Meet the bane of fox, postman and unwanted visitor. When it comes to country-house security, guinea fowl are the new birds on the block, says Netia Walker
An affective burglar alarm, less high-maintenance than chickens and effective at clearing small rodents, guinea fowl are the new choice of bird for the country set, says Netia Walker.
Discover why a sky filled with shrieking, swooping swifts is one of the true delights of summer. Or read about why nightingales, whose song has inspired poets, musicians and romantics, are disappearing from the British countryside.
The country house has a new status symbol and it is of the unassuming, feathered variety. Gone are the days of glamorous, colourful peacocks strutting their stuff as the welcoming committee on immaculately raked gravel in front of enviable rural properties. Instead, expect to be met by flocks of prehistoric-looking guinea fowl — the new bird of choice among the country set.
Originally from West Africa and thought to have been introduced to Western Europe in the 16th century, guinea fowl are known for their meat, rich eggs and — possibly the main reason for their surge in popularity — their loyal, dog-like behaviour. They use their shrill voices as an effective burglar alarm to alert their owners to the presence of unwanted guests and predators.
Less high-maintenance than chickens, guineas like to roost high in trees, preferring to live free rather than being caged in a coop, however luxurious. This is a definite advantage because, as all chicken enthusiasts will know, forgetting to shut up the birds is an expensive mistake as Mr Fox is likely to take advantage of your tardiness.
After numerous midday visits from Monsieur Reynard, who would brazenly ransack our chicken coop leaving behind battlefield-like scenes but infuriatingly not taking even one of his victims with him, we decided to beef up our security and call in some guinea fowl heavies to protect our remaining, traumatised birds. We were soon enchanted by the chatty, mixed grey flock that bustled about looking rather like a gaggle of gossiping WI members. One took against our postman and rushed at him every time he delivered our post. We put it down to his bright red van but soon realised that our guinea didn’t do the same to his trouser-clad colleague — it turned out that she didn’t like his shorts. Even our punchy stable cat, who will willingly take on a scrap with any dog, has met his match with guineas and will slink away as soon as he hears their tuneful approach.
It’s not only chickens that benefit from the protection of feathered guards. Jonny and Georgina Walker, owners of the East Dunley shoot near Chippenham, in Wiltshire, religiously put guinea fowl out in the woods with their pheasants to shelter them from predators. As well as providing an accurate alarm system, they also help to clear ticks and small rodents, and wander along the edges of yew hedges guzzling bugs. Many shoots keep guinea fowl for these uses, but Guns should note that they are not considered fair game. They are deemed domestic birds, like chickens, so don’t blot your copybook with your host by committing the cardinal sin of adding his favourite shoot mascot to the bag; you may not be invited back.
Like all good security guards, guinea fowl are also incredibly brave and not afraid to go into battle, as witnessed by rider Susie Brassey while she was out exercising her horse in Westonbirt, Gloucestershire: “I heard the most terrible noise and went to investigate. There, in the middle of a flock of guinea fowl, was a fox trying to get his lunch. The guinea fowl came at him from every direction, working as a team to move him on. This went on for about 20 minutes, with the fox coming back again and again, yet the guineas never gave up, all the time making one hell of a noise. In the end, he retreated and waved the white flag. It was an amazing sight to behold.”
As well as keeping guard, the guineas’ natural behaviour is to roam and explore every nook and cranny available to them, continually chatting with one another. “They are all over the place, chattering, squabbling and inspecting the area for up to a quarter of a mile from their home where they roost in a weeping willow tree in the middle of the farmyard,” says proud owner Lord Seaford, who was well ahead of the curve when he fell under the spell of these noisy characters more than 40 years ago in Kenya. When he came home, he nursed the desire to have them in his corner of Dorset, where he keeps them to this day. “Breakfast and tea are demanded on time and, in exchange, anything out of the ordinary is shouted at and we are warned of strangers.”
However, the birds’ penchant for exploration can occasionally test relationships. Story has it that a particularly pesky flock liked to visit their next-door neighbour’s house, paying particular unwanted attention to the immaculate vegetable patch. Once, roars of indignation came from across the boundary and when the guinea owners peeped over the wall to take a closer look at the encounter, they saw their elderly neighbour chasing the birds away with a raised hoe. The squawking guineas scattered, complaining bitterly at being disturbed from the fresh vegetables they were enjoying, in a scene reminiscent of Mr McGregor’s tussles with Peter Rabbit.
Vegetable patches aside, they can be far less destructive than chickens, as they don’t seem to share the same pressing need to create havoc in flower beds and scratch or dig up the dirt — bar the odd dust bath — so the garden doesn’t suffer from their presence. If anything, they are helpful with the removal of weeds.
Although most people keep guinea fowl to protect their grounds, the Sturgis family from Great Somerford, in Wiltshire, have taken it to another level. Their white guinea fowl, Dazzle, rules the interiors of their house with an iron fist – and woe betide anyone who tries to enter through the front door who he doesn’t approve of.
A late hatchling and the only survivor, he was raised by hand on top of the family’s Aga. Something seems to have got lost in the process, because he now appears to believe he is a dog and has never ended up outside with his relations, as intended. He visits the outside flock but they do not think much of him and he clearly thinks he is far superior to them, as he slopes back into the kitchen and climbs into his dog bed in front of the fire. He is so fond of the fire that he lies directly in front of it, on his side, with his wing extended — as if he were taking part in an exercise class. Sometimes, he gets so close that he has been known to singe his feathers.
Much to the family’s amusement, friends are known to refuse to enter the house in fear of having to go through Dazzle’s initiation test — understandably, considering his favourite party tricks are to savage sock-covered feet and immaculate painted toe nails in the summer. This reprobate of the guinea fowl world also has extravagant taste when it comes to food. His supper consists of soft egg noodles. Once, they ran out and, when offered a lesser brand of noodle made with lentils, he refused to eat it. He is also notorious in the postal world: sorting offices across the country have a board to show postmen which houses have dangerous dogs, to warn them before they do their rounds. Dazzle is considered something of a novelty by the sorting office, as he is the only guinea fowl to feature on any warning board countrywide.
Of course, Dazzle isn’t all bad: he adores the family, especially 11-year-old Ruby. During lockdown, he could be spotted regularly sitting next to her computer, assisting her with her school work during live Zoom calls. He can also be seen sitting in the passenger seat of a Sturgis car, as he likes nothing more than going for a spin to the village shop and surprising fellow motorists.
But the guinea fowl’s greatest charm – apart from being far more low-maintenance than dreadful floodlighting or any alarm system — is that they add a smattering of the exotic. A friend who had recently, reluctantly, returned to the UK after having lived in Kenya came to stay at ours and, woken by the noisy chatter of our flock, told us: “Last night I had a vivid dream of Africa and was then woken by the shouts of guineas. I really thought I was back there.”
When you close your eyes and listen to the birds’ excitable chatter, you are whisked away to sunnier climes. Sometimes, that is exactly what we need.