At the height of the recession Penguin Books re-published one of their iconic post war handbooks, ‘Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps’, as demand for second-hand copies of the book had soared and outstripped the dwindling supplies still available.
The original book was printed at a time of national crisis, when poultry were kept and bred for meat and eggs, and rabbits were kept for meat, as well as fur and wool for clothing.
Despite the fact that hens can be bought for around £12 each, supplying as many as 300 eggs a year, most of the ‘poultry keepers’ I spoke to, keep their hens for the constant supply of high quality free range eggs, and the pleasure of looking after them - as opposed to the more obvious pecuniary benefits.
“My dad kept hens when I was growing up and I loved helping to look after them so when I had children of my own, keeping hens seemed like the right thing to do,” explains Richard Pickles, a motor mechanic from Cross Hills, who currently has around 15 hens. “We get lots of lovely eggs, but more important than that is what keeping hens has taught the children. They’ve learnt all about the day to day care and husbandry of hens. They even got into showing poultry, and from that to judging poultry at local and even some national shows, which has developed their self-confidence enormously.
“Keeping hens is fairly low maintenance, particularly compared to keeping other livestock or pets. However there are certain things it helps to be aware of. I would very much recommend contacting or joining a local Poultry Keepers Club for some pointers and information before you start.”
Edward Boothman, whose poultry farm in Silsden near Keighley, stocks between 2,000 and 3,000 free ranging birds, is chairman of both the Craven Poultry Keepers Club and the Poultry Club of Great Britain. Edward is keen to point out the many benefits of joining. “Family membership is only £10 a year, and for that everyone in the family can have access to all sorts of useful information via our website and meetings. We cover everything from buying a healthy bird, to disease spotting and prevention, to breeding. The Craven Club alone has over 300 members, so there’s plenty of experience and expertise to be shared.”
It is incredibly straightforward to get started in keeping poultry, however it’s worth checking the deeds to your house, or with your landlord, to ensure that there aren’t any restrictions about it relating to where you live.
If you are planning to start keeping hens, then your local Poultry Keepers Club is a good first point of contact. The Club have a local breeders directory which they can send out, listing all the reputable breeders in your area.
With over 70 different breeds of poultry to choose from, deciding which hen to start with can be a difficult decision. Club chairman Edward recommends a red hybrid as a good introductory hen: “It’s good choice if you have children, as it won’t run away from them, and is quite happy to be picked up. They also lay around 300 eggs a year. Once you’ve got your hand in, you could then move onto something more exotic such as a pure bred hen like a Cochin or a Sussex, and bring some variety and colour to your flock.”
The benefits of keeping hens are huge. Free range eggs have four times more omega fatty-acids and just half the cholesterol of factory eggs. As Penguin’s book suggests hens make great money saving recyclers too, as hen feed can be augmented with household scraps and waste, just remember not to give your hens meat or fish scraps as this can introduce salmonella, and also raw potato is a no go.
“Collecting and eating the eggs that one of our hens has laid never ceases to be a pleasurable thing to do,” says Richard. “If you’ve got the space, just keeping a couple of hens gives children a huge insight into farming and food production.”