Tom Hodgkinson: 'Our steady supply of eggs means we always have some sort of food'


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The Independent Online

If all the smallholding activities we have attempted in Devon, keeping chickens comes out top for both pleasure and utility. Growing vegetables can be satisfying and is certainly therapeutic, but when you can buy a 10kg sack of potatoes for a fiver, the toil involved in producing your own seems hardly worth it. This year I have managed to sow some rocket and broad beans, and planted a few cabbages, but looked at strictly in terms of cost-saving, the gains are negligible.

Keeping pigs, which we did one year, is fun, but is a huge commitment and a lot of work. And beekeeping is fascinating work but the capital outlay is pretty huge, and unless you can find an experienced beekeeper to help you, can be very dispiriting. Twice our bees have died over the winter.

Chickens, though, are win-win. This spring we restocked with a beautiful Cochin cockerel called Geronimo, and four young hens at the start of their egg-laying career. They live in an outhouse. Inside it I put up a rail for the birds to roost on, and a couple of old Lloyd Loom boxes for them to nest in.

I open their door first thing in the morning, whereupon they flutter to freedom. They peck around the yard and garden all day and it is fantastically diverting to watch their antics. Throw them a bit of food and the cockerel starts clucking and scratching the ground. In gentlemanly fashion he waits till each of the ladies has started eating before he takes his meal. At lunchtime they find some dust and settle down for a nap, after which they resume their promenade.

A couple of weeks after we got them we were getting four eggs a day; that's one per hen. The job of gallinarius or poultry-keeper can easily be assigned to a small child, who feeds the hens and collects the eggs. Any surplus can be sold at the end of the lane.

The quality of the eggs is far superior to anything you can buy in the supermarket. The yolks are vibrant orange and the white sits firm in the pan. Our hens produce at least 24 eggs a week. That's four boxes, or about £10 worth when you compare the prices asked for free range, organic eggs in Waitrose.

The great thing about the cockerel, apart from his morning crowing which is always a delight, is that your eggs will be fertilised. This means that you can breed more. As I write, one of our hens has gone broody. She is sitting on around 15 eggs, and in a couple of weeks, we hope for some chicks. We'll then move her into a coop and hope for the best.

Little chicks, as well as being impossibly cute, are very vulnerable. In past years we have lost them to children, puppies and drowning. This year we'll be more careful. After a few months the females will start laying and the males can be eaten. Which raises one unpalatable aspect.

Killing chickens is not a pleasant job. A couple of years ago a local smallholder taught me the broom-handle method– although one year I tugged too hard and the head came off. The body ran around spurting blood from it neck. Yes, it really does happen.

Make sure to keep your hens locked up and safe from foxes at night and urban hen-keeping is distinctly possible. A friend in Tufnell Park keeps two and gets one or two eggs a day for little work and a lot of fun.

Our steady supply of eggs means that we always have some sort of food. Lately we have embarked on a domestic austerity programme which has seen us cut back on meat. Victoria has made a myriad of egg-based dishes. One favourite is a Spanish omelette. For breakfast we have eggy bread. Never has thrift been so pleasurable.

If you get depressed, as I do, by phrases such as "hard-working families" and the "global race", repeated ad nauseam on the Today programme, then I highly recommend a bit of chicken keeping. The global race has only one victor and many losers, whereas with poultry everyone's a winner.

Tom Hodkinson is editor of 'The Idler'