13th October 2015
Chickens will always be my first love. They are, in fact, what made me begin to notice plants as a child: having let the chickens out of the back garden one afternoon, my mother was very upset at the sight of her leafless wallflowers, half of which had been flung onto the lawn by my cuckoo Marans. Very good layers they were, but garden conscious they were not.
These hearty girls (known as layers, or dual purpose breeds to us poultry fanciers) are best never to be allowed out from behind the chicken wire when it comes to a garden, but some breeds of fowl make very good garden hens if eggs are not your main concern.
I now would never wish to be in a garden that does not have hens within it. They bring comical movement, and their company is very much underrated. Her Grace Deborah Devonshire introduced poultry to the gardens at Chatsworth in Derbyshire long before it became a fashionable pursuit; she selected big fluffy pyjama-plumed buff cochins who would plod about the kitchen garden.
Four chickens have spent the summer with me in Stoke – they were relocated from Matthew’s poultry pens in Bampton, and will return there in the next few weeks as the garden is cleared for winter. I selected them with the garden in mind, as I like to let them out every day for a good few hours. Quite often that turns into an all day affair, so I needed birds that would not go on the rampage as soon as my back was turned.
I have 2 Wyandotte bantam hens, a supposedly lavender Araucana of interesting bloodline (she lays pink rather than the intended blue eggs) and in charge of them has been a sweet-natured cockerel, a chamois Poland bantam named Damian. Damian's crest means he is more docile in nature and not able to peck about with much vigour, but Polands need to be checked very often for mites due to their profusion of feathers.
Every month I have also been hatching chicks, and I've had incubators sat on a shelf in the shop stock room quietly incubating various eggs. I enjoy ordering eggs from eBay where poultry breeders put up for sale great clutches of temptation, from golden pheasants to Jubilee Orpingtons!
The eggs arrive in polystyrene egg boxes. Once they have rested for a day after being jingled around in the post I place them in the incubator, which turns them several times each day and keeps them at a precise temperature. Three days before the eggs are due to hatch, I add water to the incubator – this increases the humidity around the eggs and softens the egg membrane so that the chicks can easily hatch. The chicks go into their brooder once they have fluffed up after a few hours.
It's been a delight to see the excited faces of both children and adults alike upon realising their presence in the decorating studio. The chicks grow quickly, and on warm days I take them out into the garden to discover the great outdoors. At about four weeks old they go back with Matthew to the farm in Oxford, in a box on the back seat. My favourite chicks to have hatched this year have been the silver laced Wyandotte bantams, which were particularly cute and chubby as chicks and are maturing into beautiful youngsters with striking black and white plumage.
I already have an exciting list of breeds that I want to hatch next year, so bring on spring 2016!
With best wishes,
13th October 2015