Urban gardener, Cleve West: A very British coop

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The Independent Online

Gardening trends come and go. Some, like perennials and grasses, become permanent fixtures. Others, such as leylandii hedges, glass mulches and patio heaters, have a short shelf-life. The latest, I'm pleased to report, involves an element of fowl play. Yes, chickens are the latest option to consider for your backyard, as my colleague Chamois Rose-Wood explained last week - and urban gardeners are not excluded.

I experienced these strange birds during my childhood fling with the countryside. In return for a clean, safe environment the hens would oblige us by polishing off kitchen scraps, weeds and slugs (turning them into quite a potent fertiliser) and, of course, provide delicious, free-range eggs. Since then, chickens have always figured strongly in my notion of the good life, lending a certain completeness to the garden's cyclical nature, and I've got to admit that the idea of having these creatures sharing our space is appealing.

The allotment, where two families are already keeping hens, is the logical place for them. A large bramble patch that has been infested with bindweed could be cleared to make way for a good-sized coop. The only real problem is time. Looking after livestock is quite a responsibility. The fox would be no less of a threat at the allotment, so security would have to be tight. On the one hand the chickens would act as an incentive to visit the allotment every day, but the journey could soon become a chore. Having them at home would be safer for them and, as long as I didn't get a cockerel (which would drive everyone in the neighbourhood to drink), more convenient for us.

Our garden shed could easily be converted into a coop, but for those with restricted space, the much advertised Eglu is perhaps a better choice. Designed by students at the Royal College of Art five years ago, the contemporary look and ease of maintenance (smooth plastic being simple to clean and making it difficult for red mite to infest the brood) have made it a hit with urban gardeners who want to take home-grown food to the next level.

Restricted space for any creature is always a concern so it's good to see the larger Eglu Cube make its debut. Obviously chickens will be happier and healthier given the maximum amount of space to roam during the day, but gardeners with precious plants won't welcome indiscriminate talons ripping through young plants in search for food. A client who keeps chickens in a walled garden lets them out to "garden" with her and swears it has dramatically reduced slug and snail numbers. The hens stay close by and, if she ventures outside the walled garden, they remain close to the coop in case the local fox comes sniffing.

Keeping chooks is not something to undertake lightly especially as there are probably more foxes in town these days than in the country. Fencing should be buried 15cm or so curling outwards to prevent foxes (not to mention rats and mice) burrowing in. Your breakfast is the last thing on a chicken's mind if it's worried for its life. Cleanliness is also paramount in keeping your stock healthy. Feeding and watering equipment should be kept free from contamination and a good airflow is essential. Raising chicks, as opposed to adopting an adult hen, will not only improve your chances of getting eggs but it will help you form a lasting bond with the birds.

But before you place an order for your first Eglu, it's worth checking with your local council to see if there are any restrictions in your neighbourhood. It's also worth visiting someone who keeps chickens in a town garden before you embark on your new responsibility. Some breeds lay better than others and don't forget that chickens are usually only productive for the first three years of their life - so what will you do with them when they stop laying? I know I wouldn't have the heart to let anyone have them for the pot, but there's no denying I'm feeling a little broody.

www.omlet.co.uk

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