From hobby to business
- Credit: Archant
This month Jeremy Hobson visits Sarah McKenzie of Sussex Garden Poultry and discovers a lady with plenty of knowledge, enthusiasm and enterprising ideas.
How did you first become interested in chicken-keeping?
I’ve been chicken-keeping for well over 20 years now and it all began when we rented a cottage outside Petworth which had a (disused) outside loo. It was too small to be a useful shed but perfect for a few chickens to use as a home base – so I bought four hybrids. It wasn’t long before I’d bought and hatched some Pekin eggs… ‘Proper’ chicken houses (and more pure-bred birds) soon followed!
Apart from their eggs, what is it about chickens that you love?
That you can do that nurturing thing and they immediately give something back. I just love their beautiful feathers and their iridescence; their character, company, opportunities for re-cycling produce from the vegetable patch… I love the big round ‘blousy’ Brahmas and the way their ‘skirts’ move as they come up the garden hoping to find something interesting.
What breeds do you keep now?
Apart from the Brahmas’ as large fowl I have speckled, buff and light Sussex; Cochins and cream Legbars. In the way of bantams, I have light Sussex, Pekins, Barbu d’Uccles and various types of Wyandotte.
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Living in the county I do, I decided I would concentrate on the Sussex… and use the light Sussex breed as my logo. Apart from anything else, they are docile and, although I’m a vegetarian, they are wonderful dual-purpose birds.
Part of my business also involves buying in hybrid varieties from a good reliable hatchery I know and selling them on at POL [point-of-lay] to customers keen on a few hens for the back garden. Batches of birds come in monthly between February and October and I always encourage customers to choose their own birds from the various groups I have. It’s important that anyone – particularly children – who buys birds from me takes home exactly what they want… you choose other pets carefully and for their characteristics so why not your chickens?
Do you ever show your pure breeds?
I’ve never shown them competitively – to me, breed standards are not as important as character and nature – but I do exhibit and display my birds at many events held annually in Sussex. As I want people to see and realise that they can enjoy chickens in their garden, I’ve a trailer made from a caravan base at the back of which is bolted a chicken house and run. At the front of the trailer is a garden with flowers and space for another small pen of birds… its set up for easy viewing and always creates a lot of interest.
I also take birds into schools and have just started hiring incubators and brooders to schools. I supply all that’s necessary and, because I think that we all learn best visually, I provide illustrated colourful charts rather than long lists of written instructions.
Do you paint the illustrations for these and the birds on your range of pottery yourself?
Yes… I love designing, whether it be chicken houses or instruction leaflets and charts. I started painting greetings cards featuring chickens and went and worked in a pottery for a time but didn’t get chance to paint the pots – so I bought my own kiln and worked from home. It’s just such good therapy to sit and paint… as indeed it is to sit and watch the antics of your chickens!