PECKS AND THE CITY REALLY; FORGET CATS, DOGS AND EVEN GOLDFISH, IT'S CHICKENS THAT ARE NOW MAN'S BEST FRIEND - AND IT'S NOT JUST COUNTRY DWELLERS, URBAN OWNERSHIP IS INCREASING, TOO. TWO FAMILIES TELL POST STYLE EDITOR CAROLINE FOULKES WHY THEY HAVE JOINED THE HEN PARTY, WHILE THE EGGS-PERTS OFFER THEIR OPINIONS ON THE BANTAM BOOM.
There are two hens fussing about in what looks like a dismantled iMac at the bottom of Mark Langdell's garden in Moseley, but he's not quite sure how they got there.
"Why did we get them?" he says, rubbing his chin as he sits at the large wooden table in his kitchen, staring through the French windows down the length of the garden to where the birds are"Mmm...why did we get them?" He looks up at his wife Gillian, who is pacing about the kitchen, nursing their new baby, Freddie.
She shrugs, ponytail swishing across her back. Freddie gurgles. Their daughter, Lily, wanders in, twisting her hair into a knot around her finger.
"Why did we get the chickens Lily?" asks Mark, still trying to figure out what made them get the poultry pair.
Lily goes shy, shrugs, and puts a finger in her mouth, still twisting her hair with the other hand.
"Daaaaaad, Daaaaadddyyyy, Thunderbirds is on, Thunderbirds is on!" shouts eldest son, Ben, from the next room Mark and Gillian Langdell and their family live in Moseley. They have had two hens, Jamie and Jimmy, for two months"Ben, why did we get the chickens?" shouts Mark Ben sticks his head around the corner, into the kitchen. Like Lily, he drops quiet, a bit shy.
"Don't know..." he says slowly, "Thunderbirds is on." He dances back into the lounge.
Mark might not know what it was, really, that prompted him to get Jamie and Jimmy, the two birds christened by Ben, but he's glad he did.
"I don't actually know what it was that made me want to get them," he says, almost apologetic that he can't come up with a reason.
"It just sort of appealed to me, really. I just liked the idea of them being there, running around the back garden, doing their own thing and coming up to you to say hello. Oh, and maybe getting a couple of eggs, too."
"Mark kept saying, 'oh, let's get a cat,' but I'm not really a pet person," says Gillian.
"And I couldn't have managed a dog - I've got enough to look after with three children. I didn't really grow up around animals, and I fell over a dog and broke my arm when I was a child, so they've never really appealed. I didn't really want a house pet."
"Then I heard from my sister-inlaw that her neighbour had gotsome," says Mark, "and it really appealed to me. It's not about trying to create some rural idyll, either, because we like living in the city."
Jimmy and Jamie turned up two months ago, courtesy of flourishing hen-and-house supplier Omlet, who Mark contacted via the internet. The i-Mac style home they live in is Omlet's Eglu.
"There's so many people doing this," says Mark.
"When the guy turned up to deliver them he told me he had eight more to deliver in this area."
Getting set up with Omlet is not cheap - Mark paid around pounds 370, which he says is "a bit pricey, especially when you consider you can buy a couple of hens for a few pounds." But there is a bonus to getting set up this way.
"I was prepared to pay it because you get the whole package delivered and don't have to go out and build your own hen house or anything like that. Also, when they are delivered, the guy spends a couple of hours with you, putting the house up and showing you the basics, how to handle them, what to feed them, and how to clip their wings so they don't fly away, so you are paying for that instruction as well."
Apart from that initial outlay, Mark says that the chickens arerelatively cheap and easy to look after.
"We literally give them some water and some pellets and clean them out once a week. Most days they get let out about lunchtime and have a wander about. Then around tea time they come up to the French windows for a few scraps from the table - they like cheese, spaghetti, potatoes and toast and Marmite. We give them a few treats like that and then they spend the rest of the time pecking up stuff in the garden. They really don't take much looking after and it's quite therapeutic hearing them clucking about. The children like them, too, and they get friendlier and friendlier the longer we have them."
Since they've got Jamie and Jimmy, the Langdells have found more and more people are interested in getting chickens.
"When we got them we didn't think it was such a popular thing to do," says Gillian.
"Then we saw a thing on Richard and Judy about people getting interested in keeping chickens. Now Mark's dad is on about getting a couple of them. He loves them."
"They're great," adds Mark.
"The thing is, I don't even particularly like eggs
Ben and Georgina Browning and their son, Rupert, live in Abbotts Bromley with six hens and a cockerel. Ben has been keeping chickens for two years.
For Ben Browning, keeping chickens isn't just about eggs. It isn't about having an unusual pet. It's about helping to boost the numbers of a declining breed.
"I studied agriculture at the Royal Agricultural College, and I've always wanted some sort of livestock, but the last house we lived in only had a tiny garden, so there was a limit on what we could have, so we decided on chickens.
"We also wanted to do something to help the genetics of the birds, so we looked at the breeds available and then checked their status on the Rare Breeds Survival website, looking at breeds classed as critical and nearing critical. One of them was the Derbyshire Red Cap. Living here we felt it would be appropriate to get them, to help a local breed."
And so Polly, Molly, Dolly and Holly moved into the hen house Ben made himself from sheep hurdles. They were joined later by afifth, unnamed "sister" and then a cockerel.
Although Ben is keen on country pursuits - his black labrador accompanies him on pheasant shooting expeditions - he feels his chickens fall somewhere between livestock and pets.
"When you only have half a dozen they soon become pets because you get attached to them. So having a rarer breed helps because it means you're less likely to consider eating them since you are trying to keep the bloodlines going. The thing with the Red Cap is it's also quite a flighty bird, so they wouldn't be used to it if we wanted to pick them up and cuddle them. My son is fascinated by them though - he tries to replicate the sound of the cockerel crowing."
Ah, the cockerel. That's one element of chicken husbandry that could prove difficult to square with living in an urban area. So what does country-dweller Ben think about the boom in city coops?
"Really the cockerel is the only constraint, and you don't necessarily need one. I think as long as you get the numbers right there's no problem having chickens in an urban environment. In a way, it's like going back in history towhen the Cadburys built Bournville with two fruit trees in every garden and people kept small livestock. If everyone could have two chickens in their garden it would be fantastic. People did it in urban areas during the war so they would have extra food. But in recent years I think people's work patterns have meant they are even more removed from the countryside so no one thought of doing anything like keeping chickens. But thanks to the likes of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, showing through his programmes that keeping animals isn't rocket science for an amateur, people are becoming more interested."
He feels that keeping chickens in urban areas is also useful in helping educate children.
"If you've got children or grandchildren it's great because they love to help out and that way they get interested in an animal they might not otherwise see at such close quarter. It also helps them learn about the food chain at first hand and gets them interested in recycling and the environment, because chickens will eat kitchen scraps
WWW.RBST.ORG.UK (RARE BREEDS SURVIVAL WEBSITE
Johannes Paul is one of the founders of Omlet, who designed and made the Eglu Arts students are renowned for pushing the boundaries. Forexpressing themselves in ways some of us might consider a bit, well, odd. For trying to be different.
They are not renowned for their fondness for chickens, their wish to work with them. Unless, of course, they feature in an art installation.
But it was while studying at the Royal College of Art that Johannes Paul and three of his friends came up with the idea of designing a hen house. Being art and design students, the old "bits of wood and scraps of wire" method wasn't the way forward for them. Oh no. They came up with the Eglu, a brightly coloured, i-Mac style pen.
"We realised quite quickly that people would be interested in keeping chickens in their garden if we could make it easy and fun," he says.
"There are lots of people telling us we should eat more healthily, reconnect with farming, spend moretime outside and look afterthe environment but they often don't give a clear solution of how we should do all these things. Keeping a couple of chickens in the garden can answer all these questions in a superbly entertaining way."
The invention proved so popular they decided to set up Omlet, now based in Oxfordshire. And it isn't just the Eglus they supply - it's the hens and the knowledge to care for them, too.
"Our chickens are all fully vaccinated and delivered at point of lay which means they're only a couple of weeks away from laying the first egg, So all that's really necessary is to make sure they have food and water once a day and tokeep their house clean But how do chickens cope with an urbanenvironment? Very well, apparently.
"From the chicken's point of view a garden is a garden so there'snothing special to consider if you live in a town," says Johannes.
"You don't need a cockerel - chickens lay just as many eggs without one - so there is no noise that could disturb the neighbours. Females just make light clucking noises as they potter about your garden looking for grubs and slugs, which is quite relaxing really. There aren't any general restrictions, although some housing deeds have clauses preventing livestock being kept in the garden, although this is designed to stop people keeping cockerels (because of the noise) pigs and goats etc."
Judging from Omlet's website and chatroom, it's clear that many owners see their chickens as pets rather than livestock, and although a pair will produce around 12 eggs a week, for most people it's more about the enjoyment they get from seeing them around the place"All our customers give their chickens names and they give them treats in the afternoon, some even let them into the house. Chickens like human company and will quite happily let themselves be picked up and stroked, their feathers are surprisingly soft. Also, a lot of our customers are families with young children and for them chickens make perfect pets: they are docile and friendly, inexpensive to feed, and children don't lose interest in them because they love going out to look for the eggs every day
THE POULTRY CLUB OF GREAT BRITAIN
Ann Bachmet is secretary of the 1200-strong Poultry Club of Great Britain and has kept chickens for 16 years
For Ann Bachmet, chickens aren't just pets - they're her work too. As secretary of the Poultry Club of Great Britain, she spends her day fielding queries about them.
"I think the major reason that so many people are beginning to keep chickens is that they can get fresh eggs for breakfast," she says.
"Also, on a personal level, I think it can be very therapeutic to keep chickens. I certainly find it relaxing."
Although Ann herself lives in the country, she says keeping chickens in an urban environment should be fairly straightforward.
"There are probably more restrictions on people in terms of space in an urban area, but as long as you get the right number of chickens and you can look after them properly, clean them out and give them the right food, it shouldn't be a problem. They arequite easy to keep. They love green veg - especially things like cabbage and cauliflower. You can give them treats, too, like a little bit of bread - but not too much. They're like us in that - everything in moderation."
Ann recommends that anyone thinking of keeping chickens should do some research to find out which breed would be best suited to them and the space they have available.
"If you don't have much space then something like a bantam is probably best because they are quite small. One of the breeds I keep is the Peking Bantam, which have sort of little balls of feathers around their legs. They are smashing with children because they don't mind being picked up and fussed over and they love company. I recently gave some to a friend for his grandchildren, and he said after about a week he was sat in his workshop and one of them wandered in and sat there watching him work."
So, does she see her chickeny chums as poultry or pets?
"I think they are a little bit of both, really - it depends on what breed you have and on the person you are. I certainly consider mine to be pets, but I don't bring them into the house. I think it just depends on the individual
WWW.POULTRYCLUB.ORGAvian Flu: Are your feathered friends at risk?
The Concerns are growing over the risks of avian influenza to British livestock after recent reports that the disease may have spread from South East Asia to Kazakhstan and Russia.
disease, more commonly known as "bird flu", is an airborne virus secreted in bird droppings, which can contaminate dust and soil and thus pose a risk to both commercial and backyard poultry flocks. The risk of infection from wild birds to domestic fowl is greatest where domestic birds roam freely, share a water supply with wild birds or use a water supply that maybecome contaminatedbydroppings from wild bird carriers. According to the Health Protection Agency, the chance that the disease could spread to the UK is very low. A statement issued by the Department of the
HENTICING: BEN AND LILY EYE UP TWO GOOD REASONS FOR OWNING HENS; RUPERT AND BEN DISCOVER THE MORNINGS CROP; A REAL COUP: FOR BEN KEEPING CHICKENS IS ABOUT OWNING AN UNUSUAL PET
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|Publication:||The Birmingham Post (England)|
|Date:||Sep 28, 2005|
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