The country house chicken comes in all shapes and sizes, with eggs from brown in hue to blue; but which breeds are in vogue? Martha Terry finds out
Blue layers or brown, rare breed or rescue? Which fashionable chickens will you see roaming in the smartest gardens, asks Martha Terry.
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Never in the history of modern ‘bubbles,’ did any mania exceed in ridiculousness or ludicrousness, or in the number of its victims surpass this inexplicable humbug,” wrote George Pickering Burnham in his 1855 book The History of the Hen Fever: a Humorous Record. ‘Hen fever’ had gripped the public both here and across the Atlantic, inspired by a young Queen Victoria’s burgeoning aviary.
When the monarch was given seven exotic cochin China fowl from the Far East in 1842, their vibrant feathers and elongated necks stood in stark contrast to the dishevelled chickens that already inhabited Britain. A new hobby was born, with Victorians trading the birds at extortionate prices and tales abounding of fanciers hiring bodyguards to protect their coops. By 1855 the bubble had burst a little with a saturated market of overpriced chickens, but no longer was this bird the domain of peasants who hoped for a few eggs and a cockerel for the pot.
Perhaps with a little less fervour than in the mid-19th century, new poultry enthusiasts are back at the fore, with lockdowns forcing us to look at nature, self-sufficiency and to embrace the simple things in life. The young royals wax lyrical about their coops, the smart set and supermodels from Gisele Bündchen to Liz Hurley have jumped on the bandwagon and chickens can be found scratching around at many of Britain’s country houses. Suddenly hens are not only useful but downright fashionable.
When Prince Albert remodelled the royal aviary at Windsor to accommodate chickens, doves, bustards, storks and pheasants, a sitting room for Queen Victoria was included where she could admire her most recent acquisitions. She was presented with a flock of the first Brahmas seen in Britain, and her passion has continued down the royal line. Prince Charles’s Highgrove is nicknamed Cluckingham Palace on account of his enthusiasm for bird welfare and organic farming – he keeps Marans and Welsummers. His grandmother, the Queen Mother, kept the heavily feathered pastel-orange buff Orpingtons and was patron of the Buff Orpington Society, an appointment of which she was, according to Prince Charles in his foreword to the Illustrated Guide to Chickens, “enormously proud”.
Last year, the media clucked about the Cambridges’ and Sussexes’ respective broods as if it were new ground, when they were simply perpetuating a family tradition. Not that the royal pedigree extends to the birds – the Cambridges raise a variety of hens from chicks, while the Sussexes have adopted ex-factory hens.
But it’s not only the royal family establishing the poultry hierarchy. The late Duchess of Devonshire was renowned for her Chatsworth chickens. As one of the Mitford sisters, her home-schooling was reportedly paid for by their mother’s commercial Rhode Island reds and white leghorns – prolific layers of light brown and white eggs originating in America and Italy respectively – which sparked a lifelong passion. Besides her familiar leghorns, the Duchess herself favoured several British breeds, such as the light Sussex, the Dorking and the Derbyshire redcap, as well as the buff cochin – now known as Pekin bantams – which used to roam freely among the visitors to her home.
A number of these breeds are rare, such as the redcap and the Dorking, which has an extra hind toe. Birds with five toes were mentioned in historical Roman texts as having been found in AD47 in Britain, although this breed wasn’t standardised here until the mid-19th century.
The buff cochins also have an interesting history. Although Queen Victoria is often credited with having introduced this ancient Chinese breed to Britain, others say it is likely that British officers captured some of these prize bantams when they raided the emperor’s palace at Peking during the Second Opium War in 1860, and went on to establish the breed in England.
Such variety and heritage is part of the fun with keeping chickens. Some people prioritise egg colour or prolific layers, others simply enjoy the bundles of feathers clucking and scuttering around the garden. Irish chef Clodagh McKenna recently acquired a small flock of Burford browns – dark brown eggs, large yellow yolks – celebrity shoe designer Charlotte Olympia Dellal names her brood after old Hollywood stars, and Olympic equestrian William Fox-Pitt has about 40 of such varying breeds he can’t keep track of them.
Claudia Audley runs Bury Green Poultry and has been breeding chickens since she was six years old. “It was a passionate hobby as I was too scared to ride like the rest of my family,” she says. “I would advertise in a magazine called Practical Poultry, and people would come to our house and ask for Claudia, and be shocked to find a six-year-old running a chicken business.” She now has 130 chickens, specialising in a “rainbow egg project” and educating keepers via her Instagram account, @burygreenpoultry.
“I use a whole mix of breeds, laying white, pink, blue, green (pale and olive), dark chocolate, speckled…” she says. “For instance, copper Marans lay chocolate eggs, the cream legbars lay blue, and if you cross them, you get olive eggers. Rainbow egg-layers have become very popular; people love the copper Marans – which have rich yolks the chefs like. The light Sussexes, fluffy silkies – although their feathers mustn’t get wet – and Pekin bantams are very popular too. My favourite is the lemon or lavender Pekin bantam; they look like teapots and have such sweet characters. My lavender frizzle hops on my knee or follows me round the garden.”
Frizzles have feathers growing in different directions, giving them an “electrocuted look”. Audley cautions against crossing one frizzle with another – “that makes a frazzle and it looks like a porcupine”.
“If you want decent-sized eggs, a light Sussex is a good choice,” adds Audley, noting the eggs are creamy pink/light brown. “They’re my favourite large-fowl breed.” Light Sussex are also available in bantam size.
Former head of media at the Countryside Alliance Charlotte Cooper is another to prioritise egg colour. She started out with four light Sussex bantams from the Chatsworth Estate 15 years ago, and now runs a small free-range egg business, Charli’s Chooks, selling boxes to local shops. “We started with an honesty box outside the house, but naughty kids used to knock the eggs out and nick the cash,” she reveals.
“A pretty box is important as people pay a premium price. My brown layers are Warrens and ISA browns – in England we like brown eggs; like brown bread, we think it’s good for us. My white stars lay the white eggs, and the cream legbar hybrids lay the blue and green. I prioritise eggs over looks,” Cooper admits. “The pure-breds don’t lay as many as the hybrids, though they are more aesthetic.”
For 11-year-old Iris Walker – who hunts with the Beaufort — egg colour is “not at all important”. She was first hooked when she was staying with a friend whose hen produced chicks. “They kindly gave me Colin, my Pekin bantam cockerel, and he had to have wives, so Mummy put a lonely-hearts advert on Instagram and suddenly Colin had two new bantam wives, Caroline and Cordelia,” says Iris, whose Christmas present was a henhouse that looks like a castle. She now has nine chickens, including lavender Pekins, golden and silver partridge bantams. They sport names beginning with C, such as Claira, named after her “Field Master’s very pretty girlfriend”.
Iris has even managed to bring Colin into school, after boring her teacher with stories about her special cockerel. “Colin loved it and even got introduced to the headmaster,” she says. “After school he comes inside to help me with my homework, he rides my pony with me, and is a fun alarm clock. I put him in my sister’s bed to wake her up…”
Fox-Pitt is similarly unfussed by egg colour – he has some 40 chickens of indiscriminate breeding and a handful of Appleyard ducks at his Dorset farm, alongside his blue-blooded event horses. He inherited his poultry passion from his mother, Marietta, who kept silkies in his childhood. He tends to hatch his chicks from eggs.
“I have some silkies, some frizzle Pekins, all sorts,” he says. “They lay ordinary brown eggs, very few in winter – the bantams tend to lay six eggs then go broody for six months. But in summer we make a few hundred pounds, which is exciting for my daughters. I just like having them around. I find them therapeutic; it defuses any tension watching chickens flapping about and makes a change from the horses.”
Charlie Dupont, who runs a shoot in Dorset, also inherited the poulterer’s gene. His father was called ‘Hen Man’ at school and Dupont now has Pekin bantams, Welsummer crosses, Appleyard and Indian runner ducks, guinea fowl and turkey – though the Pekins are his favourites.
“They are really sweet little bantams,” he says. “They don’t make too much mess, or scratch up all the grass. Although they do go on strike in winter, so you need a few more ‘ugly layers’, as I call them.” He remembers as a child the day a fox ripped into the shed where the family’s Rhode Island reds lived, tore off the heads and left the carcasses. He now digs in 6ft of concrete. “I can keep the foxes and badgers out, but where you have chickens, you’ll always have rats,” he says.
“This morning, my three-year-old daughter was collecting the eggs and a rat climbed out of the egg box. They are terrible, they eat the chicks and steal the sweet ducklings from under the hen.” Dupont’s favourite poultry pastime is hatching. “If you want to have some fun, you can hatch other birds under the bantams – they just love to sit and hatch babies, anyone’s babies,” he says. “I’ve used bantams to hatch pheasants, partridges, geese and ducks, and it’s hilarious when you see the ducklings following the bantam around. You have to mimic what the real mother would do, so for ducks I’d put warm water on the eggs, as the mother might have gone for a swim. An incubator would work too, but you can’t beat nature.”
For all the rise in demand of the popular Pekins et al, there are 20 breeds listed as ‘priority’ on the Rare Breed Survival Trust, of which HRH The Prince of Wales is patron. This is what motivates chicken breeder Scotsman Rory Innes, track manager at Musselburgh Racecourse, who keeps red Sussexes and Scots greys.
“I’ve bred chickens all my life and wanted to do my bit for Scots greys as they were very rare and it’s my native breed – it’s a fun sideline,” says Innes, who became secretary of the breed club. “They’re pretty but not great layers. The red Sussex is a good layer but also quite rare, so I took pity on them. “I’m not at all interested in egg colours or showing – it’s all about saving the rare breeds. The saviour has been Facebook, which has helped us publicise the breed.”
Whether a royal or smallholder, there’s a chicken for everyone, depending on whether your poultry goals are colourful eggs, fun pets, to save a breed from extinction or an individual chicken from its factory plight. As Cooper says: “I think everyone should have three or four chickens. They are the only pet that will give you something back every day.”