Henkeeping is
all the rage at a Devon school,
as Rachel Lovell reports

A transformation has taken place in a corner of Totnes in Devon. Every lunchtime, a troop of students are jettisoning bags and coats as they reach for spades and plant pots, mulch and chicken feed.

Here at King Edward VI Community College, a patch of land behind the sixth form block is where they head the minute the lunch bell sounds. What was once a disused and slightly unloved old garden and orchard is now a thriving meeting place for the school’s Gardening Club.

Neil Edwards, a science teacher at the school, explained how the group came about. “I originally set up the Gardening Club to use the walled garden as a teaching resource, offering students and staff an attractive place to go at lunchtimes and in response to a group of students who had allotments and bought plants in to grow.”

“As my classroom was next to the garden, students due to have a lesson with me after lunch would arrive early and spend their break there.”

This hardcore group of founding students continued to join in with the gardening activities, but last spring something changed the attendance levels.

“Things really took off with the arrival of our chickens. They drew many inquisitive visitors, as well as the dedicated club members.”

That first batch of birds was a mixture of Blue Marans, Rhode Island Reds, Suffolk Whites and Plymouth Rocks, and their arrival was greeted with enormous delight from the students and staff alike.

Mark Ellison, a Year 11 student, works at a local rare breeds farm in his spare time, so brings a level of expertise to the group, clipping the birds’ wings and supervising parasite treatments. “I just like watching them do their own thing …it’s really relaxing,” he explains.

For 15-year-old Jordan East, the birds hold a different kind of appeal. “I like being hands-on and doing proper stuff. I prefer being outdoors.”

Today, there is a beautiful balance to be found between the aviary, which forms the flock’s temporary home, and the Gardening Club’s vegetable plots. The students choose what they want to grow and sell them to the school canteen where possible, with the profits going back into the garden and birds. The flock dines on waste produce from the garden, and the sale of their eggs adds to the Gardening Club kitty. Meanwhile, the chicken muck is used to fertilise the garden and so helps to continue the cycle of productivity.

The school is keen to make the most of the added layer (if you’ll excuse the pun) of interest the chickens can bring to their classes.

“Science teachers may use them to teach about animal classification, and the land studies group study closed-loop farming methods in the garden, which is essentially what we are doing here, just on a small scale. Even nutrition classes can be taught, where students learn to probe where their food comes from,” explains Neil.

Today I watched the chicken troop, a mixture of boys and girls aged around 14 and 15, as they headed into the aviary. The teenagers were protective of the birds and worked well together, praising the recapture technique for an errant Marans here, admonishing a peer for too swift a movement there.

This core group adopt various levels of responsibility for the day-to-day care of the chickens, while the space also provides work experience placements as part of the school’s vocational courses in animal husbandry in conjunction with South Devon College. Duties include weekly mucking out and health checks; for some, the space and independence allows them, to develop skills more readily than if they were in a class environment.

Another member of the group, Amy Yonwin, agrees. “I like the freedom we get to look after the chickens ourselves. We learn how to handle them, and check them every day for problems.”

There are a number of fail-safes in place, with the school caretaker checking on the birds first thing every day, and a handful of volunteer teachers who look in on them regularly. However, the students are so devoted to the creatures I can’t ever imagine them needing to step in.

Neil is optimistic about the future of the club. “Last year we were lucky enough to get support from the Big Lottery Local Food Fund which helped us buy the birds, build the aviary and, not least, employ Cat Middleditch as a garden supervisor who propelled the project forward. With funding set to continue, later this year we want to move the chickens out into the orchard to increase the fertility and biodiversity.”

There is no shortage of ideas of what to do next. “The students are hoping to breed from the chickens, though I’m not sure that the neighbours will appreciate the noise of a cockerel, so we’ll see about that!” said Neil. “It’s great to see them so enthused, and they get so much out of the birds; the sense of responsibility, an interest in environmental issues and an understanding of the fundamentals of food production… how the chickens are not pets, but instead have a function.

“There is already plenty of interest stirring amongst the junior students; as we have seven chickens to nearly 1,800 students, it’s likely that we’ll need to get a few more!”

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