I KEEP a small flock of six to eight Buff Orpingtons hens, plus a cockerel and a couple of bantams. They are allowed total free-range in my two-thirds of an acre garden, where I grow a few flowers for pleasure and for cutting, but concentrate mainly on a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, nuts, and herbs.

My flock plays a vital part in the eco-system of this plot, as well as providing the family with eggs, and a great deal of pleasure. We all keep poultry for different reasons, and although our priorities may vary, I hope this inventory of the benefits I derive from my flock, may encourage you to put their well-being at the top of your list and re-assess best practice.

  • My main priority is to give my flock the opportunity to live a natural life. I love birds of all varieties, and since hens are virtually the only ones you can keep, without curtailing their freedom in cages, I want to give them the space and security to lead stress-free lives and in return, have the pleasure of watching my cockerel leading his motley bunch of wives out into the garden every morning.
  • As a gardener, I now find gardens without wildlife occupants to be a two-dimensional, flat, soulless places, especially in winter time, when the drama, colour and movement that a small flock provides, will uplift the spirits. Keeping hens encourages other wildlife into the garden, some perhaps, are not so welcome, and of course, though Defra still wants us to keep our flocks' feeding stations separate from wild birds, but they still use chicken feathers to line their nests.
  • My flock is an integral part of the gardening system. Their droppings fertilize the soil and activate the muck heaps. Their bedding rots down to great soil conditioner, and their feathers enrich the compost. They eat weeds, leftover vegetable crops and windfall fruits, and several dangerous pests. Slugs and snails are no longer a problem here, and a certain amount of desultory grass cutting takes place. Short grass is a great source of protein for poultry.
  • Obviously, home-produced eggs are the best. Probably not the cheapest, but they're certainly the freshest, and because I know what my layers have been eating, and that they are healthy and stress-free, I'm confident that our diet will benefit from my hens' contribution. Orpingtons are not the most prolific layers, but I try to hatch two pullets a year to take on the main laying mantle. My older ladies have progressively shorter laying seasons, but still add stability to the flock and make good broodies and mums. If you eat meat, excess cockerels can be raised for the table.
  • Everything in the garden flourishes to its full potential. Crops are healthy, growing to maximum production. Poultry manure from garden birds doesn't burn plants because they are not fed on high fat, high protein diets, so although the majority gets swept up and put on the compost heap to rot, a proportion gets dug in or washed straight into the soil or into the lawn by the rain, as instant fertilizer.
  • Home-grown food production takes us back to our roots. Self-sufficiency gives a sense of power, makes us self-reliant, involving us all intimately in the life cycles and seasonal rhythms of our environment.
  • I open my garden to the public, and actively promote garden hen-keeping, using the attractiveness and well-being of my flock to encourage the demand by consumers for better welfare standards in the industry. I can show visitors what a normally-fed chick looks like at six weeks - barely a handful, at the age when commercially-reared birds would be going to slaughter, ready to sit on the supermarket shelf. Many visitors and their children have little idea that chickens are sentient creatures with their own intelligence, well-developed communication skills and a strong flock ethos.
  • My flock is a useful teaching aid for pupils who come on our courses to learn this particular way of keeping hens, and I have always used my garden and birds to promote a healthy, happy way of hen keeping. Children benefit greatly from the hen keeping experience and chickens make excellent pets, providing an entertaining hobby for people of all ages.
  • Chickens are great household waste re-cyclers. From the old newspapers I use to line their sleeping quarters, to the shredded paper I use for bedding, to spent wood ash that goes into their dust baths, to any excess kitchen or garden waste, all enabling this household to keep its waste to a minimum.
  • We all have a lot to learn from our connection to the animal kingdom. To see ourselves as part of the whole, rather than isolated superiors, is good for our mental health, giving us a sense of perspective, and certainly time spent in the garden with a flock of contented hens, is balm for the soul.

Happy Christmas to you all!

  • For more information, visit www.henkeepersassociation.co.uk and to check out Francine's range of books, products and courses, visit www.kitchen-garden-hens.co.uk.