Nestbox not XBox
Chickens are proving more than a match for games consoles for the attention of the three boys in the Richards family, as Rachel Lovell reports
When a little boy gladly accepts a chicken rather than a computer games console for Christmas, you know you’ve got a real hen-lover on your hands. For the Richards family in the village of Broadhempston, Devon, that love of chickens has trickled through the whole family of three redhead boys: Jake, 12, Sean, 10 and Cadon, 5.
The story started five years ago, when the children’s aunt needed a new home for her family’s six chickens. Her kids had grown up and she didn’t have the time to look after the birds anymore, so, one afternoon, the two eldest boys and their dad, Clive, armed themselves with wood and tools, and got to work building a hen house and a run. One excited trip to their aunt’s house later, the chickens were installed in their new home.
“Initially they were in the garden but, after a little while, we moved them to our allotment, which is just around the corner from our house,” explained the boys’ mum, Jennifer.
“They helped fertilise the soil and they had more space there,” piped up Jake, clearly full of knowledge about how helpful the chickens can be to growing veggies. “They loved it, as there were always tasty things to eat. Worms that dad dug up were one of their favourites.”
“There was something missing though,” continued Jennifer. “The boys adored the chickens as much as ever, but we thought how wonderful it would be to have some chicks.”
The family hoped that by introducing a cockerel, the hens would go broody and start incubating the eggs. It was an exciting Christmas Day for the boys when they saw the handsome Light Sussex cockerel that was to join the family brood. Jake was not sure about him at first, however.
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“He was massive! I thought he was quite scary, but then we got used to him. We made sure we moved quietly about and he was fine. I liked watching him march around the run”.
Jennifer was smiling as Jake spoke. “It was just so funny; all the other boys in their classes got a Nintendo DS for Christmas, and they got a cockerel! They were so pleased though – that’s how much they wanted some chicks.”
Things did not go according to plan however.
“The cockerel settled in well, but the girls simply did not go broody. I think it was maybe because they were hybrid birds,” said Jennifer.
The family were all disappointed, so they put their heads together and came up with a Plan B. An incubator was borrowed from a kind friend, 15 eggs were placed inside, and the waiting started. It’s not hard to imagine how often the boys’ noses must have pressed against the incubator as they peered in, hoping for a sign of the longed-for little chicks!
Jennifer described the big day when they finally hatched. “Cadon and I went down into the kitchen one morning, and we could hear an odd noise. We ran over and they were cheeping away, still in their shells! The sound of chicks peep-peeping in our kitchen, first thing in the morning, when we were all sleepy, was just magical.”
I asked five-year-old Cadon what it felt like for him. “It was like I had heard something so amazing,” he said, with a serene little smile.
Remarkably, all 15 eggs that were incubated hatched out. “They were all white ones,” explained Sean. “The mums were all different colours. but the chicks were all white.”
The boys were so proud of the new additions to their family that they took them to school to show the other children, before introducing them back into the family flock at the allotment. Life in the countryside has its dangers, however, and one very cold winter afternoon saw a visit from a hungry fox who managed to get into the run.
“Dad and I looked for him in the fields, but we got chased by some cows,” said Jake, a little forlornly.
A few months later, as the weather was getting warmer, the boys got a cheering surprise.
“Grandma and granddad bought them an Easter present of real chickens instead of chocolate eggs. They were over the moon!” Jennifer explained.
Today the birds (a mixture of Silver Marans, Welsummers, Silverlinks and Light Sussex crosses) are in a spacious new run in the family’s garden. Here the boys can keep a close eye on them and take enormous pride in caring for the flock.
I asked them what their favourite thing about keeping chickens was. “I liked holding the chicks, as they are really cute,” said Sean.
“I like going down the garden and seeing them. I feel like I’m doing farming, like I’m doing my own thing. I really like collecting the eggs and holding them to my cheek when they are warm,” enthused Jake.
Little Cadon had the most practical feelings of all though. “I like that they make us have nice warm eggs for breakfast and lunch. My favourite is boiled eggs with soldiers,” he said with a determined nod, and another of his serene smiles.
The sound of chicks peep-peeping in our kitchen, first thing in the morning, when we were all sleepy, was just magical