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Go to work on an egg

12 October 2012

IT WAS 1941, and Mum was 13 when her parents arrived home with a dozen day-old chicks, in the hope of fresh eggs during the war. All of them died, except Dickie.

Dickie was a house-hen. When Granddad sat in his chair, she would hop up and nuzzle his hair. On cold nights, she would sit in front of the fire and spread out her wings. But hopes of eggs never materialised: Dickie could not lay properly. She survived the wartime pot because she had become a much-loved pet.

Maybe my long-felt desire to keep chickens came from memories of Dickie. But I cannot imagine any­thing better than collecting eggs from your garden, and then boiling, frying, poaching, or scrambling them, fresh as can be, for your breakfast. There is something deeply satisfying about being that close to the food you are eating.

Four years ago, my wife booked me on to a one-day course on keeping chickens. We learnt about chicken anatomy, what they need to eat, how much space they need, and how to protect them from disease and from foxes.

If you Google "Keep chickens", you will be inundated with information; a course, however, is a quick and fun way to learn. Visit www.omlet.co.uk/ courses, type in your postcode, and it will list courses near you. Prices start from about £15.

After I took the course, I started building my own hen house, out of an old Ikea wardrobe. But life got busy: we had a baby. It never got finished. Thankfully, the Omlet web­site came to the rescue. Their Eglu (a prefab­ricated chicken coop) is per­fect for the first-time chicken-keeper, and for urban spaces.

An Eglu Classic, with a run attached, costs £425. But I bought mine on eBay for £250, which in­cluded feeders, and a water dispenser (which costs about £20 new).

The Eglu is easy to use, fox-proof, and easy to clean (you just pull out a tray from the roosting box, and wash it down once a week). Wily urban foxes have tried to dig underneath the raised roosting-box as well the run; so we have laid paving slabs underneath and along the side of the run.

If you want decent-sized eggs, do not buy bantams. They are popular because they are small, but you do not need a lot of room for full-size chickens. After reading a couple of books, including Beginner's Guide to Keeping Chickens by Lee Faber (Abbeydale Press, 2010), I bought Rhode Island Red Light Sussex cross: they are gentle, intelligent, and good layers. We bought three, at point-of-lay, for £10 each, from Handpecked, a breeder in Hertfordshire.

We feed them pellets (£10 for 20kg) every day, with a handful of corn (£10 for 10kg). Unless they are scratching around in soil, you should give them a small amount of grit, too (£10 for 2 kg). Our chickens get kitchen leftovers (never meat, raw potato, avocado, or parsley). But what they really love is to hunt for slugs, snails, and worms in the garden.

No, we don't have the perfect lawn, but it's great to feel closer to the countryside than our postcode implies. And freshly laid eggs for breakfast really are wonderful.

Simon Nicholas

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