Imagine waking up to fresh eggs from the hens in your own garden, before commuting to the London office. Or to get home just in time to pluck the fresh asparagus that is springing up overnight at this time of year, straight from the garden before drizzling it with homemade hollandaise sauce (thanks again to you chicken keeping skills).
Every hen keeper will tell you that the quality of fresh eggs are far superior to shop-bought ones, with a richer and creamier taste, and a more buttery yolk. Plus, owners have the peace of mind of knowing the hens are well looked after and exactly what they are feeding them – with the added health benefits that come with that, too.
The good news is, it is possible to live the good life in the city. Keeping your own chickens is easier than owning a cat or dog, as founder of Hen Corner, Sara Ward, is showing hundreds of Londoners every year through her day courses and sell-out talks for aspiring hen-keepers, school-children and corporate events.
The roots of her business were sown in a 70sq ft terrace garden, in south-west London’s Brentford, as Sara gradually realised she wanted more control over where her food comes from.
Chickens in the city
It wasn’t until Sara had children – James, now 16 and Macy, 14 – that she really began to strive to eat more sustainably and organically.
Sara started by ordering from the organic vegetable box scheme, Abel & Cole. Then she tried her hand at growing her own potatoes, courgettes and tomatoes.
“We realised how difficult it was, so it really made us value food in a new way,” she says.
“Then I got to the point where I just wanted to make one meal where everything came from the garden.”
So, for her birthday 10 years ago, Sara’s husband Andy clubbed together with some of their friends to buy her a chicken coop and two female chickens.
“We knew nothing about keeping chickens – looking back it was a bit crazy,” says Sara. “I remember once feeling a lump in one of their throats and wondered if an egg had gone the wrong way or it had a tumour. I Googled it and it was just her ‘crop’. Chickens store food and it breaks down while they sleep at night, but I had no idea. It was gone by the morning.”
It’s possible to keep hens in even the smallest city gardens as a 3m x 1m chicken coop and run provides enough space for two chickens – as social creatures they always need a friend. Sara has also known Londoners to keep chickens on balconies and on top of narrow boats.
Sara explains that “the girls have a showing off cluck when they are laying an egg, but other than that are very considerate”, so their neighbours love them and help to look after the chickens when the family goes on holiday and ask to bring their friends round to see them.
Once you know the basics, hens are surprisingly easy to look after, according to Sara.
Simply make sure they have access to water and chicken feed each morning and they will lay an egg a day. Layer pellets work out at about £1 a month per chicken. If you go away for the weekend you can double the amount you give them and they will look after themselves.
Moving to the corner house on the same street about seven years ago gave the family a significantly bigger garden of about an eighth of an acre.
The garden came with an established apple tree that’s great for making cider, and Sara also has two beehives and two vegetable patches plus a small blackberry bush, as well as 18 chickens of various breeds.
Pure breed hens, such as the Bantam, start laying eggs around Valentine’s Day and will lay all the way through to November. Hybrid hens have been bred to lay eggs all year round.
The shells of the eggs vary according to breed, ranging from white, to blue and green, as well as the classic brown.
Each chicken has its own personality. Sara describes her oldest hen, nine-year-old Pearl, as “private and elegant.” She was named after one of the snobbish sisters from BBC period drama Lark Rise to Candleford.
“I’ve only held Pearl about three times in nine years,” says Sara. “But the Pekins are sweet and happy to be stroked and cuddled.
“Hybrids are a bit more flighty, they jump and flap a bit more. The Polish chickens [pictured] are scatty – they tend to live in a world of their own because they can’t see properly.”
When Sara wants to increase her brood, she gets fertilised eggs posted to her from a free-range chicken farmer, and a broody hen will treat them all as her own, and sit on them until they hatch. After they are born, the chicks sleep under their mother’s wing to stay warm and she will teach them how to eat.
However, introducing a new chicken to a coop can lead to a loss of feathers for the newbie, while the pecking order is established. You need to keep a watchful eye, and Sara tries to minimalise the damage by keeping the lead hen and new chicken separate to start with, so they can settle into their relationship first.
Hens and health benefits
In commercial farming chickens are replaced every year, but nine-year-old Pearl still lays around four eggs a week.
The British Hen Welfare Trust tries to rehome the commercial hens that haven’t already been sold for cheap meat.
“They won’t be in great condition when you first receive them but as long as they haven’t had their beaks cut off they’ll be back to full health within months,” says Sara.
Looking after them can be beneficial for your mental health, too.
HenPower gives care home residents responsibility for the care of hens across the country, and this has been shown to improve wellbeing and helped reduce the reliance of some residents on medication.
But they’re not just for “hensioners”, raising hens is said to help to reduce depression and loneliness for people of all ages.
URBAN HEN KEEPING: THE EGGSENTIALS
You need enough space for a 3m x 1m chicken coop and to let the chickens roam about in the garden. The designer Eglu costs £350.10.
Fox-resistant runs will keep them safe from the city predator, and a rain cover will protect them from the elements.
The British Hen Welfare Trust ask for a £5 donation per chicken. Or you can buy a couple of chickens for about £20 each, from a local breeder. Make sure they’re about 16 weeks old (ready to lay eggs) and female – you don’t need a cockerel to lay eggs and they are very noisy.
How to look after them:
Keep them in their coop for the first five-seven days after they arrive, so they know it’s their home.
Make sure they have enough food and water every morning and let them out to roam in the garden when you are there.
Layer the tray at the bottom of the coop with newspaper and you’ll only need to clean it once a week – simply put the soiled newspaper in the bin, or on the compost, if you have one.
Be warned they will trash the garden pretty quickly, so until Sara moved house she rotated the Eglu in four spots in her garden. Now though, the hens have a permanent space with dust and wood chip.
You don’t need a licence unless you have over 50 chickens but it is advisable to register with DEFRA who will email you with important updates, for example warnings and advice during a bird-flu outbreak.