Meet the Professionals The Veg Plot

An interview with… the chicken expert

Francine Raymond Eggs

Ever thought about keeping chickens in your garden, allotment or even your orchard? Then chicken keeper and author Francine Raymond can point you in the right direction. We got in touch with her for some expert advice on birds (and booze)…

Chickens seem to be undergoing a revival in popularity with gardeners and allotment holders. What most appeals to you about keeping chickens?
I love the symbiotic relationship between kitchen, garden and hens. They’ll feed in your garden to produce eggs for the kitchen, and in return their droppings make excellent compost to help grow your garden.

They’re also useful to keep in an orchard. What are the main benefits of chickens to apple tree growers?
An orchard is an ideal environment for hens. They are jungle birds, so like a shady spot and plenty of space. There is little for them to damage in the way of plants, they’ll finish off windfalls and eat flies and pests. Make sure there is some short grass for them to graze, because it’s the short grass that is full of protein.

What breed is the best layer?
The best layers are the commercial hybrids that lay an egg a day during their three-year life. I prefer pure breeds. They lay well during year one and then a little less in each subsequent year as their laying season naturally shortens. The best layers are Light Sussex and Rhode Island Reds. I keep Buff Orpingtons, large lazy friendly birds that don’t damage my garden.

How do you keep them safe from foxes?
Foxes are a big problem. In an orchard, an electric fence is the best way to keep them out. In a really foxy area it is almost impossible to keep hens free-range.

What is the running cost for a couple of hens?
Hens need a couple of handfuls of pellets in the morning and an equal amount of mixed corn in the evening, depending on how much food they’re getting from their surroundings. Their eggs don’t work out cheap, but they will be the best you’ve ever tasted.

And do I need a chicken license, or can anyone keep them?
It’s best to contact your environmental health officer at the Town Hall, and look at your house deeds – some homeowners are prevented from keeping livestock. Always discuss your plans with near neighbours. If you’re planning a flock of more than fifty, you should contact Defra.

The sound of a crowing cock can be a marvellous noise but it may annoy neighbours. Are there breeds less raucous than others?
I think the sound of a cock’s crow is a very special sound. Bantams crow less loudly, but the sound is squeakier and possibly more annoying. You don’t need a cockerel for your hens to lay, just for them to lay eggs that will hatch.

Rich breaks eggs into a boozy winter posset. I think this is a complete waste of a decent egg and prefer to use mine in an egg nog. Do you have any favourite forms of eggy booze?
I’m told you can use egg whites in a Whiskey Sour (bourbon, lemon juice sugar syrup and egg white), Pisco Sour (brandy, lime juice, sugar syrup and egg white), Clover Club (gin, raspberries, lemon and egg white) Silver Gin Fizz (gin, caster sugar, lemon juice and egg white) and Pink Lady (gin, applejack, lemon juice, grenadine and egg white). I think the Silver Gin Fizz sounds the nicest. Might give it a try this evening. Always use your own fresh eggs.

And finally, how do you prefer to serve a freshly laid egg?
My favourite recipe for a freshly laid egg is poached on a bed of steamed chard with a twist of black pepper.

For more chicken information, join the Henkeepers Association – a free online information network

For books, courses and blog, visit Francine’s excellent website

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