AT our home here in France guinea-fowl, or pintarde, are a common sight around the farms and smallholdings, no doubt due to the fact that they do well on dry, sandy or chalky soils, especially in warm situations and are virtually trouble-free, providing a tasty meal for little if no outlay. They are cheap to keep, finding a great deal of their food naturally and they are more interested in animal food, such as grubs, bugs and insects, rather than vegetable, so the kitchen gardens of which the rural French are so proud are generally quite safe from their unwanted attention.

Guinea-fowl have always been popular in France where some 54 million are produced annually for the table market. French birds are slightly heavier than those reared in the UK and are quicker to mature: commercially, many guinea-fowl in the UK are bred from imported French stock - they are apparently around 2lbs per bird heavier and grow twice as fast as the British strains. In France, guinea-fowl appear in the supermarkets at the end of September in order to coincide with the shooting season -although they are not shot, they are still considered 'game' and are therefore a winter rather than summer feast.

Although I have kept many guinea-fowl in the past when living in the UK - we once lived in a cottage next to an out-building that had corrugated tin on its roof and the noise that a dozen pairs of guinea-fowl feet can make running up and down to the apex at five in the morning has to be heard to be believed - I hadn't realised until a couple of weeks ago that they will call in contentment throughout the night. It is however, well-known that they are an excellent early warning system with regard to poachers and predators - not much movement escapes their hearing and they are, as such, are of benefit to both other wildlife and the gamekeeper; indeed, it was once quite usual for them to be released alongside pheasants for this very reason. Their ability to screech and call at the slightest disturbance may well be a considerable advantage around an isolated stable yard or quiet secluded country cottage, but this attribute would probably not be very popular in average suburban garden.

Being members of the pheasant family, they prefer to roost in the trees rather than in a house made available to them, although it is sometimes useful to be able to catch them and so penning for part of the time will help prevent them from becoming totally wild. With early 'training' (keep them in their intended home for about a month), it is possible to persuade them to return to a shed each evening in order to roost and whilst a conventional chicken house is certainly adequate, the would-be guinea-fowl owner who is lucky enough to have an out-building attached to their property will find that birds will prefer to roost on any exposed rafters or beams. Nest boxes are totally un-necessary and will be ignored in favour of a self-chosen, well-hidden nest.

Left to her own devices, the guinea hen would, like most birds, lay a clutch of eggs and then go broody. By removing the eggs, however, it is not unreasonable to expect a hen to continue laying until she has produced as many as 100 eggs; so as well as keeping them purely as a hobby, egg production and meat are quite a practical option (an interesting by-product results from the feathers, which on mature birds sell for £6/lb and are used as fishing flies).

Take care when removing the eggs from the nest: always do it when you know that the bird is not around to see you and, in an exception to the general rule of poultry keeping, never remove them all, for if you do, the hen will find somewhere else to lay and it may take you days of careful watching to find the new location.

Breeding and rearing
A breeding flock should consist of one cock bird to five or six hens. Once such a group has formed, it will remain the same and if the birds are mixed into a larger flock to over-winter, it will re-group in the same combination the following spring. Rearing from day-old is the only sure way to start a flock of guinea-fowl because breeding birds bought as adults are very difficult to integrate. Taken to its logical conclusion, however, this fact could eventually cause problems several generations down the line by which time the flock will be severely interbred. Incidentally, the fertility of eggs laid by free-range guinea-fowl hens has been proven to be higher than in situations where a breeding flock is kept totally penned or enclosed.

Unless the female can sit on a nest of her own making, usually in a hedgerow or similar out-of-the-way place, she will, nine times out of ten, desert an artificially created nest and it so is probably best to hatch her eggs under a broody or in an incubator. As a general rule, 10 guinea fowl eggs take the space of 7 chicken eggs. They take 28 days to hatch. It has been suggested by more than one experienced guinea-fowl breeder that a broody turkey hen will make a better foster-mother for guinea-fowl 'keets', due to the fact that she will keep them banded together until the following spring; whereas a broody chicken or bantam tends to ignore them after about six weeks. It is not, however, a practical option for the majority of enthusiasts.

Guinea-fowl chicks are, like their game bird cousins, very lively and can escape through even the smallest gap. For this reason, when hatching and rearing them under a broody, small mesh netting of 1cm (in) should be used when constructing a coop and run. Make sure that there are no holes around the base and if there are, block them with a brick or, better still, cover the base of the run with netting so that the 'keets' still have access to the grass and insects, but cannot scratch their way out. When rearing guinea-fowl chicks by artificial means don't forget that they are far more flighty than any other types of domesticated poultry: it is therefore essential that whatever method of brooding is used, they are prevented from escaping by fitting a secure netting or wire-covered top.

Being members of the game bird family over-crowded or bored chicks may be prone to feather-pecking and it is important to have plenty of containers so that there is no competition for feed (likewise with drinkers).

Provide additional attractions to keep the bird occupied, such as greenstuffs hung up for them to peck at.

The fact that guinea-fowl are so easy to keep means that there is very little to say about any specific feeding or dietary habits. Young birds will do extremely well on a regime designed for turkeys, but generally, they can be fed a diet similar to that suggested for chickens and bantams. Ranging guinea-fowl will find a great deal of their food naturally and they are more interested in insects and bugs than they are in anything vegetable, which, as has been mentioned elsewhere, makes them ideal for the smallholder who may be worried about his prize vegetable plot.

Unlike other types of poultry, which have separate breeds, guinea-fowl merely have differing colours: apart from the normal coloured plumage - grey on the neck with white spotted black feathers on the body -they can be found in about two dozen different colours, ranging from chocolate and pewter to purple and lavender, but some specific colours are given names such as White, Lavender, Buff Dundottes and Royal Blue.

Fascinating birds! Why not get hold of a clutch of eggs and hatch them off under a broody chicken? On a warm summer's evening you will then be able to pour yourself a good-sized gin and tonic, sit back on the garden decking, close your eyes and listen to their marvellous calling as they clear the garden of insects - with a little imagination (and perhaps a second G & T), you can soon kid yourself that you're in their home country of Africa!

 Read Guineafowl - the bird with exotic attraction