4 weeks ago

Glossip: Fair is Fowl and Fowl is Fair

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Phase One of Covid-19 threw up many consumer trends; while not stockpiling loo rolls, many people found the quest for yeast and fresh eggs as hard to come by as, well, hen’s teeth. Research also shows that “live chickens” was a bona fide Google search, which reached its peak at the end of March. Rescue charities north and south (such as Little Hill Animal Rescue, Co Kildare) were inundated with demands and had to do due diligence weaning out the genuine enquiries from those who just wanted to guarantee their own supply of eggs. A hen is for life not just a pandemic, as many enthusiasts know. These include Hollywood A-listers such as Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, while other poultry fanciers include Kelly Clarkson, Gisele Bundchen and Yolanda Hadid. Jennifer Garner is a self-proclaimed “chicken lady” who regularly posts about her “ladies” Regina George and Hennifer. Of her brood, which includes Tallulah, Philomena, Ivy, Sibby and Dixie Chick, Nicole Richie gushed (to Architectural Digest), “Martha Stewart said it best: Chickens just give, give, give, and there’s nothing bad about them.” Indeed – it’s been medically proven hens provide comfort for the lonely and depressed and those with high blood pressure.

At Easter, designer Samantha Cameron shared a picture of herself snuggling adorable newborn chicks. She told followers she had bought these fluffy bundles to help keep her three children entertained during lockdown. Hot gardener Charlie McCormick’s baby ducks have similarly been keeping him (and his Instagram followers) enthralled during the last few weeks.

Spending time in the company of chickens (even virtually) is a wonderfully therapeutic experience, as actress Isabella Rossellini can attest. In her book My Chickens and I (published by Abrams) Rossellini reveals her penchant for chickens began when 38 chicks of mixed heritage heirloom breeds arrived at her Long Island farm from a hatchery in Iowa. From expounding the superior eyesight of chickens and the joys of petting them (“They are much softer than any cat or dog,” she says) to a brief history of their evolution, Rossellini divulges her favourite breeds include the Campine and the “very feathery” Cochin.

Rising garden star Arthur Parkinson stole the show on last week’s Gardener’s World, BBC 2, not only with his “Venetian” tulips but his bouffant brood. It includes “small and cuddly” Pekin Bantams, Marans and Welsummers (“always neat in their attire”), Cream Legbars which lay blue eggs, and the on-trend Bantam Wyandottes with laced feathers. He says, “It is the blue laced pullets of this breed that command the highest of prices in the chicken buying world.” His Buff Cochins not only help with the weeding but are kept in memory of Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire who fostered Parkinson’s love of poultry and plants.

“Debo” Devonshire, the former eccentric chatelaine of Chatsworth, had a passion for hens – seen in her decor which had hen motifs in china, carved, cast in metal and even woven into the hearth rug. Like the Duchess, hens have character and are very sociable. Debo once decorated a table, when designer Oscar de la Renta came to dinner, with a (live) Buff Cochin cockerel and his consorts contained in rectangular containers at one end of the table. Day-old chicks were also part of the tablescape. No doubt posh party planners such as Fiona Leahy and Alice Naylor-Leyland have studied the Duchess’ form. Alice plucked one of her husband’s cockerels to star in her latest promotional campaign. She leads the charge of “It” girls who love a hen run. Others include Liz Hurley and Amanda Brooks, the former fashion director of Barney’s, who swapped an enviable social life in New York for the bucolic charm of the Cotswolds replete with hens, horses and a handsome husband.

However, would-be hen parents should note: you need at least three hens, so the birds don’t get lonely. They also require space to explore, a nutritious diet (household scraps aren’t enough), nests, perches, dust baths, veterinary care and Fort-Knox like protection from predators. Applying for a flock licence is also a must-have says the Northern Ireland Battery Hen Rescue Centre, Co Down.

It’s more than worth the effort as GLOSS editor Sarah McDonnell confirms. Sarah returned to keeping hens last summer after a hiatus of nine years and regularly posts about her in-house “Chicken TV” on Instagram. “We had loved the life and colour they brought to the garden, their sociable ways, the eggs of course. Like all good pals, they were charming and funny and we were very fond of them. We held them, we fed them cake, they sat in our laps.”

Sarah’s new set up includes a fox-proof duplex coop with two nesting boxes (created by Declan Farragher of Outdoor Living and Landscaping). “I went on the Irish Poultry Breeders website to find birds of the right age – at ‘point of lay’ between 4-6 months old. We found a breeder with six Marans, a French hen ‘bred for the table’  but also hardy and an excellent layer. She also had a white Leghorn, the ‘drama queen’ of the hen sorority – originally an Italian breed so it may explain her, ahem, chattiness, who we could not leave behind.” Though Sarah had to wait from August to Christmas for eggs (what a present) she now gets an average of 30 eggs a week “to share with neighbours, or fold into ice cream, omelettes, have hard-boiled in salad or with soldiers at breakfast.” As for upkeep, the flock requires feeding and watering twice a day, and a weekly coop clean. “I adopted the old-fashioned ‘deep litter’ method for the winter – mainly out of laziness. Using wood shavings only, you simply turn the bedding every day with a hoe and it gradually breaks down to a kind of friable compost. I throw in dried lavender from my parents’ garden which keeps bugs away and ensures the ladies have a tranquil sleep.”

Hens are ideal companions in lockdown – after all, these birds can teach humans a thing or two about captivity. Says Sarah, “Of course I would recommend everyone gets chickens. I find it enormously rewarding and spend as much time as possible in the garden and love the clucky company as I go about my chores. I always wanted to live in the country and have hens, so this way I have a little bit of country life in the city …”

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