Time to bring hens back to the garden?

With food prices unpredictable and folk increasingly keen to know what they're eating, people are growing their own.

Steven Russell

With food prices unpredictable and folk increasingly keen to know what they're eating, people are growing their own. But what about taking a tip from the past and keeping a few chickens, too? Is it a way to combat the recession? And is it easy? Steven Russell seeks advice from 'The Hen Woman'

THE January fog is beautiful, but darned cold, and it's gone 1pm before the sun hints of its diluted presence. Francine Raymond's free-ranging chickens squat by a yew hedge, resigned to sitting it out - apart from the perky youngest hen, optimistically scratching at the frozen ground in hope of finding something tasty. “What are you all up to? Not a lot, are you?” their owner murmurs. The golden-coloured Buff Orpingtons tend to shift position during the day to follow the sun's rays, but today looks like being a write-off. Mind you, they can take a less-than-ideal day in their stride. While humans need thick coats to keep the shivers at bay, the chickens have tiny feathers near the skin to keep the warmth in. “And their feet are quite reptilian,” explains Francine. “They don't feel the cold much.”

The former fashion designer - one of the army of Londoners drawn to Suffolk - has been keeping fowl for about 15 years. It's become a way of life. “I just love birds. I always have. And yet I can't bear the idea of anything being kept in a cage, so I've never had a budgie or parrot or anything. The only ones you can really keep and still give them a fairly normal life are chickens.”

She's published a series of books, such as The Big Book of Garden Hens and All My Eggs in One Basket. The first was Keeping A Few Hens In Your Garden. “I wrote it rather arrogantly as a complete novice, but I wanted it to be about my experiences. I wrote what I would have liked to have read myself at that stage - to be encouraged.”

Francine has also set up the Henkeepers' Association - an information network “supporting those who keep poultry for pleasure” and giving advice on aspects of health, welfare and management. It also campaigns on keepers' behalf for the vaccination of small garden flocks against avian 'flu, and has nearly 6,000 members.

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She holds courses, too - in Suffolk and elsewhere - about how to look after hens. Small wonder BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour show dubbed her “the doyenne of the chicken world”.

Francine says more and more of us have shown an interest in keeping poultry. “I think it started when people were worried about the quality of their eggs and the quality of the lives of the hens when they were laying their eggs, so it's been going steadily upwards over the last few years and got a huge boost with (“real food” campaigners) Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver.

“For the last couple of years I think vegetable seeds have been outselling flower seeds. So people are generally looking to their gardens to help the family budget. And it's a rewarding and healthy way of spending your leisure time.”

During the war, she says, virtually everyone kept chickens, and there's no reason why many of us couldn't join the estimated 250,000-300,000 people in the UK who nowadays keep birds in their garden. “It's very, very straightforward. People have done it since the year dot and chickens are our oldest domestic partners.”

Mind you, it might not prove a money-saving exercise.

“I won't say your eggs are going to be cheap . . .” Francine's never really worked out the fine economic details, but says cost will depend on how free-ranging the chickens are and how many household scraps they're fed.

Pure breeds can be quite expensive to buy but, if you're breeding them, the successors aren't going to hit you in the pocket. A henhouse can be a major expense, but there's always the option of making your own. “It can be done cheaply - but they are incomparable, the eggs. The taste and the orange of the yoke . . . and you also can be sure about how those chickens have been looked after.”

Francine currently has one ageing cockerel and five hens of the “fairly big and clumsy” Buff Orpington breed, along with a little bantam. She'd expect to be self-sufficient in eggs pretty much all year round, though the supply has been dented by the loss of a pullet to a sparrow hawk - the first time in 15 years that's happened.

She'd advise novices to start with just a few chickens. “If you get half-a-dozen, they will start and finish laying at the same time and you will end up with a lot of 'old ladies' you're very fond of but who aren't laying an egg between them. You won't have room for anyone else and they won't take kindly to newcomers.

“I would suggest that maybe people start with just a couple, or three, and when they get a bit more into it they could start hatching out eggs. That way they can each year introduce a young pullet [a young domestic fowl] and then you can get eggs all the time.”

Francine normally keeps between six and eight. “If you have many more than that, the ones at the bottom of the pecking order can become quite downtrodden.”

A male is far from essential. “I would never recommend that people started with a cockerel. You only need a cockerel if you want fertile eggs.” And, then, you need only one per flock. Having two means a battle for supremacy; one would end up a fairly miserable loser, and it can make the hens stressed.

Ideally, allow your flock to range freely. “The more space they have, the less stressed they are; and the less stressed they are, the less likely they are to be ill. You do get to know them; and although they're not the brightest creatures on earth, they are cleverer than you think, and you want to make sure they have as good a time as possible.”

If you have a run, make it as big as possible - ideally, divide it into two and give the hens three months on one side and then three months on the other. It gives the land time to recover.

A keeper shouldn't need to waste energy rounding up the chickens at night. They can't see in the dark and are adept at making their way to the henhouse as daylight disappears.

They need to be securely shut away at night, however. Francine feels foxes are now more of a problem in built-up areas. “The country fox has a healthy fear of humans, based on years of experience, but a town fox doesn't have that fear, and they are around all day and all night.”

She recommends people site their runs as near to the house as possible. “Traditionally, they've been at the bottom of the garden, but the nearer the house they are, the less likely the fox is going to come.”

Early on in her poultry-keeping career, the chickens did have names. Hester and Charlie were among the first birds, hatched out and named after a magazine photographer and art director who came to the house. Babe was her first Buff Orpington.

Nowadays, not so sentimental. “But I do know exactly who they are; it's just that they tend to get called Girlie or Chickie, or something like that. They are there primarily as . . . 'pets' is the wrong word, but you do care for them. They're not agricultural animals like pigs.”

Chickens do have personalities. When Francine's gardening, turning over potentially interesting things, “they tend to come over. And you get to learn which one is the most adventurous, who is the bossiest, which one is most interested in food and which one just wants to lie in the sun!”

Fowl can have their idiosyncrasies, too. “We had one Black Orpington that always wanted to lay her egg in the house. She liked to get up on a basket that I had; a sort of hamper. She could get up quite easily but couldn't get down. So she'd lay her egg and then call pathetically and you'd have to lift her down! Obviously she'd have stopped doing it if I hadn't played the game.”

Happily, her chickens have enjoyed pretty healthy lives. They've died mostly of old age; “and, being so big, they mostly die of heart attacks. So one day they're quite happy, the next day they've gone”.

Francine eats the odd bit of meat - game, generally - but not chicken. “It's difficult, isn't it?” she smiles. “They're either the product of something you disapprove of or they're something you know!”

Web link: www.kitchen-garden-hens.co.uk

JUST because you get your hands dirty doesn't mean you have to sacrifice a sense of style. Francine Raymond's interest in “look” and detail is there in her garden - in, for instance, the wooden bordering around her beds for growing vegetables and cut-flowers. While most of us settle for plain, no-frills planks, Francine's are a warm peachy-terracotta.

The sense of rustic chic is even more apparent in her home opposite Troston church that used to be the church's carriage building. Even the floorboards have their own story; they came from an athletics stadium and are pitted with marks on the undersides.

Francine's background is in fashion design. After art school, and a degree in fashion and textiles, she worked in England and then Milan for five years in the early 1970s, before returning to London.

Suffolk appeared on the radar because the family had friends here. The link was firmed in 1982 when Francine and husband Jean-Francois bought their cottage - then “a funny little bungalow with no style” - as a weekend and holiday home. When sons Jacques and Max were of an age when they wanted to ride their bikes outside, in the mid- to late 1980s, the couple made the move permanent - rural Suffolk offering a safer environment than the capital.

The Raymonds designed and developed their land - it today runs to two thirds of an acre - and gardening remains a passion for Francine, who welcomes visitors annually as part of The National Gardens Scheme.

As well as raising the boys, she worked on illustration for the fashion industry and books. She also helped get Wyken Hall's Leaping Hare restaurant off the ground and worked on establishing its farmers' market.

Today, Francine has her own shop at her home. The Kitchen Garden, generally open in the spring, summer and in the run-up to Christmas, specialises in herbs, perennial and vegetable plants, and locally-produced odds and ends for hen lovers and gardeners.

She also makes home decorations, and runs courses on that art and hen-keeping. Then there's writing for country living magazines. There is, she agrees, not much free time.

Francine's husband died about eight years ago, “so what had been slightly dilettante suddenly became important in that I made a living at it”. She already had the shop and had published a couple of books under The Kitchen Garden imprint. The back catalogue now stands at about a dozen titles. Doing it in-house gives control over the way they look and feel, and she's pleased about being able to make hen-keeping and vegetable-growing look attractive.

“I'm very fond of Bob Flowerdew, and I think he's done a huge amount for the organic movement, but piles of old tyres and disused freezers aren't really going to be part of most people's look!” she smiles. “You don't have to go over the top, but it helps if it's going to look attractive.”

The fowl aren't just there for aesthetics, of course. Poultry manure is an efficient activator for Francine's nine compost heaps, which can also take the chickens' bedding and feathers. “There is a good symbiotic relationship between hens and the garden. They get food from the garden and they're giving stuff back; they give you eggs and you give them scraps from the kitchen. It all makes sense, and that's why people have always had chickens.”

Each Easter Saturday, she throws her “Hen Party”, with an amateur show of pure-breed hens, an egg hunt for children, and a sale of work from local craftspeople. It's held in conjunction with St Mary's Church, opposite her home, as a fund-raiser.

Francine, once a distinctly metropolitan type, now describes herself as a rural/urban hybrid - enjoying life in the countryside and still visually aware and interested in trends. It's strange how other folk sometimes see her, however.

“Even now, people say 'I'd like to come and see your farm.' I say 'I don't have a farm!' 'Well, your smallholding.' 'I haven't got a smallholding. It's my garden! It's not even a terrifically big garden.'”

Is she also seen as Suffolk's version of Barbara, from TV's The Good Life?

“They often ask me if I'm self-sufficient, which I'm not. I do it to enhance what is a fairly normal life. I think to be self-sufficient you can do nothing else; it takes you all day. But it's nice to have your own salad, a few nuts, have your own eggs. Anybody can do it. Even with a tiny garden you could have a little vegetable area.”