Are you a dog person or a chicken person? It is, by some accounts, the question bouncing around the gardens and smallholdings of the UK as more established pets cry “fowl” over a chicken coup. No longer happy to employ poultry as egg suppliers, we are reportedly embracing them as pets, with names and roaming rights.
“I keep finding eggs in the cat basket!” says Lucy Deedes of her own avian interlopers, Mrs Rochester and Miss Bates. The hens live in Deedes’ Sussex garden but enjoy coming inside (the kitchen is off-limits lest the birds endanger the council hygiene rating Deedes requires for her marmalade business).
Hen expert Kathy Shea Mormino, AKA the Chicken Chick, says in her new book, The Chicken Chick’s Guide to Backyard Chickens, that new owners, like her, soon realise hens make good companions. “It was a shock to me when I started giving them names,” she told the LA Times. Deedes, 62, agrees: “If I’m lying in the garden on a sunny day they come and flop beside me and when the dog jumps in the car to go somewhere, I’ll see the chickens standing there thinking, ‘shall we hop in, too?’” She does not walk her hens but did once incubate a rejected egg in her bra; she says it hatched while she queued at the post office. But are chickens really the new dogs? Britain’s domestic fowl population has been a fairly stable 500,000 since 2010, according to the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association’s annual survey (about the same as guinea pigs, but no threat to our 8.5m dogs). But anecdotal evidence of warming relations is rife, and is expected to grow after the release of Pecking Order, a documentary set inside New Zealand’s cutthroat show hen scene (think Crufts with clucks).
“A lot more of our members are treating them as pets, particularly those with young children,” says Pedro Moreira, chair of the Surrey Poultry Society. “They’re very sociable animals and all have their own characters and routines.” He advises would-be hen-keepers to first consult neighbours and the council (they’re classed as livestock and not always allowed in gardens) and to research coop size.
Deedes says her hens have passed peak egg production, but she has no plans to dispatch them. Meanwhile, her friends are getting chickens, too.
“One has a hen called Sir Cliff, because she looked like a shirt Cliff Richard once wore,” she says, before getting back to her marmalade.