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What are the most stylish chickens in the world?

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What are the most stylish chickens in the world?


Country house chickens come in many shapes and colors, from brown to blue. But which breeds have become popular? Martha Terry discovers

Red Sussex – Illustration by Hannah Clark

What is rarer, brown or blue? Which? You can also check out our other products. кун к мкуу кун к мкуу Martha Terry wants to know what you will see in the smartest garden.

Unwanted visitors, foxes and the postman are all a problem. Security is a major concern for country houses. guinea fowl Netia Walker explains the latest birds to hit the market.

FASHIONABLE CHICKENS

Never in the history of modern ‘bubbles,’ did any mania exceed in ridiculousness or ludicrousness, or in the number of its victims surpass this inexplicable humbug,” wrote George Pickering Burnham in his 1855 book The History of the Hen Fever: a Humorous Record. ‘Hen fever’ had gripped the public both here and across the Atlantic, inspired by a young Queen Victoria’s burgeoning aviary.

When the monarch in 1842 received seven exotic cochin China hens from the Far East their bright feathers and long necks were in stark contrast to those dishevelled birds that had already settled in Britain. Victorians began trading birds for extortionate amounts of money, and stories about fanciers employing bodyguards to guard their coops were common. By 1855, the bubble was bursting a bit with an oversaturated market of chickens. However, this bird no longer belonged to peasants hoping for a few extra eggs and a cockerel.

The new breed of poultry lovers are perhaps a bit less enthusiastic than they were in the mid-19th Century. Lockdowns have forced us to embrace nature, self sufficiency, and the simple pleasures in life. The young royals wax lyrical about their coops, the smart set and supermodels from Gisele Bündchen to Liz Hurley have jumped on the bandwagon and chickens can be found scratching around at many of Britain’s country houses. Hens have become not only useful, but also fashionable.

CLUCKINGHAM PALMACE

In the aviary Prince Albert built at Windsor, where he housed chickens, doves and bustards as well as storks, pheasants and storks, Queen Victoria had a room to admire her latest acquisitions. Her passion for Brahmas has been passed down through the royal family. Prince Charles’s Highgrove is nicknamed Cluckingham Palace on account of his enthusiasm for bird welfare and organic farming – he keeps Marans and Welsummers. His grandmother, the Queen Mother, kept the heavily feathered pastel-orange buff Orpingtons and was patron of the Buff Orpington Society, an appointment of which she was, according to Prince Charles in his foreword to the Illustrated Guide to Chickens, “enormously proud”.

Last year, the media clucked about the Cambridges’ and Sussexes’ respective broods as if it were new ground, when they were simply perpetuating a family tradition. Not that the royal pedigree extends to the birds – the Cambridges raise a variety of hens from chicks, while the Sussexes have adopted ex-factory hens.

But it’s not only the royal family establishing the poultry hierarchy. Chatsworth Chickens were famous for the late Duchess Devonshire. As one of the Mitford sisters, her home-schooling was reportedly paid for by their mother’s commercial Rhode Island reds and white leghorns – prolific layers of light brown and white eggs originating in America and Italy respectively – which sparked a lifelong passion. Besides her familiar leghorns, the Duchess herself favoured several British breeds, such as the light Sussex, the Dorking and the Derbyshire redcap, as well as the buff cochin – now known as Pekin bantams – which used to roam freely among the visitors to her home.

Some of these breeds, like the redcap or the Dorking with an extra toe on the hind foot, are very rare. Birds with five toes were mentioned in historical Roman texts as having been found in AD47 in Britain, although this breed wasn’t standardised here until the mid-19th century.

The buff-cochins are also a breed with a rich history. Although Queen Victoria is often credited with having introduced this ancient Chinese breed to Britain, others say it is likely that British officers captured some of these prize bantams when they raided the emperor’s palace at Peking during the Second Opium War in 1860, and went on to establish the breed in England.

HOLLYWOOD Stars

The variety of heritage and the enjoyment that comes with chickens are two things to look forward to. Others are more interested in the egg color or the number of layers. Some enjoy watching the feathers clucking about the garden. Irish chef Clodagh McKenna recently acquired a small flock of Burford browns – dark brown eggs, large yellow yolks – celebrity shoe designer Charlotte Olympia Dellal names her brood after old Hollywood stars, and Olympic equestrian William Fox-Pitt has about 40 of such varying breeds he can’t keep track of them.

Claudia Audley has been raising chickens ever since she was 6 years old. “It was a passionate hobby as I was too scared to ride like the rest of my family,” she says. “I would advertise in a magazine called Practical Poultry, and people would come to our house and ask for Claudia, and be shocked to find a six-year-old running a chicken business.” She now has 130 chickens, specialising in a “rainbow egg project” and educating keepers via her Instagram account, @burygreenpoultry.

“I use a whole mix of breeds, laying white, pink, blue, green (pale and olive), dark chocolate, speckled…” she says. “For instance, copper Marans lay chocolate eggs, the cream legbars lay blue, and if you cross them, you get olive eggers. Rainbow egg-layers have become very popular; people love the copper Marans – which have rich yolks the chefs like. The light Sussexes, fluffy silkies – although their feathers mustn’t get wet – and Pekin bantams are very popular too. The lemon or lavender Pekin is my favorite; they are like teapots with sweet personalities. My lavender frizzle hops on my knee or follows me round the garden.”

Frizzles have feathers growing in different directions, giving them an “electrocuted look”. Audley cautions against crossing one frizzle with another – “that makes a frazzle and it looks like a porcupine”.

“If you want decent-sized eggs, a light Sussex is a good choice,” adds Audley, noting the eggs are creamy pink/light brown. “They’re my favourite large-fowl breed.” Light Sussex are also available in bantam size.

HONESTY BOX

Charlotte Cooper, former head of the media department at Countryside Alliance is another who prioritizes egg colour. She started out with four light Sussex bantams from the Chatsworth Estate 15 years ago, and now runs a small free-range egg business, Charli’s Chooks, selling boxes to local shops. “We started with an honesty box outside the house, but naughty kids used to knock the eggs out and nick the cash,” she reveals.

“A pretty box is important as people pay a premium price. My brown layers are Warrens and ISA browns – in England we like brown eggs; like brown bread, we think it’s good for us. My white stars lay white eggs and my cream legbar hybrids produce blue and green. I prioritise eggs over looks,” Cooper admits. “The pure-breds don’t lay as many as the hybrids, though they are more aesthetic.”

For 11-year-old Iris Walker – who hunts with the Beaufort — egg colour is “not at all important”. She got hooked on the hobby when she stayed with a friend who had hens that produced chicks. “They kindly gave me Colin, my Pekin bantam cockerel, and he had to have wives, so Mummy put a lonely-hearts advert on Instagram and suddenly Colin had two new bantam wives, Caroline and Cordelia,” says Iris, whose Christmas present was a henhouse that looks like a castle. She has nine chickens including golden partridge bantams, silver and lavender Pekins. They sport names beginning with C, such as Claira, named after her “Field Master’s very pretty girlfriend”.

Iris even brought Colin to school after boring her teacher by telling stories about her favorite cockerel. “Colin loved it and even got introduced to the headmaster,” she says. “After school he comes inside to help me with my homework, he rides my pony with me, and is a fun alarm clock. I put him in my sister’s bed to wake her up…”

THREE-DAY-EVENTER

Fox-Pitt is similarly unfussed by egg colour – he has some 40 chickens of indiscriminate breeding and a handful of Appleyard ducks at his Dorset farm, alongside his blue-blooded event horses. His mother Marietta kept silkies when he was a child. He prefers to hatch chicks out of eggs.

“I have some silkies, some frizzle Pekins, all sorts,” he says. “They lay ordinary brown eggs, very few in winter – the bantams tend to lay six eggs then go broody for six months. We make about a hundred pounds in the summer. My daughters love it. They are just fun to have around. I find them therapeutic; it defuses any tension watching chickens flapping about and makes a change from the horses.”

Charlie Dupont, who runs a shoot in Dorset, also inherited the poulterer’s gene. His father was called ‘Hen Man’ at school and Dupont now has Pekin bantams, Welsummer crosses, Appleyard and Indian runner ducks, guinea fowl and turkey – though the Pekins are his favourites.

“They are really sweet little bantams,” he says. “They don’t make too much mess, or scratch up all the grass. Although they do go on strike in winter, so you need a few more ‘ugly layers’, as I call them.” He remembers as a child the day a fox ripped into the shed where the family’s Rhode Island reds lived, tore off the heads and left the carcasses. He now digs six feet of concrete. “I can keep the foxes and badgers out, but where you have chickens, you’ll always have rats,” he says.

“This morning, my three-year-old daughter was collecting the eggs and a rat climbed out of the egg box. They are terrible, they eat the chicks and steal the sweet ducklings from under the hen.” Dupont’s favourite poultry pastime is hatching. “If you want to have some fun, you can hatch other birds under the bantams – they just love to sit and hatch babies, anyone’s babies,” he says. “I’ve used bantams to hatch pheasants, partridges, geese and ducks, and it’s hilarious when you see the ducklings following the bantam around. You have to mimic what the real mother would do, so for ducks I’d put warm water on the eggs, as the mother might have gone for a swim. An incubator would work too, but you can’t beat nature.”

For all the rise in demand of the popular Pekins et al, there are 20 breeds listed as ‘priority’ on the Rare Breed Survival Trust, of which HRH The Prince of Wales is patron. Rory Innes from Scotland, the track manager of Musselburgh Racecourse and a chicken breeder, is motivated by this. Innes keeps Scots Greys and red Sussexes.

“I’ve bred chickens all my life and wanted to do my bit for Scots greys as they were very rare and it’s my native breed – it’s a fun sideline,” says Innes, who became secretary of the breed club. “They’re pretty but not great layers. Red Sussexes are very good layers but are also very rare. So I felt sorry for these animals. “I’m not at all interested in egg colours or showing – it’s all about saving the rare breeds. The saviour has been Facebook, which has helped us publicise the breed.”

Whether a royal or smallholder, there’s a chicken for everyone, depending on whether your poultry goals are colourful eggs, fun pets, to save a breed from extinction or an individual chicken from its factory plight. As Cooper says: “I think everyone should have three or four chickens. They are the only pet that will give you something back every day.”



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