Bringers of joy

Hens have transformed life for this family in a Cambridgeshire village. Rob Morris went to meet them …

Keeping chickens has worked wonders for the children in the Cavanagh family. They love looking after the birds – and eating their delicious eggs – and were enthralled when some chicks hatched out.

One of the three youngsters, seven-year-old Isis, has Downs Syndrome, and caring for the hens has given her new skills – as well as plenty of joy. These skills are very much down to the careful handling of the hens and the eggs that the family has started to hatch. She loves helping to care for the birds, and her dexterity, social skills and language have all improved.

The other two children, Conor, six, and Gabriel, four, just love henkeeping too. Conor says: “The eggs are lovely and I like eating boiled egg and soldiers. We have about six or eight eggs a day from the hens but my favourite is Speckledy hen. She is nice and follows me around. Gabriel’s favourite is Brahma hen.”

Mum Nicky says that keeping hens has enabled all the children to develop, giving them confidence, a better understanding of where food comes from and how to handle animals in a firm but caring way. They understand how responsibility comes with keeping animals and how their need of food, water and good standards cleanliness need to be met, for humans as well as the hens. They know where some of their food comes from – and that it is not just from supermarket shelves.

They have also learned how to check the hens for mites and to keep an eye on their general health. Conor is also good at collecting the hens if they escape and tells the others how to do it quickly and safely.

Nicky was the one to suggest keeping chickens a year ago, and they now have 11. The initial idea was to have just a couple, and husband Marcus didn’t need much persuading, but he did insist that they would be rescue birds.

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They agreed that a couple of hens wouldn’t take up much room or a lot of looking after, so the first two were obtained from Little Hen Rescue in Norfolk. They were allowed free roam in the garden but soon wrecked that, so an area was fenced off to allow the rest of the garden to recover.

Inexorably, the number of birds increased. They have outgrown the small hen house and now have a customised shed in a secure area which takes up about a quarter of the garden. The shed has a flap door for them and nest boxes on shelving, with a plank for them to walk up. It was all customised by Marcus.

While the boys play, Nicky tell me about how she has learned about keeping hens.“The internet is brilliant, especially Facebook. The Backyardichooks group is one of the best places to visit. It seems so friendly, with hen keepers of all experiences always willing to help and give advice.

“I also subscribe to Your Chickens online version which works better for me than the printed version. We have now also started hatching our own as the children wanted to try. We managed to get a reasonably priced incubator and brooder kit online which is perfect for our current needs.

“The children were fascinated with hatching, especially when the chicks started pipping the shells. All of them were constantly watching it happen, and then to see a chick was thrilling.”

Nicky adds: “They also learn along the way that animals do die and some chicks don’t hatch, so the cycle of life becomes a reality. They chat about keeping chickens to their friends and at school, but I haven’t persuaded the school to keep their own yet!

“The boys check the hens after school and make sure that they have fresh food and water and sit with them. Some of the hens just do their own thing but a few, including the Brahma, follow them around. The ex-bats are the top hens, but they all seem to get on well together. I want to get a few more specialist breeds and then maybe some ducks.”

The family also have some rescue cats, but Nicky says they soon learn to leave the hens alone, especially when they learn (the hard way) how quick the hens are with their beaks and claws. Now they all seem to co-exist quite happily.

One last word from Nicky: “I am sure that when we get the ducks they will fit into our family life in the same way as the hens have. Keeping hens can really be fitted into most family lives, but new keepers should learn as much as possible beforehand, by reading magazines and using the good internet sites available.”