The hen party... share the good life with some feathered friends in your garden

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ONE of the nation’s favourite ever sitcoms was The Good Life – a tale of suburban snobbery personified by Margo and Jerry versus charming idealism in the shape of Barbara and Tom, who espouse a simpler life and sustainability when Tom loses his job. The neighbourly friendship is tested to its limits as the born-again good lifers become increasingly smitten by muck and self-sufficiency, replacing their Surbiton flower beds with rows of cabbages.

Perhaps part of the show’s enduring popularity is down to that little bit in all of us that yearns to cast off the trappings of consumerism in some small way. Back then Tom and Barbara, with their nanny goat and flock of hens, were seen as the eccentrics. Nowadays they wouldn’t raise that many eyebrows – perhaps not even in Surbiton.

Keeping chickens (or hens, the two names are interchangeable) is one of the fastest growing hobbies across Europe, with the UK seeing the greatest revival since the last war. An estimated 700,000 people opt to keep hens in their back gardens and it’s easy to understand why. Without even arguing the case for the pleasure keeping chickens can bring, the more hard-headed calculation is that the cost of housing a chicken can work out at as little as 3p-5p a day or £14 a year – very little when you consider that the price of eggs has risen by almost 40 per cent since 2010.

One of the new breed of hen keepers is Lisa Cheyne, who keeps four happy “rescue” or ex-battery chickens in the garden of the family semi in Harrogate. She’d hankered to keep hens for many years, and a move to a new town last year with more time on her hands provided the opportunity.

“I drove my parents mad with my various animals as a child,” says Lisa. “Even then I and fantasised that one day I’d have hens, and I got them last October from the British Hen Welfare Trust in York, which re-homes ex-battery birds. They ‘retire’ them after 18 months of what’s called useful life. I only intended to get three birds, but they’d had an extra delivery which meant 600 more had to be found homes quickly. So I took one extra, and gave a £4 donation for each.

“I bought a coop from Amazon and put our four bedraggled, skinny, standard reddy-brown battery hens in there. I didn’t intend to give them names but my three-year-old daughter insisted on calling them Peppa Pig, Little Princess, George and Honey. Within a couple of months, good care and feeding made them look lovely and their feathers all glossy as they should be. My husband wasn’t that keen at first, but he’s definitely come round to them.I’ve no idea which is which, but they do have their own quirky characters, and you get so used to their behaviour and the little noises they make that mean different things, including that they’ve just laid an egg. And there is nothing as gorgeous as going into the coop and picking up an egg that’s still warm. We’re now on only our second £12 sack of chicken food in six months. I hate waste, and it’s so great to be able to give the hens our leftovers, including lots of greens. They also eat worms, insects and grass. The eggs taste better than any others I’ve had, and there are plenty because we get two or three a day from the four birds, even though we were told they had stopped laying.”

Lisa says the four hens represent about the same level of work as keeping a rabbit or guinea pig – cleaning out the coop once a week, scraping up any droppings on the patio (although they’re good manure elsewhere). Lisa keeps the coop right at the bottom of the garden, so any warm weather smell is away from the house. Luckily her neighbours have also kept hens in the past, and they benefit from a few free range eggs – but it is worth checking if there are any by-laws or terms in the deeds of your house that prevent the keeping of poultry. “It’s the noise of cockerels they’d object to, quite rightly, and we don’t have one.”

Fortunately, foxes don’t seem to stalk the area, although the coop is as secure as she could make it. “I’d recommend keeping hens to anyone except perhaps a family with very small children, as they wouldn’t understand and might chase the birds. Hens are what I call lovely pets with benefits.”

Barbara Govan and Paul Bader live in suburban Leeds, and after three attempts at keeping different breeds of hens, they’ve given up for now after losing three flocks to foxes.

“We moved into an old house with a shed and sturdy fence we thought would be ideal for hens so we adapted the shed and built a run,” says Barbara.

“Unfortunately the shed wasn’t quite up to the job, and the fox managed to get in by moving a wood panel. He then killed all three. Our daughters were still quite young, and this really upset them. We’d all really enjoyed having the birds with their noises and their scratching around. They did love the raspberries and strawberries and a few of my other plants, but then those contributed to the wonderful eggs they laid. The taste is second to none – especially if they’ve eaten your gooseberries.”

The family had two more goes at keeping hens, with increased security, and even had one breed, the Cream Legbar, that lays blue eggs. The foxes outwitted them each time. “Obviously we are incredibly stupid and the fox is very clever,” says Barbara. “Just one chink in the armour is ruthlessly exploited. One day we will try again, though, and hopefully get it right.”

Three is the minimum number you should have in a flock, and if you have any more than 50 they have to be registered with Defra so that hygiene and health can be monitored, says Suzie Baldwin, whose decades of experience in keeping and breeding hens at her Happy Valley farm in Surrey have led her to write The Essential Guide to Choosing and Keeping Happy, Healthy Hens.

In Suzie’s opinion when hens fall victim to foxes it’s down to human error. “You have to check the perimeter of wire and fencing every day and replace wire that becomes rusted and weak. Many people have electric wiring around them.” Obviously it’s best only to let the hens out to wander about when you can keep a close eye on them. They are no respecters of gardening, though, so you need to figure out how to keep them away from areas where you don’t want them.

The book is a result of the many questions Suzie’s been asked over the years by novices at hen husbandry. “There’s lots to learn, including how to spot illness and understanding behaviour. Vets are only given a few hours training about poultry, so owners need to find their own information, really. Of course, if you buy from a good farmer or breeder they should be happy for you to go back with any questions or worries you might have.”

Chickens – The Essential Guide to Choosing and Keeping Happy, Healthy Hens by Suzie Baldwin is published by Kyle Books, £14.99. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop, call 0800 0153232 or go to Postage costs £2.85.

British Hen Welfare Trust: 01769 580310 or hens@bhwt.