FEATURE: Keeping chickens is no yolk...
Here a chick, there a chick, everywhere a chick-chick...
Or at least that’s how it feels at Bank View Farm as the latest Chicken-Keeping course gets underway in brilliant sunshine.
Head-keeper Rachel Wall has just finished serving homemade cakes - made using the farm’s eggs of course - and is now leading the small group outside to meet the chickens for the first time.
For 11-year-old Louie Thomson, it’s the first time he’s ever held a chicken, despite his family having owned them for nearly a month.
“He’s been having a great time,” says his uncle, John Blaymires, of Wickersley in Rotherham.
“His parents bought some chickens last month and I’ve been toying with the idea of getting some for a while, so I thought this course would teach us both a thing or two. You can learn so much from books of course, but nothing beats an expert’s word and seeing it for yourself. It’s been wonderful to see how confidently Louie is handling the birds now and we’ve both learned so much.”
The two-and-a-half hour Sunday morning course is a regular occurence at the Totley poultry farm, running every month except December for the past four years. Around 500 people have attended in this time, to get to grips with the basics of chicken-keeping.
“It’s a hugely popular hobby, that’s seen a real upsurge in recent years,” confirms farm manager Keith Sambrooks, who has worked at the farm - which focuses on breeding rare chickens - since 2012.
“I think it’s about people wanting to be a little more self-sufficient. Chickens are the easiest way to do that, there’s no need to plant vegetables and tend to them, with chickens you get set up and then they pretty much take care of themselves.
“Of course there’s a lot of information on the internet and in books, but people really seem to enjoy this type of hands-on learning, from people who handle these birds every day.”
The monthly courses, as well as weekly chicken handling tutorials, are led by resident chicken expert Rachel, who grew up taking care of chickens on a small holding with her parents. The first section of the course focuses on the nutritional requirements of chickens.
“At one time, chickens were more seasonal layers,” explains Keith, aged 31.
“The more modern, hybrid chickens we now have are bred to lay an egg a day, which puts their bodies under more stress, so it’s important their dietary needs are met.”
The course also examines the life cycle of the chickens before taking students on a tour of the farm, where they can see see five or six different set-ups in action - everything from plastic houses versus wooden houses, to different kinds of feeders - to suit all garden types.
“This gives people a tangible feel for the kind of set-up that may best suit them,” says Keith.
“We also show people how much space chickens need, both inside and out, then we introduce them to the chickens, showing them how to catch them, how to hold them and how to look for any signs of common problems.
“Finally we move into the shop and look at all the different equipment. We try to keep as broad a stock as possible, so people can see what kinds of feeders and drinkers and runs and houses would work best for them and the space they have.”
Sara Smithson attended the course with her daughters after her husband surprised her with it for her birthday.
“It was unexpected, but a lovely surprise,” says the 51-year-old, who lives in Hope Valley.
“We’d been talking about getting chickens for a while, so I was thrilled when my husband told me he’d booked the family on to the course, because we didn’t know much about keeping chickens at all.
“The course was fantastic. Rachel really put us all at ease and I loved that it was so hands-on, so we could really get to grips with how to hold the chickens; I finished the day feeling really confident.”
And best of all, Sara’s birthday gift included four chickens - which she was able to pick from the farm after finishing the course.
Keith adds: “We sell the chickens, so people can get all the information on the day and then take their chickens home with them when they’re ready.”
That’s exactly what John did too: “Louie and I were so spurred on after finishing the course, I bought myself four chickens,” he says.
“I’m finishing up their home for them and then picking them up later this week, I can’t wait!”
Visit Bank View Farm for course details.
Here are a few little-known facts about chicken keeping for beginners:
* Chickens can withstand almost any weather, hot or cold.
* Chickens’ tails droop when they are unwell.
* Chickens often purr when they’re content!
* Chickens can’t see in the dark.
* Chickens make wonderful pets. They grow very tame and are happy to perch on your shoulder or sit in your lap if you let them.
* Chickens hate water and adore dust baths. They dig themselves a scrape and lie in it, fluffing themselves up to allow dust to cover every feather, which helps evict parasites. A dust-bathing chicken goes into a sort of trance.