Hens for pets

Phil, his van ... and a hanger-on

Phil, his van ... and a hanger-on - Credit: Archant

Your Chickens talks to owner Teresa Benham

Teresa and a visitor with ... the emu

Teresa and a visitor with ... the emu - Credit: Archant

What is the name of your poultry business and why?

I thought long and hard about choosing a name for the new business, discounting a few quirky choices which didn’t work too well in these times of internet search engines! So I decided to keep it simple and settled on Hens for Pets which reflects exactly what we do - breeding and supplying hens and providing support for back garden chicken keepers.

Where are you based?

The Hens for Pets shop is based at a garden centre in Ravenshead, North Nottinghamshire, a few miles from Junction 27 of the M1.

Tell us how and when your business started.

I started the ‘chicken business’ in 2010, and it surprised me as much as it did everyone else. I had worked for many years in the banking industry and I was looking for a more flexible working pattern and change of lifestyle. Having already kept chickens in my garden for a few years, I realised what great pets they made. They certainly are addictive - and I was hooked. I had a few hybrids, which at the time I had found difficult to source locally as there was little choice and certainly no help or advice if you needed it. So, sitting in the sunshine, throwing a few treats to the girls over a glass of something, I decided this would be my new venture. I ‘dipped my toe in the water’ by having stands at local agricultural shows and also helping out on other poultry stands. I sold various poultry products, helped by friends and family, suitably dressed as chickens of course, and our stands became very popular. This spurred me on to take the plunge with a website, selling online and from a small unit close to a busy retail park. I was also selling hybrids and bantams from a field I rented nearby. The business grew and my original premises, with the birds at a separate location, was no longer suitable so, in 2014, we moved to a more rural location in Ravenshead about 10 miles away from my original shop. It wasn’t easy finding premises for a shop and keeping birds, especially the ones that crow, but our new rural location was ideal as everything you need is onsite, including room for a range of hen houses. At the same time a farm became available nearby, so our fate was sealed, and with extra fields the best bit was that I could have even more chickens! Of course it didn’t stop there; we now have ducks, geese, and a couple of emus, Rod and Laura, who help keep the foxes at bay.

Customers at Hens for Pets get plenty of advice

Customers at Hens for Pets get plenty of advice - Credit: Archant

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What have you learned since you started your business?

It is challenging starting out on your own with a new venture. You want to be successful and it’s all too easy to take on too much. One thing I have learned the hard way is to be realistic about what you can achieve in a day. I had initially opened the shop six days a week with late nights. I also had livestock to care for and a website to run. I soon realised that I needed a rethink, and have since tailored opening hours and online selling to allow more time to spend face-to-face with customers starting out, and to breed a wider range of rare and pure breed birds.

Can you give us an insight into a typical day at your business.

My typical days starts and ends with the birds! We have numerous pens of breeding birds on the farm and Phil, my partner, is on morning duty with me, opening all the pop holes, collecting hatching eggs and checking on the girls - and boys. It’s springtime, so letting the geese out of their shed into their pen can be challenging. ‘Gozzer’ is very territorial at this time of year, so unless you’re quick on your feet, thick padding is advisable at the rear! Rod and Laura are following our every move closely; the emus do enjoy their morning cabbage, kindly supplied by the local greengrocers, in return for a few fresh eggs. Phil works full time elsewhere and was not involved initially, but I caught him talking to the ‘girls’ one day - they can be persuasive - and he now helps out when he can. Then it’s off to the shop for me, checking birds in the sales pens and letting Elvis and Rod out onto their grass run. These boys are our resident frizzle Polands at the shop - real characters.

Can you tell us about the people who run the business and your products.

We sell birds, feed, bedding, in fact everything you need for poultry, and on a couple of the busier days I am helped by my partner Phil and volunteers, Mandy and Karen, both knowledgeable chicken keepers themselves. Mandy is a retired veterinary nurse, and has kept poultry for about 25 years. Karen, who also volunteers at the local charity shop, sought the good life with a few hybrids and lots of vegetables on her allotment and now has lots of chickens.

We see you run courses at Hens for Pets. Tell us more.

On Saturdays in the summer months we hold regular one-hour free ‘Introduction To Chicken Keeping’ courses. It’s informal, fun, and ‘hands on’ and very useful for new starters or those wanting to gain a little more confidence. It’s best to dress down for these occasions and not keep your open handbag too close to your chair – a customer found when she opened hers later at lunch at the local, that there was more than her purse inside! Lots of fresh greens do tend to pass through our girls quickly, especially when they are being handled!

Tell us one thing you have learned from the bird flu outbreak

With the potential risks of avian flu, we are keen to ensure that new chicken keepers are aware of their responsibilities, so it is more important than ever to be able to accommodate birds in suitably sized pens from the onset, should restrictions be imposed in the future. Our range of hen houses includes traditional wooden and recycled plastic ones. Both are available with ‘walk in’ runs and can be moved if space allows, or static with suitable ground cover such as hardwood chips.

What gives you most satisfaction in the business?

Deciding what birds to buy can be very confusing for new chicken keepers, there are so many different types to choose from and lots of information online. Our aim is to help customers work out which breeds are most suited to their own particular circumstances, so we take time to explain the differences between commercial hybrids and pure breeds, large fowl and bantams, so customers are able to make informed decisions. I find this aspect of the job particularly satisfying, when a customer is really pleased with their purchase and reports back how well the girls have settled in. We sell the traditional brown and coloured hybrids, as well as pure breed bantams and some large fowl. The pure breeds are from our own stock, which are Mareks vaccinated. They range from the popular Pekins and Sabelpoots to the less well known such as Old English Pheasant Fowl, Barred Rock, Fresian Fowl and Ancona. There is something there for everyone!

Tell us about one of your products

Feed is a very important part of what we sell and as a specialist chicken shop we are able to offer a wide choice. We stock feeds from independent family run mills, organic feeds, and specialist feeds for birds bred to show, some pellets include gut conditioners and others medical wormers. We are always happy to explain what’s on offer. Having so many birds, we are able to try out the different feeds and products ourselves, enabling us to give advice from our own experience, which new customers in particular find useful.

What of the future?

We are looking to expand the number of pure breed birds we offer, including ducks, which were a new addition last year. We’re not quite sure when young emus will be available – that one’s down to Rod & Laura!

MORE: Hens for Pets, www.hensforpets.co.uk, or call 01623 793841 or 07860 436586.