Diary of an urban chicken-keeper
Is it really possible for a city dweller to create a rustic idyll in their back garden? Deborah Ross decided to try out poultry farming - with the help of a designer coop and two birds named J-Lo and Beyoncé
Thursday 13 May 2004
We are getting chickens. Two chickens and an Eglu, which is a chicken coop, but not just
any chicken coop, because it is also a designer must-have, the latest word in urban chic, the thing that looks like an iMac gone bonkers and is for town dwellers with silly-sized gardens who think it will be lovely to keep chickens. My partner, a country boy at heart rather than the north Islington one he has become, is excited. "We are getting chickens," he calls out to our neighbour, Jane. He adds: "I'll have to wear horrible jumpers like Tom Good!" Jane and I exchange a look. The look says: no change there, then. Honestly, there is one jumper - grey V-neck, lemon diamonds - that makes him look less Tom Good and more Val Doonican's scary and understandably secret love child. I'm guessing that if his jumpers don't frighten the chickens away, nothing will.
We are getting chickens. Two chickens and an Eglu, which is a chicken coop, but not just any chicken coop, because it is also a designer must-have, the latest word in urban chic, the thing that looks like an iMac gone bonkers and is for town dwellers with silly-sized gardens who think it will be lovely to keep chickens. My partner, a country boy at heart rather than the north Islington one he has become, is excited. "We are getting chickens," he calls out to our neighbour, Jane. He adds: "I'll have to wear horrible jumpers like Tom Good!" Jane and I exchange a look. The look says: no change there, then. Honestly, there is one jumper - grey V-neck, lemon diamonds - that makes him look less Tom Good and more Val Doonican's scary and understandably secret love child. I'm guessing that if his jumpers don't frighten the chickens away, nothing will.
I am less excited. I am good at urban living: fare-dodging; positioning my shoulders at the cashpoint in such a way that those behind can't spy; edging my partner towards Gap in the hope of some less embarrassing sweater action. I have never lived in the country and, unlike my partner and most of my fellow Islingtonites, have never yearned to. All that mud. All those hills people expect you to climb for no good reason whatsoever. All those vegetable and flower shows you are expected to attend in a deeply interested and un-ironic way. Neither am I an animal lover on any level. I am scared of bees and spiders. I do not like the way dogs always want to have sex with your leg. Over the years we have somehow managed to acquire three cats and I don't even like them very much, and am always secretly trying to reverse over them. If only they would stay put behind the back wheels.
Yes, I know there is this prevailing belief that we should all get more in touch with our food and, yes, I know that as a result small-scale chicken-keeping is really taking off. As many as 200,000 UK households now have chickens. The Poultry Club of Great Britain has seen its membership rise by 15 per cent in the past year. Plus, it only costs 3p a day to feed a chicken who should, on average, lay six eggs a week. (Why not seven? A union-negotiated day off?) But, still. I fancy they will smell and be annoying and then, if I don't get the cats first, the cats will get them. In short, and even though I know I could look winsome in dungarees with a dot of dirt on the end of my cute nose, I do not know if I can pull off a convincing Barbara. However, good sport that I am - you have to be, living with Val Doonican's understandably secret love child - I am willing to give it a five-day try.
Bank holiday. Pouring with rain. The chickens are coming today. What shall we call them? I want Margot and Jerry. But my pre-teen son has other ideas. He wants J-Lo and Beyoncé. "How will you tell which is which?" I ask. "J-Lo will have the bigger bottom, but Beyoncé will wiggle hers better," he says. We prepare for J-Lo and Beyoncé. No lily-filled dressing rooms with white silk-draped sofas, alas, but we do chicken-proof the garden, securing the gaps in the fence with chicken wire. Chicken wire turns out to be miraculously ideal for the purpose. "We're getting chickens," my partner calls out to Peter, our neighbour on the other side. "And they're called J-Lo and Beyoncé," adds my son. "They are prodigious shitters, chickens," says Peter, darkly. We think he is just jealous. Given the option, we think Peter would like to live with J-Lo and Beyoncé. In fact, it may well be that most men would like to live with J-Lo and Beyoncé, prodigious shitters or not. Preferably not, but there is always Haze and newspaper-waving.
Johannes Paul, one of the four designers behind the Eglu, arrives with our one. It is bright green. He also arrives with a carry-box that smells all farmy and is going "blob-blob-blob-blob". Our chickens? "Yes. What are you going to call them?"
"Beyoncé and J-Lo," says my son."
"It'll make a change from Margot and Jerry," he says. "Everyone calls them Margot and Jerry."
I laugh scornfully. "Arses," I say.
"But mum, you..." my son starts to say. I give him a look. The look says: there could be a tenner in it if you keep your smart-arse trap shut. My son is an inner-city child and knows a tenner is a tenner and it's all good for the drugs fund so he shuts up sharpish.
I say to Johannes: "I know this might be a stupid question, but what is the difference between a chicken and a hen?" Johannes replies: "Ahem... well... nothing. Different word, same thing." Right-o, I say. This confirms my suspicion that I'm about to embark on a learning curve the shape of a hockey stick.
Johannes assembles the Eglu. An Eglu (£325, including the birds and feed) is certainly a triumph of design. It has a "privacy screen" to shield the nesting box from the "open-plan living space", funky moulded feeders, a slide-out droppings tray and a magnetised "eggport" that allows you to peep for eggs. I wish I could live in it. It beats our house in the chic stakes hands down.
Johannes, together with three fellow students, began designing the Eglu in the last year of his master's degree course in industrial design at the Royal College of Art. "Chickens have fantastic appeal," he says, "but no one had looked at redesigning the chicken house for the back garden." It also comes with a run of urban fox-resistant mesh. This is good as we do get foxes. Nasty, crafty, pesky foxes. I'm minded to see if I can work up any local interest in starting urban fox hunts. Townie sentimentality being what it is, I doubt hounds or shotguns will ever be allowed. It'll probably have to be push bikes and water pistols, but so long as there are red coats and whips, I think quite a few would be up for it. Anyway, the Eglu is up. It only took a minute. And out come J-Lo and Beyoncé, ready to shake their booty.
Their breed is Marans noire cuivrée, both are about 25 weeks old, and one has started laying while the other is at-point-of-lay, which I'm guessing means she is about to. They have coppery heads and feathers that go from red to a rather gorgeous peacock, petrol blue. I do not like their feet though, which are long-toed and rather dinosaurish. I find their feet repulsive. From now on, I vow, I will only look at J-Lo and Beyoncé from the drumstick up. Which, though, is which? My son assesses their bottoms. They are similar sized. J-Lo, then, will be the one with the bigger, redder comb. J-Lo's bottom is immediately productive. Her poo is mustardy and runny. "J-Lo," says my son. "You are no lady." "See, see!" shouts Peter from over the fence. "Prodigious shitters!" We leave them to peck and scratch and go blob-blob-blob in their run until dusk, when they go into the coop by themselves. I wish children were so easy to put to bed.
I go out first thing. No egg. Bloody, freeloading, stinking, useless, blob-blob-blobbing chickens. So I go to work not on an egg and then, mid-morning, I get a panicky phone call. "They can fly," my partner hisses.
"Darling," I say, "I know it's difficult, but you did promise not to do hallucinogenic drugs until after lunch. Even I know chickens can't fly."
"They can fly," he hisses. "I let them out and the cats had a go and now they've flown over the fence."
I call Johannes. "It seems they can fly."
"Ohmigod," he says. "I forgot to clip their wings. But don't worry. They are ground dwellers, really. They can't fly far because they can't sustain the weight."
I call home. "Johannes forgot to clip their wings."
"It's all right," my partner says, "they are back. They came in the kitchen, tried the cat food, had a crap and then another, then went out again." We'd been told that cats are no threat to chickens, which I didn't really believe, but it's true. J-Lo and Beyoncé gang up, raise their blob-blob-blobbing a pitch or two, and see them off easily. The cats are terrified of the chickens. The cats are chicken whereas the chickens are not. The cats tremble under the kitchen table and may shortly be asking to be reversed over.
I arrive home late afternoon to find J-Lo and Beyoncé are still free-ranging it and pooping all over the shop. We try to get them back in the run before the foxing hour. J-Lo is, contrary to everything you might read about her in Heat, a sweetheart and a doddle. J-Lo doesn't mind being picked up or nudged with sticks. But Beyoncé, the bossy one? Beyoncé is EVIL. Beyoncé does not want to go back into the run and will not. My partner and I spend an hour chasing and attempting to ambush her. I try giving her a look, one that says: Nando's; Peri-Peri sauce; KFC. Beyoncé, behave, or it's the pot for ye! In the end we tempt her in with some M&S baby corn. Phew.
An egg! An egg! Look Peter, an egg! Look Jane, an egg! Well done, J-Lo, who is the layer, rather than Beyoncé, who is merely bossy and EVIL. It is a chocolate brown egg still warm from... well, let's not go into that. Chickens only have one hole for everything so it's probably best not to. My son has it fried for breakfast. The yolk is a gloriously deep yellow. And I do feel proud that I've fed our son from the animals we keep.
Perhaps I am not such a lost cause. Perhaps I can get in touch with nature after all. (Actually, I can be moved by nature sometimes. For example, I find it almost impossible to chop an onion without weeping.) Word gets out locally that we have chickens who do eggs. Children knock on our door all day. We do not live in the rich bit of Islington that's all Dualit toasters and Alessi winestoppers. Many of these kids have never seen a chicken; some have never been out of London. (Indeed, when my son was at the local primary school I once went with him on a school trip to the seaside and, as the train moved into the countryside, one child started exclaiming excitedly: "Mrs Revere, Mrs Revere, I can see... a field!")
I do not want to disappoint the children, so every time the door bell goes I quickly put a supermarket egg from our fridge into the nesting box for them to find. Luckily, most children are quite stupid. What, you didn't know that hens lay eggs with best-by dates on them? What do they teach you at that school? By mid-afternoon I have to go to Waitrose for a further dozen eggs. Three pence a day and all the eggs you can eat? Ha! It's costing me, this. Beyoncé is EVIL again come cooping-up time. Baby corn does the trick again.
Another egg! Which I get, soft-boiled. Fantastic. Our cholesterol levels will soon be rocketing. My partner says that, come dusk, Beyoncé and J-Lo will probably go back into the coop by themselves. Let's leave them. So we leave them and have supper and half-way through we hear this sound of something ricocheting off glass. Hail? We look to the window and there they are, on the sill, pecking away at the glass and looking stunningly malevolent. It is spooky as hell. It's Chicken Run gone mad. It may even be Hitchcockian (Hitch-Cockian?), a poultry version of The Birds. I think that if I go out I will see big, malevolent-looking chickens, silent but beady-eyed, sitting on all the telephone wires in Crouch End. These chickens are scaring me. Not as much as the jumper, but still.
We have to decide: are we going to keep J-Lo and Beyoncé? The reasons against include all those droppings, which are good for plants, but not for lawns. The droppings burn yellow holes into lawns. But as we've had so many visitors and our lawn has been trampled to mud, does that really matter? Then there is Beyoncé's EVIL personality. "Why is Beyoncé so EVIL?" I ask Johannes. "She'll become all docile once she starts to lay," he insists. "It's just that at the moment her hormones are all over the place." Well, we all know that feeling.
And the reasons for? The eggs are great, a real thrill. And, repulsive feet aside, chickens do kind of work their way into your soul, in their pecking, scratching, glass-tapping way. I decide to be amused by their horror-movie pretensions. I just don't know and ask for another few days to think about it. Meanwhile, my partner is very keen, so I give him a look. The look says: let me Oxfam the grey V-neck with the lemon diamonds and we may have a deal. That's fair, don't you think?
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