Back in May I wrote about how we at the Maison Des Girrafes had ‘rescued’ four battery hens. A summer has come and gone, and as the first chilly winds of autumn blow through the garden [isn't this a bit lyrical for you? - Ed.] it’s time to assess progress.
When we got the chickens, they were feisty but largely featherless. Watching them run around was weird – like watching a flock of supermarket ready-to-roasts on legs. At that time, it was easy to see why most biologists now accept that birds evolved from dinosaurs. All long necks, beady eyes and gangly legs.
It took all summer, but now they have their feathers back, and they are a bunch of beauties, clothed in a rich pelage, each its own russet shade. The Rhode-Island Red ancestry of these chooks is easy to see.
A chicken. With feathers. Earlier today.
They are happy, vocal, intelligent (compared with guinea pigs) and inquisitive. Unlike our six bantams, they follow you around the garden, ‘helping’ with the chores, and you have to look out in case they either trip you up or start pecking at your feet. Being quite big birds their appetites are enormous… but the payoff is in the eggs. Unlike the bantams, these birds aren’t ornamental amateurs, but professional egg production units. They are really great, reliable layers, and some of the eggs they lay are enormous. The biggest one (that we’ve actually measured) was 7cm long and weighed 98g.
As regular readers will know, I’ve been advocating home poultry keeping for a while now. As a result, several friends and colleagues have expressed an interest in keeping a few chooks in their gardens, and at least one has gone the whole way and ordered a chicken coop. All I can say is – well done! Keep up the good work. You won’t be disappointed.
Eggs are probably the easiest item of farm produce in which one can become self sufficient. Chickens require relatively little space, and don’t need the backbreaking digging and maintenance that an allotment or potager requires. Very little goes wrong with a chicken, and apart from the feeding and watering that any animal requires, all you need to do is sit back and watch.
They keep the garden free of pests, as well as providing an excellent fertilizer and compost accelerant.
They’re also great entertainment. Nothing is more relaxing than sitting out on the patio in the late afternoon watching the flock pecking around, or just catching the rays in a dustbath. If more excitement is required, we ought to sell tickets for the occasional face-offs between the ex-battery hens and Beelzebun Demon Bunny of DOOM, which always result in the B of D coming away with a mouthful of feathers.
Keeping chickens also allows you to improve your neighbourhood and get into some rustic down-home bartering. We regularly give eggs to our neighbours (who then look upon our mini-farmyard with more indulgence than they might otherwise). Last week I traded some eggs for a bag of lovely tomatoes, grown by a work colleague with a glut – and many colleagues have kindly donated eggboxes to the cause.
Some eggboxes. Yesterday.
Finally, we’re glad we’ve been able to give new lives to these birds, whose life in a battery installation had been so grim. It’s amazing how we consent to the degradation of what are otherwise such beautiful, happy and intelligent creatures. It’s a case of out of sight, out of mind. Rectifying the matter is easy – rescue some battery hens yourself. If you can’t do that, only buy eggs marked as free-range, or source them from local farms. Or your neighbours. If you’re passing by the Maison Des Girrafes, I’m sure we can spare you a box.