Breeds that are best for the keen gardener. By Charlotte Popescu
M y hens have the run of the garden, which includes the lawn, paddock and neighbours’ gardens. Any areas of bare earth get a good going over by a rabble of scratching hens; so a flower border is unlikely to survive.
Most of my vegetables are grown under netting or in a vegetable cage. But you should be aware that inquisitive hens will find holes or ways of getting through netting to eat those succulent newly-grown lettuces in the late spring or summer! Flowers such as daffodils are fine and my lavender and most herbs don’t get touched. Flowers such as pansies, sweet peas, petunias and lobelias are best grown in hanging baskets.
If you have a beautiful garden with many precious plants, then your best bet is to go for the feather-legged breeds who are less able to use their feet to good effect when scratching. These breeds will have feathers half or fully covering their feet. They will still need to have dust baths though, so you should give them access to an area of bare earth or guide them to a box of dry earth (which can be mixed with ashes and /or sand) so that they can have a daily bath to rid themselves of parasites. The feather-legged bantam breeds will take up less space so would be ideal for small, immaculate gardens.
Here are my three choices from the feather-legged breeds:
The cuddly, friendly, many-coloured Pekins are ideal for families with young children and modest gardens. Pekins are small true bantams, with an abundance of feathers on their bodies and their feet are entirely covered with feathers. Pekins are so lightweight they can easily be carried around by small children. The feathered feet will mean they find it hard to do a lot of scratching so your garden should remain pretty much intact. The disadvantage is that their feathered feet can get wet; balls of mud can form on their feet which are sometimes hard to remove. Pekins are pretty with single combs and their legs are short so their whole bodies appear to be very near the ground. They ideally like a nicely mown lawn as long grass proves difficult to walk through. Pekins lay small cream-coloured eggs and like to go broody, but can’t sit on too many eggs. My little buff Pekin does very well, fostered some chicks last year, when her own hatch failed, and is now seven years old. ?
The Sablepoot or Booted Bantam comes to us from the Netherlands. The little hens are really sweet with beautiful markings and feathered feet. The lemon millefleur seems very popular as its colouring is so exquisite. These little bantams are very garden-friendly and won’t scratch up your borders; the cockerel is also very good looking and his crow is not noisy and shouldn’t disturb the neighbours at all! Sablepoots have longer legs than Pekins so their bodies are higher off the ground.
If you want something even more exotic go for the Barbu D’Uccle which was developed by crossing the Sablepoot with the Barbu d’Anvers (Antwerp Bearded Bantam). The Barbu D’Uccle has muffling around the neck resembling someone with a collar turned up against the cold. Barbu D’Uccles are good fliers and quite active. Sablepoots, on the other hand, don’t fly, so you might well decide to keep them in a safe, covered run letting them out on the lawn when it is dry. Both need to be protected in bad weather and kept out of muddy areas. Both are best kept in reasonably sheltered gardens to avoid the risk of attacks from sparrow hawks or buzzards. Neither breed is a prolific egg layer and the eggs are whitish and small.
The Brahma is a heavy, soft-feathered breed and another ideal choice for the garden; feathers cover the outside half of the legs and toes, so a lot of scratching is difficult. You can get bantams or large fowl if you have plenty of room.
Large fowl Brahmas are big (weighing in at 5-6kg) – they have a sort of majestic massiveness and have been variously described as ‘noble and commanding’ and ‘intelligent looking’. They have very small combs and rounded, plump bodies giving a compact appearance. They do need space, but, because they don’t fly, are easy to keep in a run.
They have been used in the creation of many new breeds and in developing new colours in existing ones. They come in a variety of colours including buff Columbian (buff coloured with black in the neck and tail feathers), gold (black pencilling on a gold background), dark (black pencilling on a white background), light (black neck striping and tail feathers on a white background) and white. Hens lay tinted eggs. Brahma bantams were developed by Mr Entwisle of Wakefield, Yorkshire in the 1880s. They are a good size for a bantam, being bigger than Pekins and Sablepoots.
I recently acquired a trio of gold Brahma bantams who are very attractive and look great in the garden; they are docile, but quite timid.
If garden-friendly is interpreted as helping you in the garden, then any of the hybrids such as Warrens, Bluebelles or Speckledies will be very keen to assist with digging your vegetable plot, falling over themselves and your fork to devour worms and will also gobble up pests such as slugs, snails, woodlice, earwigs and ants and will rake over earth dug up in winter, depositing some excellent manure in the process.
All hens can also help with weeding, munching up any chickweed, clover, dandelions or even hairy bittercress. They will eat the growing tips of grass on your lawn and fertilise it as well, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying they will mow your lawn for you!