Geoff Hancock takes a light hearted look at the start of his poultry keeping
The overriding requirement was that the chickens should be dual purpose, so that when they ceased to be economically viable regarding egg production, they should be large enough for the table. More bluntly, when more was going in one end than coming out the other, we would eat them. Well, that was the theory.Country Smallholding failed to warn you about them becoming pets, with the inherent emotional attachment. We, the family, had deliberated over the breed. As well as being good producers of eggs and meat, they had to look reasonably attractive around the place.We quite liked the idea of having some of the old traditional breeds, as opposed to hybrids (thereby sacrificing egg production slightly, but well, we only needed a few eggs for the house, not the whole village). Market research was performed by traipsing around The Three Counties Show. My only interest was the poultry tent, but we had to cover the showground systematically, just in case we missed one of the many stands selling wax jackets and posh wellies, portraits of labradors, and carved walking sticks, plus numerous stands more associated with car boot sales and Sunday markets.We eventually arrived at the poultry tent late in the afternoon, hot, weary, hungry, irritable and more interested in home, comfy chairs and a cup of tea. My wife, announcing that this would be the last stop before setting off and stopping at a pub on the way, reinvigorates everyone, especially me.A lap record of the circuit of cages, pausing to admire certain pre-selected specimens. Fortunately, I’d already narrowed the field down to the Marans, Welsummer, Rhode Island and Light Sussex. The rest of the family viewed each from a different perspective, and the wife and kids looked at each as a potential pet, and greeted each pit-stop with: “ah, they’re nice looking” or variations based on aesthetics. I viewed each of the cage’s inmates like a cartoon fox, conjuring up balloon bubbles with images of steaming roast chicken with all the trimmings.Eggs of many coloursFrom a distance, the trestle tables by the exit looked like a well organised and catalogued pebble beach, laden with samples of eggs from every breed. Close up, it was like a paint chart. Every shade of white, from virginal snow, through cream, to pale barley straw. A small sea of blues through to greens. Every shade of brown, from dark chocolate, to warm, golden sandstone. The dark chocolate ones begged to be picked up and eaten.We had decided that six hens and a cockerel would provide sufficient eggs. Contrary to popular belief, a cockerel isn’t required for egg production, only if fertile eggs are required. However, as usual, we humans tend to anthropomorphise all animals, so we thought we had better cater for all their needs. A happy hen is a productive hen, or so we thought.We thought that a selection of breeds would look more picturesque than a monoculture. Actually, the real reason was indecision. Two of each and one cockerel, we didn’t think he’d be fussy, or racist. He was neither. Or rather, as we ended up with more cocks than intended, they were neither. Eventually, that is, once the hens stopped playing hard to get.It’s rather embarrassing only buying two hens from a breeder who has hundreds. Consequently, our flock was considerably larger than intended. We even supplied my wife’s school staff, until the hens decided to take strike action. “One out, all out!” they squawked, and promptly gathered their feathery skirts up, settled down on anything egg shaped, and went broody. But that’s another story.Field daysHaving access to an adjacent grass field ensured that the garden escaped the ravages of this fluffy horde. When loosed out each morning, they would emerge from their garden compound, via the players’ tunnel, jogging down the ramp into the field, invoking the theme tune to Match of the Day. Bouncing and swaying on invisible springs, with their voluminous skirts held up by short feathery arms, they race away to delve into the long grass, the docks, the nettles and the hedge bottom. Scratching the turf, and overturning sticks and stones with scaly claws, inspecting the underside of every leaf and cranny, with their soulless, blinking, beady eyes. Looking like Viking raiders, in their billowing capes, they show no mercy, whether it’s grubs, insects, including butterflies, a startled mouse or vole, an unsuspecting toad, frog, or newt. They’re all ruthlessly dispatched.The hens announce the laying of an egg, as though they are the first to have achieved this wondrous event. They strut around calling out for a medal. Phuk, phuk, phuk, phuk, phuk it, phuk it.. or is it the equivalent of a new mother’s declaration of “never again!”? But instead, cockerels appear from all directions to claim her. The victor, extending a fan like arm and performing a Flamenco-type shuffle, then escorts her to his harem, rather like an over-zealous waiter, ushering a late diner to his table.The way to a hen’s heartCockerels have to use various ploys to satisfy their needs. One is to scratch at the ground to expose a tasty morsel, while emitting an excited warbling sound. When an unsuspecting, greedy hen rushes in and bends to peck the juicy larvae, the cockerel darts up behind, quickly mounts, and gives her the best five seconds she’s ever had. After which she shakes down her ruffled downy petticoats, and stomps off indignantly, as if to say: “Well, I’ve had better!” If cunning and subterfuge fail, then the cockerel resorts to a variation of good old-fashioned kiss chase. All techniques result in wham-bam, thank you-mam.At feeding time, I imitate the deceitful call of the cockerel as I broadcast the corn into the field, with a sweeping arc of the arm. Eager fowl converge from their favoured areas. They start cautiously, as though suspecting you know what, gaining speed once they recognise me, until they charge, necks straining, on an arrow-like path. They bounce from side to side, directly at me, like miniature rugby players, ball tucked under their wings as though intending to barge through the opposition. Some, fearing being last to the trough, take flight, ungainly, like wounded bomber planes, and crash-land in the midst of the feeding frenzy, almost cartwheeling. They surreptitiously caste about with an embarrassed shake of plumage, as though concerned about having shown their knickers, then a few seconds of feigned indifference, before diving into the fray.
This article is from the October 2006 issue of Country Smallholding magazine. << To order back issues click the link to the left.