Experienced farmers are helping people to keep their own chickens, as Marie-Claire Kidd discovers.
With support from her husband and four sons, Rachel Wall runs a breeding business geared towards the first-time hen keeper. Each member of her family plays a role. Amos, 13, and Jacob, 20, collect the eggs, while 11-year-old Eli prefers only to take part when there is nothing dirty involved.
Second eldest son Isaac has been working full-time with his mother all summer, doing everything from building housings to mucking out. On Saturdays father Alex joins in, along with one of Isaac’s friends.
Rachel has trained them all to know their Buff Orpingtons from their Gold Laced Wyandottes. She explains: “Everybody has different requirements. Many customers want eggs but it’s not the be all and end all.
“They may want chickens for the company, or because they look pretty. People choose breeds because they’re productive, easy to keep or suited to their gardens. When I chose what to breed I thought, ‘what would I like to keep?’”
Rachel was raised on a smallholding in Norfolk and has kept chickens most of her life. At university she studied nutrition – a passion she had not really applied until now. Her career was in accountancy.
She found her new focus in 2009, when the family bought a derelict six-acre farm in Totley, Sheffield. Alex, an architect, had always wanted to build his own, environmentally friendly home. Rachel loved chickens and wanted to breed them ethically and sustainably. Bank View Farm has fulfilled both their dreams.
Since they moved into their new home last December they have sold 300 birds and about 100 hatching eggs. “We started low-key last summer, set up a website and it’s snowballed from there,” says Rachel. “We haven’t advertised. It’s all word of mouth.”
The Walls have experienced peaks in demand three times this year, after Totley Athletics Club’s thrice-yearly fell run passed their door. Trade has also arrived via the boys’ school friends, and through the hen-keeping courses Rachel runs on the smallholding. “We started keeping chickens when the children were young and you just remember how lovely they are,” says Rachel. “It’s the noises they make and how well they interact with people.
“Whatever window you go to, they go to that window. When they see you they all come running. Occasionally, they run out of water but you know because they tell you.”
Isaac adds: “They love shoes, they always go for mine. This summer I’ve done a lot of fencing. I give the chickens food and water and deal with customers.
“We’ve had a lot of people coming back and telling us about their first eggs, or sending us emails and pictures. I might keep chickens in my garden when I go to university, even though I don’t like eggs.”
They have gradually extended the range they keep, and now offer 12 rare and traditional breeds for sale.
A small shop on the farm complements the breeding business, selling everything from food and medicine to chicken housings. “I don’t let people take hens away unless they’re kitted out,” says Rachel.
“Keeping chickens is really easy, if you have the right equipment.”
She recommends recycled plastic houses, which are unlikely to be infested by red mites – the most common problem faced by hen keepers.
And what is the most common mistake she comes across? “Not feeding hens properly,” says Rachel. “People think they’re being kind by giving them lots of treats but chickens are very, very productive. We’ve bred them to have up to six babies a week. They need protein, and that means layers pellets.
“That’s why I prefer rare breeds,” she adds. “Although we’ve bred them to be productive, they only lay three or four eggs a week.”
The rare breed the family sells most frequently is the Buff Orpington, a large, placid hen with fluffy plumage. Rachel says: “They’re so affectionate, people fall in love with them. They make very good pets, and they look majestic strolling around the garden.
“They remind me of an auntie in bloomers when they run. The smaller the children, the more quickly they come running, because they’re so curious.”
The Cream Legbar is another popular choice. These birds are noisier, and inquisitive to explore new places. They are easy to sex, showing gender-specific markings as soon as they hatch.
Gold Laced Wyandottes, another favourite, are medium-sized hens which lay pale brown eggs. Their docile nature makes them a good choice for beginners.
Recently, the family has received lots of requests for the small, decorative Pekin Bantam, and has begun breeding them too. Pekins come in a range of colours and have feathered feet, so they do less damage to gardens. For one customer Rachel has even raised a designer clutch, comprising four different coloured Pekins in shades of black and grey.
The family also breeds the Polish, known for the extravagant crest of feathers on its head, and the Silkie, named for its unusual fluffy plumage. Calm, friendly and docile, they are considered ideal pets.
Most of the chicks are hatched in one of nine incubators scattered around the Walls’ home. Each is full of variously coloured eggs, marked in pencil; GLW for Gold Laced Wyandotte, WS for White Silkie, and so on.
“I never ever get fed up of watching chicks hatch,” says Rachel, “but none of the boys like it. They think it’s nasty. It’s a boy thing.”
The eggs that hatch together grow up together, spending their first weeks in the chick room with an electric hen – a little black box which provides heat more efficiently than light bulbs.
After four weeks the electric hen is removed and at about seven weeks they move from the chick room to the barn.
At eight weeks they are put out on grass in covered pens.
“Initially, we lost quite a few to crows, so we built covered pens as protection,” says Rachel.
At 10 weeks old the chicks can fend for themselves and are moved into the field, where they continue to live in their groups until they are sold.
Rachel says: “Chickens make wonderful pets. We get a lot of people who’ve done veg and want to move on to chickens. People want their children to understand where their food comes from, and the manure is great for the compost.”
For the adventurous she breeds Black Copper Marans, an old French breed known for its dark brown eggs and also prized for its eating qualities.