The zen of hens: how poultry can help in a pandemic

Keeping hens will ensure a fresh supply of eggs to the table, but their clucking can be calming too

Keeping hens is so much more than the luxury of breakfasting on homegrown eggs. Photograph: Getty

Keeping hens is so much more than the luxury of breakfasting on homegrown eggs. Photograph: Getty

 

Few things in life are more satisfying than taking a stroll to a hen house and scooping up warm, freshly laid eggs. When I was pregnant with our first child, my mother had a feathery red hen named Jemima. Her daily ritual comprised of a solid leap out of the hen run and hot footing it to the kitchen where she promptly laid an egg beneath the table. Such was our fondness for the little hen that we named our daughter Jemima in her honour.

Keeping hens is so much more than the luxury of breakfasting on homegrown eggs. Particularly during the pandemic, these amiable birds, inquisitive and motherly, bring joy to their owners and, a calming distraction.

Eriko Hopkinson, Westport, Co Mayo

Director of the Westport Children’s Choir and Youth Choir, Eriko Hopkinson and her family had long dreamed of hen keeping but their fast paced life kept ruling it out. Until now.

“This year, the lockdown provided the impetus to finally commit,” Eriko recounts. “We were at home a lot more, and we were also concerned about food supplies at the start of the pandemic. We’ve always been interested in ways to use our garden to provide food and resources for the family.”

As a child on the Japanese main island of Okinawa, Eriko’s grandfather (after he retired from pineapple farming) came to live with the family, growing bananas, oranges and all sorts of vegetables in the garden, where hens and other fowl were always present. “My father studied veterinary medicine and used to bring fertilised eggs home from the university lab,” says Eriko. “We hatched them artificially in a cardboard box with a light bulb, it was like magic.”

While isolating at home, Eriko’s husband, Ed, used his initiative and a bit of recycled wood to convert an abandoned two-storey rabbit hutch into a hen house. “The rabbits are long gone but one of them lived for 14 years, so it’s a home with feel good vibes!” Eriko assigned their youngest daughter, Hazel, an outdoor, boredom-relieving project to decorate the hen house. The outcome is a pretty, ornate and wholly original dwelling that even the most house-proud hen would be delighted to inhabit.

Hazel Hopkinson and her family’s painted henhouse
Hazel Hopkinson and her family’s painted henhouse

The hens have the run of the old orchard, now fenced in with fruit netting and two strands of electric wire. Eriko’s brood includes Vera, a Blue Belle, and Cissy, a Light Sussex, both “placid and good layers, who allow themselves to be picked up and stroked.” On the other hand, the Brown Leghorns, Bernie and Abigail, “are crazy wild creatures and we can’t get near them. God help them if they ever need the vet.”

For Eriko, keeping hens offers a point of connection with the non-human world. “We have a lot of wildlife around the garden, but they follow their own rules - the chickens are a sort of ‘half-way point’. During the lockdown, we spent a lot of time sitting with the hens and observing their behaviour, which was both calming and amusing. Their communal dust bathing is especially fun to watch.”

Top tip: Look carefully for eggs, as some hens like to keep them well hidden

Desmond and Melanie Sharp Bolster, Glenlohane, Co Cork

The Sharp Bolster’s horsebox travelled many a-road in decades past, transporting Melanie’s beloved carriage-driving pony to shows across Ireland. But when the horsebox was finally deemed road-worthy no more, a light bulb moment appeared and they set about a rather unique hen house conversion.

The ‘horsebox-hen house’ stands at Glenlohane, a house built by Desmond’s ancestors in the 1740s. With bespoke steps leading up to the small side door, the hens are greeted by a row of family heirlooms. “We have 10 hay-lined, nesting boxes, which we inherited from a great aunt and are probably 100 years old,” explains Melanie. “The hens are let out of their house every morning and they spend the whole day roaming the yard and the fields. They are extremely self-sufficient and seem to be a happy group.”

Melanie Sharp Bolster’s horsebox-hen house
Melanie Sharp Bolster’s horsebox-hen house

A little black bantam named Grumpy is a favourite. “She is a dedicated mother, determined to sit on a single egg and hatch it,” says Melanie. “As we don’t have a rooster, this is not going to happen, but she does not understand that. I will have to take her off in a few days but it makes her happy thinking she can do it.”

A key benefit of a having a hen house on wheels is that its location is a moveable feast. The ramp at the rear of the horsebox also allows for easy access, facilitating both egg collection and the regular clean out.

“Before the pandemic, we had a weekly croquet game for our neighbours and my hens particularly liked to come down to the lawn and be a part of everything. Sometimes we had to wait a minute so they would get out of the way before we took our shot.”

Top tips: Hens need calcium, so take the shells from the eggs, break them up, rinse and place in oven for 15 minutes. Cool and break them up into small pieces before feeding it to back them with some food. Easy to do and very good for them.

Chances are if you live in an older city house, there may have been chickens in your garden in years gone by when many people routinely kept them for eggs

Richard Cosby, Stradbally, Co Laois

With the closure of his school at the start of lockdown, budding business tycoon Richard Cosby didn’t waste a second. Inspired by the zesty spirit of Electric Picnic, which his parents have hosted since 2004, the nine-year-old founded “Eggilicious”, delivering fresh eggs from his family farm to customers in the village. Whilst creating a healthy diet for his piggy bank, he has rewarded some of his customers with enormous, double-yolk eggs that his favourite black hen has a habit of laying.

Verity Butterfield, Loughbawn House, Co Westmeath

“I love my hens,” says Verity Butterfield, seventh in her generation to live overlooking beautiful Loughbawn. Her family has a long tradition of hen-keeping, though their quarters used to be strictly bound to the walled garden. Not so for Verity. “I like having them around,” she explains. “They are such busy people and I think they do a lot of good.”

Verity’s first hen house was a spotlessly cleaned plastic oil tank. “It was utterly impractical, as I had to crawl into the tank to get the eggs.” She then brought a garden shed in which she installed nesting boxes and perches. A concrete base was added later to keep out the dreaded pine martens, which have the ability to burrow through wood in pursuit of succulent chicken.

Look carefully for eggs, as some hens like to keep them well hidden
Look carefully for eggs, as some hens like to keep them well hidden

For Verity, a favourite part of hen keeping is choosing their names. “My first two hens were rescues called the ‘two Mary’s’. They were both very bold. They had a right of access to the kitchen where they liked to eat the dog’s food out of the bowl.” The hens at Loughbawn tend to move around in small clusters. Three full tailed Welsummer hens loyally follow their cockerel husband Rambo around the garden. Two newly arrived Point of Lay pullets have brought the joy of youth to the community. “I’ve called them Suzanne and Shelia, and every day they are becoming braver.” The dowager countess of them all is Rock, a sweet and friendly Ayam Cemani hen. On account of her luxurious silky, jet black feathers, Rock’s breed is revered in poultry circles as the “Lamborghini of Poultry”.

Top tip: Talk to them, when they know your voice and learn the call they will run towards you and they become a lot quieter.

Talk to your hens, when they know your voice and learn the call they will run towards you and they become a lot quieter. Photograph: Getty
Start with a small flock of two or three hens, and the pen should be a minimum of 9m x 9m. Photograph: Getty

For those who think hen keeping is a pursuit restricted to country living, Ciara O’Reilly’s Wicklow based family business, Farm Fowl (farmfowl.com) has a long list of urban clients. Chicken coops and pens, poultry feeders and hen cleaning products are in most demand and as Farm Fowl delivers products nationwide, orders can be made at the click of a button from your city pad.

“We have as many customers in towns and cities as we do in countryside settings. Chances are if you live in an older city house, there may have been chickens in your garden in years gone by when many people routinely kept them for eggs.”

Ciara recommends starting with a small flock of two or three hens, and the pen should be a minimum of 9m x 9m (10ft x 10ft). “They can be in their pen most of the time, but it is nice to let them out to wander about the garden at times. And if your hen decides to go on a jaunt, the good news is they will come back. As the saying goes, “Home to Roost!”

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