Pet of the week: The Rhode Island red hen

Friendly and full of character, hens make great family pets, and require surprisingly little space to roam free. More than half a million households in the UK keep chickens as pets, and that number is increasing every year as the lure of eating fresh produce grows stronger. And once you've tasted your own eggs, you'll find that un oeuf is never enough...

A breed apart

The Rhode Island red hybrids are considered to be excellent birds, both as pets and as layers. There are three main characteristics of this breed: a hardy nature (not too precious when it comes to living outdoors); a placid disposition; hearty egg producers (able to lay all year round).

What came first...?

Their origins as "farm" animals began thousands of miles away, in the forests of India and the Philippines, where they used to roam like wild foul before being domesticated. Hard to imagine why we still stick them in cages and subject them to such a miserable life.

Egg-cellent work

According to poultry specialist Graham Page of Golden Valley Poultry, a healthy hen will lay between 285 and 300 eggs per year when they are 18-20 weeks old. This will continue for three years, then taper off as they get older. Typically birds live to eight to 10 years but will just be happy to scratch around by this age.

Happy feet

Nothing makes a hen happier than feeling the ground beneath its feet, one reason why caged birds have such a hard time. Some coops have enclosed sections that can be moved to keep the pecking ground fresh.

Team player

Chickens are flock animals, so they should not be kept as single pets. Ideally you should keep three or four, that way if one dies, you can replace her and the flock will replenish itself. Seek advice, but a small, enclosed garden in a terraced row would be ample space for keeping some chickens.

Choices, choices

There are nine different varieties of Rhode Island red hybrids, and you can mix and match them – they all have different personalities. With four birds all laying, you can save £270 a year on eggs; for more information on keeping these lovable, productive pets, visit goldenvalleypoultry.co.uk or call 01428 606231.

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