Rare hens are being stolen to order by gangs of chicken rustlers after prices soared to as much as £250 a bird following the high-profile campaign to promote free-range by the chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
It is estimated that 1,500 birds have been stolen this year to meet the demand for rare breeds such as the Orpington, Marans and Welsummer. They are being taken largely from people keeping poultry for the first time, often in their back garden, who are prepared to pay considerably over the market price for a good-looking hen.
A leading bird conservation group said thefts had risen dramatically in recent months, with "a very lucrative market in stolen birds".
One poultry keeper described losing 150 of his birds – the result of 12 years of breeding – as being like a bereavement. The thieves left behind 50 birds which were slightly ill or below par in appearance.
Emma Gleed, of the Domestic Fowl Trust, said: "Criminals are now feeding the market. Rare and pure-breed chickens are being stolen by organised thieves from farms and breeders across the country.
"Ordinary people who want birds as pets are prepared to pay for the rare ones because they are the prettiest. Television chefs like Jamie have sent the popularity of keeping your own chicks soaring.
"The prices are now quite high and there's a real shortage. Unfortunately, this has led to a very lucrative black market in stolen birds."
The Channel 4 programmes Hugh's Chicken Run and Jamie's Fowl Dinners highlighted the conditions in which battery hens were kept, prompting sales of free-range chickens to soar by up to 50 per cent.
The programmes also increased interest in keeping chickens in back gardens as egg-laying pets and prices for rare birds have soared to as much as £80 for a Sussex or Marans, £100 for a buff Orpington – about 10 times the price paid last year – and even £250 for a chocolate Orpington.
Nigel Cank, 53, who lives near Whitchurch in Shropshire, kept about 200 rare hens as a hobby, but then he woke early one Sunday morning and, from the unusual silence, realised something was wrong. "Normally you would hear the cock-crowing, but I opened the door and it was quiet. The missus said, 'you better get outside, something terrible has happened'," he said.
"Someone had cut all the locks from my pens and stolen my birds. They took out the best ones; we had 200 and they took about 150. One of them left behind had the runs, one had something funny round the eye, so they had gone through, selecting them in the night.
"Trouble is you don't mark chickens normally, like you do with more valuable animals. But since Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall were on the television, a lot of people have gone out and bought poultry and that's pushed the price up."
He estimated he had lost about £14,000 as a result of the theft and, with no insurance, has decided to stop breeding chickens. "I've kept poultry all my life, it's been a hobby, but it's too much to lose to be honest. It's very much like a bereavement. I lost my brother a year ago and it's so much like the same feeling."
It is estimated that more than 300,000 people in Britain are now keeping their own chickens.
The breeds most at risk
First bred in 1886. Varieties include the black, white, buff, chocolate, spangled and jubilee. Popular show birds.
Good at foraging for food on free-range farms. Said to be a friendly breed.
French bird popular for the dark brown colour of its eggs and tasty meat.
Has 13 varieties and is known as the 'bird of curves'because of its shapely body.
Has been in Britain for 2,000 years and provides a good supply of eggs and juicy meat.Reuse content