Growing up with chickens
Todmorden is Britain’s incredible egg town, where good eggs are being used for education and regeneration
If you’re a child in Todmorden, from day dot you’ve got food culture coming at you,” says food inspirer Debbie McCall as she admires her Black Copper Maran eggs. “I like the idea of my kids knowing where their food’s coming from, and I’m not the only one.”
The Maran has been a popular addition to the family flock, not least because Debbie, her husband David and their daughters Kerry, 11, and Sinead, 8, agree their eggs are the best. The children like its fluffy feet, and have named it Pompom the Great of Northampton II.
The McCalls keep 12 chickens and a cockerel on land next to their home in Blackshaw Head. It is a pretty, windswept place in the hills above Todmorden, a place now famous for being incredible and edible.
In 2008, this Pennine town responded to recession with an ambition – to become self-sufficient in eggs by 2018. Since then, local families and schools have risen to the challenge.
Every Egg Matters, Incredible Edible Todmorden’s (IET) drive to ensure every egg consumed locally is produced locally, has come a long way in two years. Over 50 small scale egg producers, more than half of them families with children, now feature on IET’s egg map, which connects farm gate producers with potential customers.
The group estimates that home production and farm gate sales now account for approaching 1,000 eggs a day, almost a sixth of Todmorden’s egg consumption. And IET has been able to employ two food inspirers to help schools, businesses and other organisations build bigger and stronger local food networks.
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They offer people with chickens, or who are thinking of keeping chickens, advice on regulation, husbandry and animal welfare, as well as courses and help in building chicken housing.
“There’s more knowledge out there than you might think,” says Debbie. “When we’re out and about with the map people say their parents had chickens, or their grandparents. It’s about sharing that knowledge between generations.’
Schools are getting on board too. Castle Hill Primary now keeps four hens in its playground – a major breakthrough according to IET, which worked hard to ease health and safety concerns before the project gained approval.
Debbie says: “Parents were concerned about hygiene issues. There was resistance to taking up play area space, not just with animals but growing as well. But now they’re up and running and it’s not taking space from football or other sports.”
The hens are part of school life, and provide opportunities for learning about science, mathematics, sustainability and life skills. The school is currently borrowing IET’s incubator, which has now made its way around over half of the town’s seven primaries.
Todmorden High School plans to keep 50 chickens in its grounds, and share the work and the eggs between the school and the community. Local families will be able to sponsor a chicken for as little as �6, and in return will receive eggs, and at least part of the experience of keeping chickens.
The project will provide eggs for the school kitchen, involve the community in school life, and teach children about health, business and the environment.
IET is encouraging all Todmorden schools to keep animals and grow fruit and veg. In November, all the primaries visited Todmorden High School to learn about compost, meet a local farmer and some of his healthy animals and talk about eggs with Debbie.
“We talked about the difference between organic, free range and barn eggs, and how to read the stamp on an egg,” she says. “We also talked about the egg map and Every Egg Matters. Children are inspired by food and where it comes from.”
The coalman, the postman and various other passers-by enthusiastically buy eggs from the McCalls. Kerry and Sinead help out and make a bit of pocket money by taking surplus eggs to neighbours, when there are any left.
They find plenty of amusement in their chickens. Kerry says: “They’re fun to just look at and watch them running around. I like it when they shake and rustle their feathers.”
Sinead’s favourite, a cross breed, is something of an escape artist. Sinead says: “I like watching chickens with their wings out running straight to the field.”
But a chicken’s life can be cruel. In the five years the McCalls have been keeping hens, Kerry and Sinead’s relationship with them has transformed. Debbie says: “When they first got them they all got names. Kerry and Sinead could tell which was which in a way I couldn’t. They would carry them around, they were in and out to them. They got involved.”
Their first four chickens, all Black Rocks, were called Abbey, Sunday, Flossy and Kangar, and one was assigned to each family member.
Kerry learned the hard way about the reality of keeping animals. Her hen, Kangar, was the first to go. “I was worried about her because she just disappeared,” she says. “I was very upset.”
There is no doubt when it comes to what is the best thing about keeping chickens, “the eggs.”
While the hardy Black Rocks laid throughout the winter, the family’s current flock, which includes two Wyan Dotts, a Plymouth Rock Bar and a New Hampshire Red, has not been as productive.
There are limits to how many eggs Todmorden’s small producers can supply, not least because their eggs cannot be sold beyond the farm gate. “We need to scale up production if we’re to provide what the mass market demands,” says food inspirer Pauline Mullarkey, who also keeps chickens in her family garden. “Eggs need to be candled, stamped, packaged, labelled and distributed.”
For now, local egg production rests with families and farms producing on a small scale. “There are still people out there that we haven’t collared,” Debbie says. “A lot of people around here have a spare bit of land. For others space is limited. The families on the map range from people on the hills with plenty of land to people in the valley bottom by the canal, in an urban part of town. People in Todmorden are discovering neighbours who sell good, local eggs all the time, and they’re making new friends in the process.
“That’s how the egg map works. After all, taking a little detour for good, fresh eggs is no hardship.”
Find out more about Britain’s incredible egg town at www.incredible-edible-todmorden.co.uk