Radio Times, 14 March 2011

Attila the Hen

I knew I was out of my depth when Rowena told me she had taken her chickens, Barker and Corbett, on holiday for Christmas. I’ve never even taken my boyfriend on holiday for Christmas, let alone a pet. And is if the trip wasn’t enough of a treat, Rowena’s dad, not wanting the chickens to feel like they were missing out on the seasonal beak-stuffing, had given them a special festive lunch of salami. Chicken-keepers, I was rapidly discovering, aren’t just in it for the eggs.

When I first agreed to present a documentary about urban chicken-keeping, I assumed it was a pretty minor affair. I live in central London; I barely know anyone who even has a garden. And try as I might, I can’t reconcile my beliefs on animal welfare with balancing chickens on my balcony. It just seems mean. Besides, if one fell, she’d land on train tracks, like a feathery Penelope Pitstop. But while I don’t have the resources to keep a chicken at home, hundreds of thousands of people do.

Urban chickens aren’t just kept by a few people who fancy fresh eggs in the morning and rogue feathers on the lawn, they’re a huge phenomenon – up to half a million people in Britain keep a couple of chickens in their back gardens. And plenty keep more than that: I interviewed one man whose wife had started with two, and ended up with 47. He was buying her electric fencing for their wedding anniversary, and building stilts to keep their coops up off the ground. It seems the way to a woman’s heart is to keep her chickens safe at night.

And the back-yard chicken market is huge: henhouses range from the practical-if-dull Eglu (a sturdy plastic affair costing £235) to the Gypsy Daydream, an antique-style miniature wooden gypsy caravan, which will set you back £3900. When I first read about this, I thought it must be a joke – surely no-one would spend nearly four grand on a gypsy caravan for chickens. Would the chicken really notice the fact that it comes in a choice of heritage colours? Would she care about the heart-shaped ventilation point? Wouldn’t she just peck at the hand-painted flowers on the side?

But the chicken-keeping ideal is a seductive one – it’s The Good Life all over again. And if that means an adorable wooden henhouse instead of a plastic one you can just douse with a hosepipe once a week to clean it, then people are prepared to pay. Self-sufficiency can be an expensive business: my radio producer, a proud chicken-keeper herself, once tried to work out how much she was paying for each egg, since she’d stopped buying them from the supermarket. Once she realised it was well over £20 each time she cracked a shell, she decided to stop counting. It might be chickenfeed, but that certainly isn’t what it costs.

Although those who are gardening their way to a good life – Tom and Barbara style – might do better to give the chickens a wide berth: they have no respect for the distinction between your food supply and theirs. Rowena showed me the remnants of her vegetable patch, and it was one solitary daffodil. The sweetcorn, lettuces and the rest were all long gone. As I watched, Barker had a go at the remaining daffodil. Rowena was completely unconcerned: her love for the chickens obviously made it all worthwhile.

And Rowena isn’t alone: we spoke to one man who’d spent years pushing a barrowful of food to feral chickens which had set up camp on a traffic roundabout, five miles away from his house. You have to really like chickens if you’re prepared to do a ten-mile round trip for them each day, to make sure they don’t go hungry. And then there was Sally, who bathed her chickens when they were a bit under the weather. Fair enough, you might think. Chickens have to get cleaned up sometimes. But she also dried them on the lawn with a hair-dryer, so they didn’t have to stay wet, which is more than I can be bothered to do for myself.

So is it reciprocated, this chicken-human affection? Are they really good pets? Can man’s best friend be a feathered one? Everyone I spoke to told me that their chickens had different personality traits, that one could be a bully and the other an underhen. I watched a family choosing four chickens for their back-garden – one chicken for each of them. And people teared up when they remembered chickens gone to the great coop in the sky. So, in a way, it doesn’t really matter if the chickens aren’t feeling quite such complex emotions as their owners: they have safe gardens to run about in, warm henhouses to sleep in, and an endless supply of meal worms and grapes to eat.

But if chickens are such delightful pets, you may be wondering why the title of our programme is Attila the Hen. Surely the feathery cuties that sleep in a gypsy caravan couldn’t turn nasty? Well, sadly, my producer’s chicken experience hasn’t been an entirely happy one. She has two chickens at the moment. She did have four, but then Flossie attacked, killed, and ate one of the others, so they had to have her put down to save the remaining two. Reassuringly, though, the ornithologist we interviewed suggests this hardly ever happens. It seems Flossie was simply the Hannibal Lecter of chickens – homicidal, yes, but mercifully rare. Her successors have been happier eating cabbages.