Sooner or later, I suspect, every vegetable gardener ponders the possibility of chickens - I know I have - and if you have too then Jeremy Hobson’s recently published Success with Chickens, is a good place to start.
Jeremy moved to France from the UK in 2002, taking his love of chickens with him. As he couldn’t transport the flock he’d kept in England, he soon formed a new one. “Home wouldn’t seem like home without them,” he told me when I phoned. “I was brought up with them, my grandparents had them; they’ve always been around.”
The book has a very personal tone —“I really enjoyed writing it,” he said. “I had a free rein from the publishers and put more of myself into it”— and the result is an engaging, chatty read, which gives you far more than just the nuts and bolts of chicken-keeping. Their history, physiology, the make-up of eggs, why you should keep chickens, and where, are all covered in the first three chapters. For us gardeners, he allays fears about combining chickens and plants, pointing out that, with care, you’re actually likely to benefit.
Aimed mainly at beginners, the book is a mine of information that will set you solidly on the right path. It covers matters such as feeding, choosing healthy stock, general maintenance and keeping your hens healthy—as well as general information that will help you understand and appreciate them more.
More experienced readers are likely to find quite a bit of interest too, from choice extracts from vintage chicken-rearing tomes to a chapter on Breeding, Incubating and Rearing.
There is also a chapter on Showing. “I included it because if someone gets chickens for the first time, they might not know it’s an option, so it explains a little.” Jeremy’s belief in the value of shows stems from his worry about backyard chicken fanciers and will make you consider carefully any temptation to keep and breed from several different pure-breeds. “We all have a responsibility towards the continuation of the pure-breeds, the genetics of which could be lost if birds of mixed varieties continue to be further crossed,” he said. It’s not an idle worry, as bloodlines have been lost in the past in favour of more productive hybrids, while the Ministry of Agriculture warned of the consequences of faulty breeding between the wars.
Its value aside, showing sounds fun. “I’ve never noticed with people who show any nastiness,” says Jeremy. “They’re all willing and ready to help, even though they’re all competing.”
But showing isn't likely to be the first thing on one’s mind when starting off. The biggest mistake that novices make, said Jeremy, is choosing the wrong breed, and his chapter on What Chickens? covers thirty different breeds, divided into those that are practical, pretty or good with children, including Jeremy’s personal favourite, the Wyandotte, and lesser known types, such as Croad Langshan.
Ten years in France has revealed that, certainly in Jeremy’s rural area, it’s unusual to pass a house that hasn’t got chickens scratching around the garden, kept for eggs and the table. “There’s an element of people enjoying showing—a lot of fancy breeds originated in France—but less so than in Britain, I’d say.”
The French are less sentimental and happier to eat their chickens but Jeremy hasn’t acclimatised to that approach himself. If a hen has to be dispatched, he says, “I’d rather someone took them and used them,” but isn't keen to do it himself, especially when he’s got to know them.
You can understand why. On a balmy summer evening, Jeremy retires with a gin and tonic to a recliner by the open door to the chicken run. He paints a very tempting picture for anyone teetering on the edge of a chicken-keeping decision. “After a day at work, can there be anything better than going down to the hen house, feeding the chickens and collecting the day’s fresh eggs? I rather think not.”
Success with Chickens was provided for review by Quiller Publishing. RRP £14.99 ISBN: 978-84689-093-2
Pop over to Dreaming of Roses for Holley's own book review and a round-up of reviews for July.