Plants & poultry

Philip Jeffs

Philip Jeffs - Credit: Archant

There’s little better than a garden with chickens in it. Jeremy Hobson visits renowned plantsman and horticulturalist Philip Jeffs. Passionate about plants, trees and the countryside, his passions also embrace chicken keeping.

When did you first become interested in chickens?

Probably when I was about eight years old. We’d always had chickens (Warrens, I think) for their eggs and occasional meat. We were a family where we were as self-sufficient as possible and grew our own vegetables. To ensure continuity in the egg department, we used to keep about half a dozen hens, always bought at POL (point-of-lay).

What breeds have you kept since then; what do you keep now – and what do you hope to keep in the future?

Whatever I keep, I keep them as much for their interest as I do their eggs. Currently, I’ve got a Wyandotte, a Malay/Sussex cross and Rhode Island Reds – both large fowl and bantams. The cock bird is a Sablepoot cross which I rescued.

The Rhode Islands are brilliant layers and, although the bantam variety is more seasonal in production, they lay well – and nothing beats a bantam egg for flavour! Likewise, Light Sussex bantams – and I think they are great for sitting and hatching. I do prefer ‘steady’ breeds over ‘flighty’ ones but, having said that, I very much like the idea of having Malays or some sort of Jungle fowl type in the future.

In the past I’ve kept Pekins – a lovely friendly breed. Sadly, I lost them to a fox. I’d have Pekins again: they are easy; they just peck about and forage.

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What breeds fit best into the back garden environment?

The Pekins are brilliant; they do little damage to an established garden and (as any chicken would) soon clean out a patch of ground and scrape it over. They clear out all the grubs that are detrimental to the gardener – but they also take the good ones as well. I don’t sell pesticides and fungicides in my garden centre… in my opinion, the countryside is best balanced reasonably naturally and the same goes for a garden.

Chickens will peck at most things but they seem to know to avoid plants that may cause them problems. They won’t touch Euphorbia and they won’t eat nettles! If you want to throw weeds into the run, they love dandelions, but I always avoid giving them buttercups… and, because of potential troubles with their digestive system, I don’t think giving them grass mowings is a good idea.

Have you any words of advice for the newcomer to chicken keeping?

Chickens are very hardy. The most important thing is to keep things clean and your birds healthy… give them clean food and water utensils and a clean, airy house. My chicken house and run are built from recycled materials. It’s only small but there are nest boxes, indoor and outdoor perching and a run open to the elements – partly covered by corrugated Perspex.The best thing is to give them proper food – manufactured food relevant to that age. I feed just enough pellets (there’s a certain amount of wastage with mash) in the morning and then, in the afternoon, corn. Greens are important. I make sure my birds have fresh greens every day. As for potential problems, look out for red mite and treat it straight away.

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