Domestic life is turned upside down when feathered friends Britney and Shakira arrive at Richard McComb's city home.
I am sitting at my desk when the text I have been dreading pings up on my phone.
It is from our eldest daughter and it reads: “Britney has flown over your fence... LOL x”
I feel sick to the pit of my stomach. Sweat breaks out on the palms of my hands. Chickpoint Charlie has been breached. Bustling Britney has flown the coop; and if Britney has escaped, it’s only a matter of time before Shakira follows. The two are inseparable.
I erected Chickpoint Charlie, a ramshackle 2ft tall fence, the previous evening in a bid to keep the hens penned inside the top section of our back garden in Birmingham. During the first week of their stay, they wreaked havoc with the flower borders so lovingly planted by my wife. Admittedly, the hens are cute – but boy, do these girls grub. Britney and Shakira could scratch and rootle for Britain at the Chicken Olympics.
We have paid dearly for their indiscriminate Vietnam War era scorched earth policy. The verbena has vanished, the honeysuckle and clematis have been denuded, the chrysanthemums’ buds have been vapourised and the hosta’s roots have been dug up in the hens’ never-ending quest for creepy crawlies.
Of course, the chickens have only been doing what chickens are hard-wired to do. They are genetically programmed to scratch and claw at the ground and in their favour we haven’t seen a single slug since Britney and Shakira arrived.
The sacking of the borders has been our fault, not theirs. We were naive, total townies, thinking we could allow the birds to roam without repercussions. Hence my belated decision to adopt a policy of containment and fence in the birds with a makeshift buffer zone. With old canes and recycled garden trellis, Chickpoint Charlie was put together with the help of our youngest before you could say “Achtung! Cluck alert!”
I was chuffed with my work, for 12 hours at least, which is when the text arrived informing me of Britney’s break-out. She had simply flapped her wings, emitted a honk and swooped over the barrier.
Since then, there have only been a handful of incursions into the demilitarised northern sector of the garden. Having been unceremoniously picked up by their tails and chucked back over the fence, our feathered friends have got the message. The bit with the flowers is out of bounds, regardless of how tasty it looks.
Our dummy run at keeping hens entered a more relaxed phase following the laying down of clear territorial boundaries and, if I’m honest, I don’t want to see the birds go.
We took delivery of the then unnamed Britney and Shakira a fortnight ago. They were installed with the help of Jenna Jack, a former marketing executive who has reinvented herself as the Chicken Woman of Warwickshire. Jenna, aged 28, set up Warwickshire Chicken Coop in Ettington, near Stratford-upon-Avon, to take advantage of the surge in demand for domestic hens.
She had always loved chickens, and kept several as pets, and decided to combine her passion for the birds with a new career. She sells both hybrids, such as Rhode Rock, Warwickshire White Star and Speckledy (ranging in price from £18-£25) as well as more aristocratic pure breeds such as Pekin, Rhode Island Red and Orpington (£30-£45).
Hybrids are the ones to choose for egg laying while pure breeds are ideal for showing and the preservation of bloodlines. Both are fully vaccinated by Jenna and are suitable for gardens, although you need two birds as a mimimum because hens have feelings, too – and they get lonely.
Warwickshire Chicken Coop only opened in March but Jenna says she has already hit her target of selling 200 hens each month.
She says: “So many people keep chickens. You have 60 to 70-year-olds who used to have them running around on farms when they were children. You have families who have them for the kids. Then you get young couples who have never had a pet before.
“Most people take on hens as pets. The fact they lay eggs is a bonus. Hens develop their own personalities and are better than having a rabbit or a hamster.”
The Birmingham Post decided to carry out an entirely unscientific study to see if domestic hens would lay more eggs in semi-rural Warwickshire or smog-bound, crime-ridden, inner city Birmingham.
My colleague Sarah Probert took delivery of two hens (Thelma and Louise) at her home overlooking open countryside while I introduced Brit and Shaks to the projects.
The experiment, unfortunately, had to be suspended after a few days when it became apparent that Brit, in particular, wasn’t interested in laying. Both our White Sussex Star and the chestnut-coloured Shakira, a Colombian Blacktail, were 17 weeks old on arrival and were “coming into lay.” So we bedded them down every night and waited. And waited.
Finally, after seven days, two eggs arrived early one afternoon. The first egg had a very soft shell and was the size of a quail egg, but it was a thing of rare beauty. It was accompanied by a similarly pale, but slightly larger, egg. A third brown egg arrived 36 hours later and a pattern became established.
However, we are pretty sure it is Shakira is flying solo when it comes to egg production. Like her popstar namesake, we fear Britney may have some underlying mental health issues and is more interested in the nail varnish on our daughters’ toes than she is in laying eggs.
Jenna told us to expect to see different personality traits and characters emerge. Frankly, I thought she was ga-ga, but she has been proved right.
Shakira is far more even-keeled than flighty Britney. She is easier to catch and is more vocal. Both birds will greet you in the morning and scurry over when you arrive with bags of feed, but Shakira is more personable; she gives a little more to poultry-human relations than her roomie.
It is Britney, however, who always bags the straw nest in their bespoke house. She beds down each night while a watchful Shakira perches.
And what of the hens’ accommodation? It couldn’t be comfier (if you are a chicken), or easier to clean.
Home is a designer-friendly Eglu, made by Omlet, which comes in green, purple, red, pink or orange.
The sealable dome/pod where the chickens sleep at night and take shelter during the day comes with a two-metre run, which is enclosed in a strong steel weld mesh to keep predators at bay.
When we are out, we leave the girls in the run, safe in the knowledge they can’t be attacked by foxes and rats. And when we are in the garden, we let them roam within the confines of Chickpoint Charlie.
The Eglu doesn’t come cheap – models are for sale online at £425 – but Jenna can source the chicken houses, or just about anything chicken-related including feed, bedding and husbandry products. The Eglu also has the huge advantage of being easy to clean, with a slideout dropping tray and hoseable surfaces.
There are no worries about what to do with the birds while you are away on holiday as Jenna also offers a “pellets and perch” bed-and-breakfast accommodation for hens at Ettington.
I thought the hens, and their home, might be whiffy but this has not been the case.
Yes, chickens do poo, and poo quite a bit, but it dries quickly and really doesn’t smell.
A quick clean of the Eglu takes two minutes and my evening poo pick-up duties have simply become part of the normal timetable of domestic duties.
One thing we have noticed is that we spend more time outside as a family with the hens in residence.
It sounds potty but Britney and Shaks are good company and serve as an amusing distraction as they forage, preen, strut, fail to catch flies and furiously attack sweetcorn.
Where one hen leads, the other follows.
They are pals and are remarkably forgiving of each other’s foibles. In many ways, they are preferable to human company.
Would I keep chickens full-time?
Yes, I would.
It is possible to keep them in a small city garden and the pros (having pets, comedy interest, eggs, bug control, getting you in the fresh air, family bonding) far outweight the cons (poo – and that’s it really).
But first I need to reinforce Chickpoint Charlie.
* For more information, go to www.warwickshirechickencoop.com
A rooster booster
Sarah Probert dreamed of owning chickens since her childhood. But did the reality of animal husbandry live up to her expectations?
The book had sat gathering dust on a bookshelf for years.
I had often leafed through Keeping Chickens, The Essential Guide to Enjoying and Getting the Best From Chickens, looking at the idyllic pictures of fancy fowl peeping out of ornate houses and deciding whether to buy my own birds. But the commitment was never there.
I have had a strange obsession with chickens since I was a child. Perhaps it was a genetic trait. My great-grandmother was a bit of a chicken fancier, showing off her brood at local agricultural shows and my grandparents kept dozens of the birds, selling their eggs as well as enjoying one or two for the pot once they had gone off lay.
So there was a flurry of excitement when Jenna Jack arrived at our home, a wooden coop attached to her 4x4 truck and an old Emma Bridgewater cardboard box, which was making strange cooing noises, positioned carefully on the front seat.
Jenna had given us the chance to care for two chickens for a fortnight and I had convinced myself it would be love at first sight and they would never be leaving our Warwickshire home again.
As Jenna opened the top of the cardboard box, out came Thelma, a Gold Ranger and rather traditional pretty brown bird followed by Louise, a Rhode Rock, a stunning black chicken with a golden plumage around her neck and blue tinged feathers on her back and tail. It was quite clear from the beginning that Thelma was the boss.
A day after they arrived, Thelma gave us our first egg: a medium-sized brown one, still warm as we plucked it from the nest. She came out of the coop making loud clucking noises as if she was rather proud of what she had delivered. Louise joined in the excited chatter, both of them skipping up and down the ladder to the nest boxes, popping their heads in and out as if to inspect the special delivery.
Louise waited two days before she produced a much smaller, slightly speckled egg and from then on the pair kept up the supply almost every day.
The coop came with a small fox-proof run, but we let the chickens roam freely about our garden as much as we could and enjoyed watching them chasing flies, picking out the smallest slugs from the vegetable beds and settling down in a small patch of earth underneath the apple tree.
Louise was the expert insect catcher. She would guzzle dozens of slugs, wiping her sticking beak on the grass after each morsel and hopping about catching flies in the early evening air.
Thelma preferred the comfort of the vegetable patch, and has ravished my chard, gobbled my red currants and embarked upon a dust bath amongst my seedlings, leaving a chicken shaped hole where the kale once grew.
Jenna assured me that it was impossible to overfeed a chicken. “They are not like cats or dogs, they don’t over eat,” she said. But these chickens never stopped eating and would happily spend a whole day pecking away at any meal they could find.
Which I suppose explains the real downside to keeping chickens – the enormous, indescribable quantity of poo they generate.
Keep the chickens in the run and the pile up of poo is pretty severe by the end of the day – although the upside is that it is an excellent addition to the compost heap.
I loved these chickens dearly. They had fantastic cheeky characters and I was sure they were with us forever but I made the tough decision that it was time we said goodbye to Thelma and Louise. I will miss them clucking around the garden, watching them charge across the lawn at the rattle of a treat bag.
But for now, I am opting for a dung-free zone, at least for a few years until the children get a little older.