Move over, tortoises. Break the news gently to dwarf rabbits. The nation has a new favourite outdoor pet – though it’s one the British have been keeping since before records began – because not only do chickens provide constant amusement and intrigue, they also lay eggs. And after several months when our ability to buy the most basic foodstuffs remained in doubt, perhaps it’s not surprising that keeping hens has suddenly become appealing.
According to a recent survey by Chickenguard, chickens are now five times as popular as hamsters, with more than five million chickens being kept in gardens across Britain. Most chicken owners keep at least five birds, and (much to their neighbours’ horror) one cockerel.
Chicken-keeping is increasingly popular with celebrities, too, with Countdown’s Nick Hewer revealing he spent lockdown caring for his brood, and collecting eggs “without getting pecked – quite a challenge”, while Princess Anne keeps a flock at Gatcombe. “She puts her welly boots on… and goes to get her eggs,” her son Peter revealed recently. Jennifer Aniston and Julia Roberts each own a flock, and Reese Witherspoon said she loved hers because “they remind me of where I grew up in Tennessee”. Supermodel Gisele Bündchen keeps them to show her daughter, Vivian, where food comes from.
But the chicken keepers of Britain are often ordinary types who simply enjoy the novelty of a different kind of pet, and love the idea of giving their flocks a better life, while eating eggs from the bottom of the garden.
Rescue hens are increasingly popular, says Jane Howarth, who founded and runs the British Hen Welfare Trust in Devon. “We’d normally find homes for 60 to 65,000 hens a year – but during the first weeks of lockdown, inquiries tripled,” she says. “People had time on their hands – plus they wanted eggs!”
The trust works with farmers and rescues up to 4,000 birds at a time. “Every one already has a home waiting,” says Jane. “We collect from the farm in the morning, and they go to their new homes in the afternoon. It’s a logistical miracle, but it works.”
The hens go in flocks of three or more, as they are not solitary birds, but, she adds, “they’re very adaptable. They don’t mind if it’s a small suburban back garden or a stately home.”
Many families acquire chickens to teach children about where eggs come from, but then fall in love with the birds themselves. “We started with a handful, but now we have nine,” says Victoria Hocking, 42, from Paignton, whose husband Dean initially persuaded her to get a chicken for their five-year-old son, Barnaby.
“Although we bought them as pets and I’ll often find Barnaby sitting outside talking to them or giving them a cuddle, during lockdown we realised just how handy it is to have chickens,” says Victoria. “We’re getting around five or six eggs a day.”
They all have different personalities, she adds. “Our silkies – chickens so fluffy they look like llamas – are thick as two short planks,” she admits. “When we first bought them, the farmer gave them to us in an open cardboard box and I was worried they’d fly away. But they just sat there, not bothering to escape.” Her favourite, Mango, “sits on the coop roof every night and refuses to go inside until she’s had a cuddle”.
“They are so clever at immersing themselves in family life,” says Jane. “They’re very addictive and I think demand will continue to rise.”
Rescue chickens are particularly life-enriching, adds Jane. “They go on to lead such happy, free-range lives – and bring so much pleasure to the people who keep them.”
‘There’s definitely a pecking order’
Abby Knight, 55, lives with husband Chris in Billericay, Essex
My husband Chris’s grandad had a smallholding and as a boy he loved to go and help out with the chickens.
About 10 years ago we got the first lot – sadly we lost a couple along the way to foxes, but now we have a coop that’s like Alcatraz. They lay really well and they’re quite predictable. The unusual ones are so pretty, but they’re like thoroughbred horses – they don’t lay, and are very sensitive. We had four chickens to start with and when the kids were younger, they loved it – they’d run down the garden to collect the eggs in the morning. My son even hatched some chicks once, in a heated incubator. It was like something out of a fairy tale; three actually hatched on Easter Sunday.
My husband often talks to the chickens – he’s built them a little obstacle course and he sits and chats when he’s had a bad day. We have a half-stable door and quite often they’ll wander into the kitchen and eat the dog food.
They’ve got real personalities. In summer, we’ll just sit on the swing seat with a cup of tea and watch them run around.
Sadly, we lost my mum, Sylvia, at the beginning of lockdown. She and her best friend, Kim, had known each other since their early 20s and they would still talk 10 times a day on the phone. Soon after, Chris wanted to get a couple more chickens, and I said, “Can I call them Sylvia and Kim?” He said, “Of course.”
There is a pecking order and you have to keep them together at first, as they can get picked on, so for the first six weeks, they really bonded. Now they sit in the dust bath together, and just chat – like my mum and Kim all over again.
‘She gives us a reason to be outside’
Agatha Chapman-Poole, 46, runs a PR agency. She lives near Glossop, Derbyshire
We’re very pet-focused; we’ve got a cat, a snake – that’s nothing to do with me – and two dogs, but our little hen gives us more reason to be outside. It’s like having another member of the family. And she does genuinely think she’s one of us. When we call the dogs in, she’ll be right behind them. The only downside is that she likes the vegetables I’m growing. She’s such a small thing, but she’s so confident, she doesn’t think she’s small at all.
We first got rescue hens two years ago. We had a little outbuilding so we didn’t have to buy a coop. We had thought of turning it into a microbrewery, but we were more drawn to chickens!
We picked our first ones up from Ashbourne in Derbyshire, and we got six – I felt quite emotional when we saw them, they hardly had any feathers and they were in a sorry state. They were making an enormous racket, too.
Sadly, four died in the first year, from prolapses caused by overlaying. They’d never been outside before, and they’d never seen daylight – they’d never even stood up.
There were just Poached and Scrambled left, and they were thick as thieves. But at the start of lockdown, Poached died. We toyed with the idea of getting more but the advice was not to introduce a new flock to a single hen. Hens can get very lonely and I was worried, but we soon noticed that she just wants to be with us all the time, wherever we are. She’s taken a real shine to my husband.
Normally, she will just go and put herself to bed, but if she’s with him we have to physically pick her up and carry her. She’s so sociable. If we take the dogs for a walk, when we come back, she’s waiting at the bottom of the drive. We used to let her into the house – but then she started jumping up on to the oven and the worktop!
Now, she’ll be jumping on the windowsill, trying to get in. She’s so much fun to watch, and as we work from home, it gives us a reason to take a break during the day and focus on something else.
‘It’s good to know you’ve helped’
Marie Yates, 39, lives in Herefordshire with her partner, Jill
Getting chickens has always been on my bucket list. We moved from a city to rural life, and part of that was about having animals. We inherited a big dog kennel and turned it into a massive chicken run. It’s more than enough room for the girls to have a lovely retirement. They’re ex-commercial chickens from Fresh Start for Hens. We got five and they’re the most resilient little things.
Getting them in lockdown was lucky. It has meant we could spend more time with them, just sitting and letting them get used to us.
Their feathers have really grown back and they’ve lost any fear of us, though we are the food providers – we’re under no illusions that there’s any great relationship there!
Rescue chickens can have health issues. One of them had a prolapse, but she’s fine: she was in our living room for a week, with the cat helping. We thought, “This isn’t going to go well,” but somehow they made friends.
It’s the knowledge that you’ve helped them, rather than asking anything of them, that’s lovely. Seeing them turn into happy chickens, rather than egg machines, is a delight.
They do lay eggs – we get three or four a day – and they’ve even got their own Instagram account. There’s so much more to these girls than all they’ve been through.