Not just for Easter

Easter spells eggs, and what could be nicer than a daily clutch of freshly laid eggs from your own back garden? Rosie McGlade visits Durham Hens, where business is booming

Margaret Manchester is preparing the incubator. A dozen hens’ eggs, from darkest brown to pale blue and green, all are due to hatch by next Tuesday.

Usually, it’s schools which book this service, the incubator arriving on a Monday ready for the hatchings the following day, hopefully, before the eyes of thrilled children. The chicks stay till the end of the week, when they return to the Durham Hens empire near Tow Law, Co Durham. Or if the school wants to keep them and rear their own eggs in turn, they can. This batch is going to an old people’s home, Margaret says – a first. She’s also sent incubators to centres for children with learning disabilities. “It’s a thrill watching the chicks hatch, and some people feel it’s therapeutic as well as fun and interesting,” she says.

Hens, chicks and eggs are quite the thing these days, and they’re not just for Easter. Since Margaret started Durham Hens six years ago, the trend has exploded in popularity, and theirs is possibly now the biggest business of its kind in the country. Customers come from as far afield as Inverness and the Midlands. They are mostly people looking for pets – a few friendly chickens to populate the back garden and provide them with the best eggs they’ll ever eat. “It’s incredible how many people want hens,” Margaret says. “I’m actually a trained archeologist and ran adult learning courses at Darlington College, then six years ago the Government stopped the funding, and I had no idea what to do. In the meantime, I was struggling to replace my six pet hens, which the fox had got. I looked everywhere, and in the end, was forced to buy 100 chicks from Scotland. I kept 12, advertised the rest, and they sold in no time. That was how it all started.”
She and husband Alec are now full time in the business and employ four part-time staff. Their website attracts 800 hits a day, and as well as selling hens, feed and paraphernalia they run courses (on how to keep hens), holidays (for hens), and sell houses (for hens).

And they don’t sell chickens for the table. “That’s a different thing altogether,” says Margaret. “Really, we’re in the pet market. We do sell some to farm shops where they produce their own eggs, but mostly it’s families and people with allotments. Also, we get a disproportionate number of customers with stressful jobs; policemen, or prison officers. There’s something about watching hens scratch around that’s very restful. I wander out to the birds once work’s done for the day and just enjoy being around them.”

It’s definitely worth buying them young, as hens are at their most productive in their first year. By the time they’re three or four years old, many are in retirement as pets, too old and too loved for the pot. The majority of people will buy six, aged around 17 weeks, when they’re at what’s known as the point of lay.

Most popular are the Rhode Rocks and Gingernut Rangers; hybrid birds bred for their ability to lay almost every day, and up and coming are the girls with the pretty eggs. “We have hens that lay really dark brown eggs, to blue or green, cream, brown, and white, and some lay very speckeldy eggs, too. It’s lovely to have the variety, and interesting to see who’s laid what every day,” says  Margaret.

“The Ginegernuts are probably the friendliest birds we have. They make such nice pets. Every time I go to feed them they follow me around, and they let you stroke them. They’re commonly kept as caged birds, which is sad when you consider how friendly they are.”

Copper blacks are a maran hybrid which lay 300 very dark brown eggs a year, while the columbines, with their cute, tufty hair-dos, will almost match that at 280 blue or green eggs. The eggs will all taste the same if the hens have the same diet. What makes the difference is good quality feed, and the freedom to scratch around at greenery.

Free range, you’ll have brighter yolks as your girls nibble at will on whatever greenery takes their fancy. Penned, they’re likely to scratch things up and need more dry food. But they’ll last longer free from predators, and leave less mess on the lawn. And it’s not just foxes. “We do get calls from people saying their dog has attacked and killed next door’s chickens,” Margaret says. “Cats, not such a problem. Chickens will often chase a cat if they try.”

Because hens pair up in friendship partners, be careful, because with three, you may end up with two buddies and one billy no mates. Two or four is better. Or you can buy a clutch of eggs and an incubator and watch them from birth, which is a new take on the Easter egg…

Durham Hens, tel 01388 731 131

Easter feast
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