Paul Howard visits a chicken-keeping family in Northamptonshire

It was the question many parents dread: “Mummy, can I have a pet?”

When Sally and Dave Tomalin, of Weedon Bec, Northamptonshire, had the question put to them by their then six-year-old daughter Abigael, they asked with some trepidation what she had in mind.

“Well,” Abigael said, “I want a pet rabbit ’cos all my friends have got one and I haven’t got anything!”

Sally and Dave talked it over, and Sally had a brainwave. “I love animals,” she said, “but I would rather see a rabbit running free in a field than cooped up in a small hutch. So I said she could have a chicken as a pet. This met with a quiet pause, and then she said: “I don’t know what chickens do.”

Sally explained about chickens, said all three of them could be involved …. and that they would have the eggs as a bonus.

They went off and bought four birds from a local garden centre. The coop was easy, as Dave is a carpenter and was able to make one. All he had to buy was a small sheet of corrugated roofing and some chicken wire for about £30.

By this time Abigael had come round to the idea of having hens as pets – even more so when her friends thought it was ‘cool’ as none of them had any.

All went well for while …. but then came a shock. One of the four died. Not only that, but the other birds started eating it! “I didn’t realise they did that,” said Sally. “You live and learn.”

Soon after this, one of the remaining three, Hermione, became broody. Sally didn’t want to get a cockerel for her as she thought it would upset the neighbours. Instead, she bought six fertilised eggs from a local farm for Hermione to hatch. She settled on them in earnest, and eventually five indeed hatched.

Of course, all had to have names. This was Abigael’s department. They were called Sherbet, Rosie, Chirps, Stripe and Nugget. They turned out to be a mixture of French Marans and Cream Legbars, while their adopted mum is a Light Sussex.

There was more trouble, however, when the two other hens, Lizzie (a Gingernut Ranger) and Rebecca (a Columbian Blacktail) started to attack the chicks. Hermione retaliated and had a go at the other two if they came anywhere near her chicks. Dave’s carpentry skills came in handy again as a separate little coop was made for the new family.

“I’m pleased we made the decision to keep chickens,” says Sally. “We all love to watch them play and I never knew that they all have their own personalities.

“When Abigael comes home from school, she goes down the garden and talks to them. I tried to get her to clean them out now and again, but I’m afraid that request fell on stony ground. It’s left to Dave and me to do that. They are easy to look after, though, and the little bit of money we take from selling their eggs is used to buy most of their feed.

“Tell you what though,” she says with a frown, “they are a real pest in the garden and on our patio. If they can scratch at anything, they will. I’ve hardly any flowers or veg left now. They will unearth anything from grass to tomato plants. Nothing is sacred, not even my flower boxes (at that, Lizzie starts to dig frantically in the aforesaid box!).

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