21st November 2016
Chickens are a huge part of the garden at the factory. Until now, we have had a mixed flock of pure breed Bantams, consisting of tea-cosy-like Pekin Bantams, sleek feathered Wyandottes and Polands with feathered hats. I take a great pleasure in hatching the eggs, in incubators or under broody hens. Over the summer, the garden has seen various broods of chicks and ducklings grow up within it.
The problem with a mixed flock, however, is that the resulting eggs do not hatch pure breed chicks. They grow up to be a totally mixed bag of appearances, some of which result in very pretty hens, but I feel itís important to help preserve the rare pure breeds.
To ensure this, the cocks and hens must be of the same breed and match the required standards that are set out by individual breed clubs. Most chicken breeds have their own club, with a dedicated following of fanciers. Some fanciers breed to show, exhibiting their finest birds up and down the country. The pursuit of breeding the finest bird often takes a lifetime to achieve; others stay loyal just for the love they have of a breed, due to a henís looks and personality (which do differ greatly).
The largest poultry show is the National, held in Telford. Here, over 7000 birds of almost every recognised pure breed in existence are prepped with shampooed hot baths, Vaseline-d legs and are stroked over with silk handkerchiefs in the run up to them being placed in their judging cages.
The birds will have been taught to relax in such surroundings from being weeks old, and judges will deem a bird that is not standing with grace as a poor entry. Eggs are also shown, with hours being spent over selecting a clutch with exact similarities.
Birds are sold, and money changes hands that would baffle those not involved in buying exhibition birds. The best bloodlines in the country are all under one roof, and competition for birds from lines of the winners is fierce. Every feather is looked at by a judge; the comb, the eye colour, the ear lobe and leg colour. All these aspects add up to a bird gaining a rosette on their cage Ė or for a large number, sadly nothing.
Regardless of if chickens are kept as pets, for eggs, for meat or in my case for the enjoyment of simply having them around for comfort and movement, they are for many people a huge part of life and a true tonic to it.
My birthday was last month; it was marked by the traditional trip to Chatsworth. I bought a pair of young Buff Cochin chickens from the farmyard there. The farmyard has a number of pure breeds at large, but the most famous and most photographed are the Buff Cochins. The hens lay little more than 80 eggs in a season, so to get these two young birds is a real privilege. Iím sure their huge size and character will be a hit with visitors to the factory when they are on show next year.
They came back on the train with me from the farmyard in a box and the next day were lifted out and into their new winter home, the greenhouse on the factory roof Ė here they will be warm and sheltered from the winter wind and rain. After being reared in a stable with lots of other pure breed chickens, they at first seemed confused as to what to make of their new glass-walled, marigold-strewn hen houseÖ
Now, about a month on, they have settled down and are relishing the dry soil in which they dust bathe. Iíve since bought other new Bantams, and these also will spend the winter in the greenhouse and go down to the garden in the spring. A pair of Belgian Booted Millefleur Bantam hens arrived last week, with a cockerel of unrelated origin due to join them in due course. I am also looking to find a pair of cuckoo Pekin Bantams. The Bantams will live in arks and be let out in turn on alternate days into the walled garden, while the Cochins will reside in the large hen house and run that backs against the wall. Its solid roof and concrete floor will keep them dry. The Booted Millefleur Bantams will be kept in a hen ark that will be placed in the middle of the new courtyard flower bed as well as an ark in the main garden, a thousand flowers indeed among a thousand flowers!
Due to their comical bathing activities during the Literary Festival this year, Iíll hatch ducklings again in May Ė probably some Cayugas, as Matthew used to keep them in Norfolk but doesnít have any at Bampton. They are known for laying almost black shelled eggs and have beautiful emerald green feathers, almost oil-dipped-like, and the ducklings hatch with black fluffy down.
21st November 2016