Back garden chicken keeping is booming, says Francine Raymond, but it wasn’t always so
Twenty years ago, when I first started keeping a few hens and a cockerel in my garden, I was considered eccentric. I wasn’t a smallholder, a breeder or an exhibitor, just someone who loved birds and wanted to give them a free range life. The eggs were a bonus, on top of chatty companionship, A1 compost provision and breathtaking beauty as my birds posed against the backdrop of my garden.
My first hens were farmyard crosses, semi-feral and rather too busy in the garden, but with just three in � acre, my horticultural ambitions weren’t thwarted. I soon realised that my cockerel needed more ladies, so bought two hybrids from the farm shop, and experienced with horror the flock’s reaction to newcomers. After a terrifying visit from a neighbour’s dog and subsequent strengthening of defences, a friend made me a present of two Buff Orpington dowagers. I’ve never looked back. Sometimes I feel that, as a high profile hen keeper, I should champion the cause of a rarer breed, but I love my big blonde ladies and their courtly, if slightly over-enthusiastic, consorts, (besides, I’m very short-sighted and anything subtle lurking in the undergrowth would be lost on me).
Most poultry keeping books available, written by breeders or show people, assumed you had a degree in agriculture, acres of land and ambitions to supply eggs to Sainsburys. If you just keep a few, different rules apply. So with evangelistic arrogance I wrote and published a small book – Keeping a Few Hens in Your Garden (www.kitchen-garden-hens.co.uk). With thousands of copies sold, sequels produced, a new career and lessons learned, my knowledge has grown, along with the subsequent increase in ordinary people, fed-up with food scandals and substandard eggs, discovering the joys of keeping chickens.
Of course, this is nothing new. Up until the end of the Second World War, every family kept half a dozen hens at the bottom of their garden. The growth of the commercial poultry industry encouraged us to believe that it was unsafe to keep birds out of doors. Recent history has proved otherwise, of course free range and small-scale is better. The bird flu scare encouraged me to start up an online information network – the Henkeepers’ Association (www.henkeeperassociation.co.uk) – to support those who keep chickens for pleasure. Nowadays, there is plenty of data out there: books, DVDs, courses, and with the arrival of Your Chickens – first class information to help you enjoy your birds.