Eggs come first as chickens take over our gardens

Fears about food quality and desire to be close to nature fuel a growing backyard industry in Britain

They are the planet’s closest living evolutionary link to Tyrannosaurus rex and contribute hugely to our national diet, but now the humble chicken is coming into its own in Britain as the productive pet of choice.

What began several years ago as a trend among town-dwellers with large gardens has now exploded into an entire industry, say experts. Pet shops and garden centres stock chicken feed, while poultry producers are scrambling to keep up with demand for birds. Dozens of manufacturers are churning out hen coops in every shape and size – and for every budget. Prince Charles’s Highgrove online shop stocks a pale-blue timber portable hen house for £3,750.

This weekend the South of England show at Ardingly, West Sussex, the biggest annual agricultural event in the south-east, took poultry as its theme in response to what organisers called “an incredible upsurge in popularity of keeping poultry”.

And it’s not only hens, but ducks, too. “A lot of it is the horsemeat scandal: people just want to be more connected to their food,” said the show’s Paula Seager.

Sylvia Brown, running the Arun Valley Poultry Fanciers stall, said: “There’s a real rush for people to get into raising and breeding chickens. People are very keen. I think it’s because of the eggs – everyone really wants a bit of self-sufficiency, and you can’t keep a cow in your back garden.”

Lou Aplin, visiting the show from Rustington, West Sussex, said: “My husband bought another bike, and I said, ‘Well, I’m having chickens.’ So that’s what brought me here. They lay eggs, they are friendly – I can’t think of anything better. If people complain about the noise, I think they’re silly. I’d rather hear a cockerel than a seagull. I have really caught the bug.”

Next week sees the publication of the latest book in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage series. Titled Chicken & Eggs, it is a step-by-step guide for beginners written by Mark Diacono.

Poultry expert Andy Marshall writes the Poultryman’s Diary in Practical Poultry, the best-selling of several British magazines devoted to the subject. “The chicken coop has become a bit of a must-have add-on for every garden now,” he said. “More and more people are trying to [keep hens] and more and more people would like to do it. We’re seeing lots of schools starting to get involved and there is a huge upsurge of interest in pure breeds.

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