Poultry People

M Roberts

M Roberts - Credit: Archant

Jeremy Hobson talks to the founder of the Domestic Fowl Trust and author and founder/publisher of the immensely popular Gold Cockerel Series

How long have you been keeping chickens – and who first got you interested?

I started keeping chickens when I was five years old and my father bought me some white Silkies. I’ve been hooked ever since.

What breeds do you keep now – and would you recommend them to a novice?

I keep six breeds now. I have Light Sussex – which are one of the oldest breeding lines in the country, established by a Mr Bennet in 1917. I also have Welsummers, large gold Brahmas, lavender Araucanas, Danderawis (which I brought over from Egypt) and of course, my beloved white Silkies. I had large Malays for a couple of years as I wanted to experience keeping and breeding them, then returned them to the breeder in Cornwall. The reason we keep the breeds we do is the lovely variety of egg colours that they produce. I would certainly recommend Light Sussex and Welsummers for a novice.

I don’t think there can be many poultry-keepers who don’t own one of the books in your Gold Cockerel series – what do you think it is that makes them so popular?

We have 31 titles now – and still expanding. I think what makes the books popular is the clear and straightforward way they are written which is easy for everyone to understand. We had a new book out last November; the second written by Grant Brereton. His first, 21st Century Poultry Breeding, was very popular, and this one, Breeding for Success, promises to be just as good.

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What were your intentions when writing and producing Chickens at Home – the first in the series?

Chickens at Home was written because the people who had bought birds from me were constantly picking my brains as to how to look after them. Rather than having to keep repeating myself, I came up with the idea of making an inexpensive book with all the necessary information on keeping chickens.

Before the Gold Cockerel publications, you founded the Domestic Fowl Trust – what was the thinking behind doing so?

No-one up till then had thought of putting together a collection of rare breeds of poultry. When I moved to Honeybourne (Worcestershire), I was determined to make it a focal centre, which it became. The Trust played an important part in increasing the numbers of various rare breeds such as the Scots Dumpy, the Hook Billed Duck, the Appenzeller Spitzhauben and the Pomeranian Goose amongst others. We had our own, Ministry approved, quarantine centre and were able to bring in birds from abroad, mainly America. Conversely, we helped re-establish the Minorca, Blue Andulsian and the White Faced Spanish back to Spain, and I had several trips to Russia, USA and many parts of Europe, studying local breeds.

The DFT became a magnet for people interested in poultry, and the Trust not only sold birds, but books, equipment and hen houses, as well as having about 150 breeds on display. We were also instrumental in helping the Japanese who were trying to trace back the origins of 30 breeds of domestic fowl to the Red Jungle Fowl. They were able to come to the Domestic Fowl Trust and take all 30 blood samples from one location rather than having to travel round the country to different breeders.

What, if anything, worries you most about worldwide chicken-keeping trends?

There is disturbing news about the quality of eggs for consumption in America in intensive chicken rearing ‘factories’ due to the food, mainly maize, that the hens are fed on. I hope that will not find its way over to Europe.

Back home, what are your immediate thoughts with regards to the current popularity of back-garden chicken-keeping?

I think it’s a marvellous idea to keep hens in the back garden, especially if parents get their children involved; not only with the day-to-day business of keeping hens, feeding and cleaning them, but also with broodies, hatching and rearing.

Finally, what advice would you give to a would-be chicken-keeper?

Keep it simple. Buy or make a hen house, with a run attached if you have enough lawn space, or make a fox proof area in the garden. Have about two to four hens, just enough to keep you and your neighbours in eggs!