Chickens rule the roost; Poultry pets lead the pecking order in back yard revolution.
Keeping chickens is easy, rewarding and catching on fast. Increasing numbers of ordinary householders are putting up coops in their gardens and living the Good Life. Even schools are getting in on the act. HILARIE STELFOX reports FAMILIES who once bought guinea pigs or hamsters for their children are now investing in pets with a purpose - hens.
According to Huddersfield poultry supplier Hinchliffe's, more and more of the area's back gardens are being transformed into chicken runs. "We've seen a huge increase over the last three or four years in sales to people who just want to keep three or four at home," says Ben Hirst, a general manager at the Netherton-based farming company. Between April and late summer sales have risen to as many as 300 birds a week to families or individuals - and while Hinchliffe's is the largest supplier in the area it is by no means the only one.
For domestic sales Hinchliffe's breeds what Ben calls the "fancy coloured" varieties, which have attractive plumage but are also good layers. Astonishingly, the company also produces more than 1m barn-reared birds a year at its 18 poultry farms for the commercial market. All the farms are RSPCA Freedom Food accredited, which means that welfare standards are high. Why does Ben think that keeping chickens has become so popular among ordinary householders? "Keeping hens is very easy," he says. "All you need is to keep them clean and give them food and water. "A lot of people are now interested in sourcing their own food and some families buy hens for their children so that they can learn about the responsibility of caring for them - and the children can make a bit of pocket money by selling the eggs to neighbours.
"We deliver hens to all sorts of houses. There are people in little terraced houses with small back gardens who give their chickens the run of the garden. They give their hens names and treat them as pets," Ben explained. "Once people have had hens they usually come back for more," he added.
Current Government rules state that only flocks of more than 50 birds need to be registered with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the department's website offers advice to prospective poultry owners (www.defra.gov.uk). Hinchliffe's has a website with a list of facts and tips for hen keeping (www.hinchliffes.com) and the RSPCA also has a section on its website on poultry welfare (www.rspca.org.uk).
Anyone thinking about keeping chickens should check to make sure their household deeds - or tenancy agreement - allows them to have livestock. And while some people keep cockerels as well as hens, the former can be noisy and are not entirely suited to urban living.
Most hens begin laying from 16 weeks. They cost around pounds 12 and are best kept in small flocks of three upwards.
. ? THE HORNCASTLE family - Cheryl, Dave and daughters Hollie, 13 and Abbie, 11 - acquired three hens in June 2009 and say they now wouldn't be without them.
Their small flock is housed in a chicken coop at the back of their semi-detached Marsden home and the hens share the fenced-in garden with their pet rabbit Leo.
"We got the chickens for our daughter Abbie, who wanted them as pets," explained Cheryl. "She cleans them out and it gives her a bit of responsibility, which is a good thing. "Quite a few of her friends have got hens and so she had handled them and knew something about them," she added.
The Welsummer hens were raised from eggs in an incubator by Cheryl's cousin and have been named Truffle, Jaffa and Cookie.
"We get one to three eggs a day. The chickens are corn fed so the eggs have lovely orange yolks," said Cheryl.
Because the hens are in their second year they are not laying as much as they did in their first year. As they age their production will slow down more but Cheryl says the family has no plans to get rid of the hens. "Because they are pets we will keep them even if they stop laying," she explained.
"They make good pets. We've handled them since they were young so they can be picked up. "There haven't been that many problems. We do treat them for lice with some powder and we also have to treat them for scaly leg mites. But they are really easy to look after," she said.
Perhaps the only downside she can think of is that chickens do eat garden plants and scratch lawns. "You have to fence them in to keep them where you want them," she said.
. ? PUPILS at St Andrew's Junior School in Brighouse are learning to care for a small flock of eight laying hens, acquired earlier this year as part of long-term farming project.
It was, says head teacher Peter O'Hare, a logical extension of the school's interest in growing fruit and vegetables.
"We think it's a good thing for the children to understand about livestock and growth and change," he explained.
"As a society we have become very sheltered and a lot of children, from all backgrounds, think that food comes from a shop."
At the beginning of the school year children interested in becoming 'farmers' interview for a position as one of the poultry-keepers. This year around 20 pupils have applied.
"This in itself is all part of learning real life skills because the interview process for a job models life," added Peter.
The poultry project is overseen by site manager Pam Flatt and Liz Couldwell, a support assistant and parent.
Eggs from the hens find their way into the school kitchens, as do the organic fruit and vegetables grown in raised beds.
The school's embryo farm was one of the factors that helped St Andrew's win a National Standard for Enterprise Education award. "It's all about teaching children to be enterprising in life," added Peter. "To have skills for problem solving, resilience, team work, leadership and responsibility - the farm ticks all those boxes."
CHICKENS have been domesticated for thousands of years and are all genetically related to Gallus gallus, the Red Jungle Fowl.
Female chickens (hens) take 24-26 hours to produce an egg.
A laying hen lives for an average of five to seven years but can reach up to 20.
It will lay eggs all its life but productivity declines with age.
Chickens raised for meat are barely two months old when slaughtered.
[bar] WATCH THE BIRDIE: Abbie Horncastle (below) and one of her chickens; left, children with their hens at St. Andrew's Co E School, Brighouse (PW140911Chens-03; JH200911Ahens-04) [bar] COUNTING THEIR CHICKENS: The Horncastle family with their poultry, from left, Cheryl, Abbie, Dave and Hollie
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|Publication:||Huddersfield Daily Examiner (Huddersfield, England)|
|Date:||Sep 28, 2011|
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