent layers of good sized eggs, pretty traditional looking bird.
CONS: Can be nervous and twitchy to handle.
The bantam orpington is up next. I am really fond of these and have had more of these than any other breed. I struggle to decide between these and the Appenzellers as my favourite. I change my mind frequently! The Orpington was created by William Cook of Orpington, Kent in 1880, originally as just a large fowl that was good for both eggs and meat. These days the Orpington is often used more for looks than its egg laying abilities but the bantams seem to be much better layers than the original large fowl. They come in so many colours, with my favourites being the fairly rare jubilee (similar to Mille Fleur) chocolate and buff. These are fabulously friendly birds with a calm nature. Handling them is so easy and they are more than happy to have a cuddle. They are easy going with other birds, but can be bullied if you have strong characters within your flock. The bantams can be a much larger size than the average bantam – after all, the large fowl equivalent is really quite huge! Despite their size I have not found them to be very destructive. They mix well with even the smallest of hens, so they really are a gentle bantam ‘giant’.
PROS: Bantams are good layers, easy to handle, pretty, very gentle.
CONS: Can be broody
Finally, in my ideal flock, has to be the bantam plymouth rock, a breed created in the United States in the mid-18th century from the Java, amongst many breeds. These hardy birds are excellent layers and very even tempered, happy to mix in with the crowd. The barred pattern is the most common and rightly, popular colour of this lovely hen. However, I have yet to find bantam barred hens in my area so I have buff and black with the buff being my favourite. They don’t tend to go broody, but I have to confess that my black hens are rather prone to it. The buff have never gone broody! They are easy to break out of it though so it has never bothered me. They lay so well that mine often carry on throughout the winter, so they are a welcome supply in the usual ‘no eggs’ winter wilderness!
PROS: Prolific egg layers, very hardy, easy going.
CONS: Can be difficult to source.
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