Fowl play in suburbia

Forget cats and dogs: for more and more urban dwellers, the humble farmyard chicken is the pet of choice, says Martin Gurdon
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The Independent Online

Suzanne Lucas keeps a few chickens as garden pets. The thing that makes this unusual is that she lives in a terraced house on London's Old Kent Road. "I was on holiday in Cornwall when someone offered me a surplus cockerel. Muggins here couldn't resist him," says Suzanne, a retired hotel manager. A petite bantam, the bird moved into her household "glory hole", and could be found perched on the washing machine until Suzanne invested in a chicken ark, then an avian girlfriend. "The hen went broody, I bought some fertilised, pure bred eggs, and I was away."

Suzanne Lucas keeps a few chickens as garden pets. The thing that makes this unusual is that she lives in a terraced house on London's Old Kent Road. "I was on holiday in Cornwall when someone offered me a surplus cockerel. Muggins here couldn't resist him," says Suzanne, a retired hotel manager. A petite bantam, the bird moved into her household "glory hole", and could be found perched on the washing machine until Suzanne invested in a chicken ark, then an avian girlfriend. "The hen went broody, I bought some fertilised, pure bred eggs, and I was away."

During the last war urban chicken-keeping was common practice, although many city dwellers apparently found it difficult to turn their birds into dinner. There are still plenty of town-based hen aficionados today, but like Lucas, most see their birds as low-maintenance pets that offer useful by-products in the form of eggs and compost-enhancing droppings. However, some pre-preparation and a large dose of pragmatism are required to avoid hassle for chicken-tyro townies who find this an attractive idea.

Before buying her birds Juliet Bernard, who runs a public-relations agency within walking distance of her home in Welwyn Garden City, surfed the internet to find out about all things chicken-related (housing, food storage, breeds, etc), and even attended a few cacophonous chicken shows. At one she met a hen expert who really was called Mr Hatcher. She contacted local planning and environmental persons to see if any by-laws would be broken by her proposed pets, and neighbours were spoken to about the imminent arrival of four hens - cockerel ownership would have caused legal and noise-related problems. Soon afterwards Jesse, Shadow, Gertrude and Sylvia ("named after Sylvia Plath") arrived, and they are now garden fixtures.

"We're trying to find a middle way between pets and farm animals," says Bernard, who appreciates the eggs, and could contemplate eating one of her flock. "I'm happy about fattening them up for the table, but my menfolk [husband Paul and children Joe and Reef] are quite squeamish about the idea."

William D'Cruze has kept chickens in less-than-rural South Norwood since the late 1970s. He has 10 Dutch bantams and thinks their smallness is an advantage in a town garden. He hasn't encountered neighbour problems - the fact that he offers them regular supplies of free eggs probably helps here. Between September and March the birds have free rein in his garden, and this has sometimes attracted unwanted visitors. "I saw a fox in broad daylight, sitting on the fence, just looking. I shooed him away."

Chickens are relaxing things to watch moving about in a garden, but during the summer D'Cruze imprisons his for the sake of his plants. Bernard now knows why. "My garden is completely screwed," she says cheerfully. "Chickens try everything and spit it out if they don't like it." Plans to confine the birds to part of the Bernards' 30ft by 90ft garden hadn't entirely been finished when the hens arrived, but she thinks the lawn is now rather less mossy "and they thinned out the bamboo."

Cheltenham-based Malcolm Allison keeps 10 hens on a publicly owned, urban allotment plot near the city centre. Thanks to a security fence and locked gates, he thinks the birds are pretty secure from both predators and vandals.

Allison used to live in Oxford and kept chickens at his home there. There he had full-sized birds, including a cockerel. One neighbour said she liked listening to it crow in the small hours ("she was an insomniac"), but noise-related complaints from householders near the Cheltenham allotment site saw him switch to bantams: "If I'm asked to get rid of a rooster I do. I'm not falling out with my neighbours."

The four hens belonging to signwriter Chris Boys and his wife Sandra trundle about in a garden with an old people's home backing on to it, in an estate "of about 400 relatively modern houses". The couple contacted their local council (it's worth checking covenants and house deeds, too) before their first birds arrived five years ago. "We like to go out and spend time with the hens. As soon as my wife starts doing any digging they're there, looking for worms," said Boys, who is surprised at how many of his fellow Dorking-dwellers have no idea they're living near hens.

He has the luxury of grown-up children and a hen-loving neighbour who are willing to chicken-sit during holidays (Juliet Bernard's local vet offers a cat-feeding service, and is equally happy to accommodate hens). The Boys' birds are pets. None of them will end up in the pot. They're far too entertaining and therapeutic. "I was ill when I bought them and wanted something relaxing. If I watch one of them nodding off in a dust bath I fall asleep, too."

URBAN HENHOUSE HINTS

* Smallholder magazine is a good source of birds, equipment and runs. A new hen-related title, Practical Poultry, has just been launched.

* Hens suffer respiratory problems. Chicken expert Fred Hams reckons that pretty-looking triangulated chicken arcs force their occupants' heads too closely together. Square hutches work best.

* Hen houses need to be cleaned out weekly. Chicken guano is very acid. It should be composted rather than put straight onto flower beds.

* Keep food in metal containers. Otherwise it can attract rats.

* Bantam hens are small and will take up less space.

* Retired, ex-farm chickens can make appealing pets but may only live for a short time.

* Check house deeds, and with local authorities to make sure it's legal to keep birds where you live.

* Tell neighbours about your chicken- keeping plans.

* Cockerels can be very noisy, but be prepared for more bullying in an all- female henhouse.

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