Just outside of Guildford in Surrey lies the unique Springbok Estate. This peaceful haven of tranquillity has 12 special ‘residents’ who are enriching the lives of the 50 or so people who live there, particularly their owners Gwyn and Gavin Russell.
The Springbok Estate is owned by the Merchant Navy War Memorial Society and provides accommodation for retired singles and couples who have served in either the Royal Navy or Merchant Navy. The charity was set up just after the First World War to help provide short term convalescence for injured and returning seamen. In particular it provided re-training for a life outside of the Navy. Following WW II money was raised by the people of South Africa as a thank you for keeping the shipping lanes open during the war. Sachel Court was purchased and renamed the Springbok Estate. Set up as a commercial farm it specialised in providing training in animal husbandry and had a large flock of hens for meat and eggs. Re-training ceased in 1993 and it now provides sheltered housing and holidays in 40 properties. It is still a farm, with a tenanted beef herd, and has a spectacular walled garden which provides fruit and vegetables almost all year round and an apiary producing estate honey.
The 12 special resident chickens are a fairly recent addition and the brainchild of Gwyn and Gavin Russell who have lived on the Estate since November 2001. “I have always wanted hens” said Gwyn, “ever since Gavin and I were in Holland in the 1970’s, touring with the semi-professional Jazz Band that Gavin played in part time. We were passing fields on the side of a hill when suddenly, over the hill, poured hundreds and hundreds of hens, flapping and running after being let out for the day. I just fell in love with the funny way they ran and the sheer joy on their faces!” Unfortunately Gwyn was unable to keep hens at the time but the dream of owning her own flock remained with her. “People kept buying me chicken related presents and cards, such was my passion!”
When the Russells initially moved onto the Estate there was no possibility of her dream becoming reality. “Unfortunately the Gardener /Manager of the time was not the most approachable chap and didn’t really relate to the residents, so we didn’t feel as though we could ask to keep hens”. Fortunately a change of personnel occurred and suddenly there was a real possibility of it becoming a reality”. An approach was made to the Residents Committee and the matter was discussed and met with overwhelming enthusiasm. “Luckily at the time Age UK was looking to help fund schemes whereby the Residents could get involved and increase their mobility and overall wellbeing” said Gavin. “They offered to pay for a chicken shed and run and suddenly it was all a reality – fully built with 12 ex-batts installed. It was a bit of a shock to the system!” The question of what type of chickens to get was discussed at length and Gwyn and Norman, another enthusiastic resident, had decided that ex-battery hens would be their first choice. “We wanted to give them a chance of a lovely life at Springbok, just as we have been given!” The choice proved to be a good one. “All the residents took to them immediately. Everyone felt sorry for them with hardly any feathers and looking so scrawny and frail. Many an hour was spent by one and all marvelling over their daily improvement and their wonder at the outside world. People spent hours watching them! They created a warmth amongst everyone, it was fantastic” said Gavin. In time the hens were allowed to roam around the paddock and orchard, but very quickly decided that it just wasn’t enough! “They wanted to visit people and quickly took to wandering into the apartments and bungalows to meet and greet the residents. They also learnt which ones gave the best treats too! Norman is one of their favourites and two of the girls visit him every afternoon – they’ve been nicknamed Gertie & Daisy!” 84 year old Norman remembers his younger days as a small boy “I saved up my money from my after school job as a delivery boy and bought a dozen young white Leghorn birds from the local Captain, who bred them to sell at the auctions. It was very difficult to find feed in those days. To get chicken feed you had to give up your egg ration – which wouldn’t have worked for us as they were not old enough to lay eggs!” Luckily for Norman, whilst out one day, he came across a feed van that had had to swerve to avoid a crashing German bomber. “There was grain all over the road – so I took advantage and scooped up as much as I could and put it in an old bucket I found in the hedge – so it solved the problem of what to feed the young birds until they started to lay”. Seeing the chickens’ everyday brings back Normans childhood days.
Having the hens has not been without trouble for Gwyn and Gavin. “We lost a few hens in the early months” Gwyn recalls. “We started to worry that perhaps we didn’t have enough knowledge so we did a course and felt a lot more confident after that. We do have the experienced help of the Farm Manager but we wanted to have more knowledge ourselves too”. When the numbers dropped the flock was added to with some Copper Marans and Light Sussex. “They are completely different characters to the ex-batts, but after careful introduction they all get along very well and have taken to roaming around and poking their beaks into whatever they can – including joining in on a Trustee Meeting which was being chaired by Bob Crowe, who was a bit surprised to say the least!” laughed Gavin. Many of the residents get involved with the care of the hens, but Gavin and Gwyn do the majority of the work. “Everyone loves them and can’t imagine the estate without them. They bring so much pleasure and many people, including us, while away the hours just watching them scratching about and dust bathing. They really have helped change the atmosphere and provide all the residents with something to get involved in, outside, in the fresh air”
In return for their care the chickens provide the residents with eggs. In the summer months, once a week, Gavin helps make up the vegetable boxes from the walled garden produce and included in them is a box of 6 eggs laid by Springboks very own special residents!