In the first of a new series, Jeremy Hobson talks to chicken-keepers of note… and starts with Your Chickens contributor, poultry breeder, ‘pundit’ and owner of the ChickenStreet website ANDY CAWTHRAY
• Did the name ‘ChickenStreet’ come as a result of the children’s TV programme ‘Pigeon Street’?
It really started as name for the hobby business we set up. Like the business, it evolved over the years and now seems to have become an alternative name for me… I’ve even had letters addressed to Mr C Street!
• Your poultry collection started in 2001, but did you keep chickens before this and what, or who, first got you interested?
It was around then when I first started seriously with chickens, although prior to that I had worked with poultry. I’ve been an avid birdwatcher since the age of seven and have always been fascinated with birds, be they wild or domestic. It was inevitable that, as soon as my lifestyle allowed, a flock of chickens would appear.
• How many breeds to you have – and which is your favourite/gives you most pleasure?
Currently I’m working with 12 different breeds. I do like the Brahmas as they are such placid laid-back chickens. That said, the inquisitive nature and busy friendly characters of the bantam Owlbeards put them a close second.
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• From your website testimonials, it seems that the eggs you sell for hatching are particularly fertile – what tips might ensure that readers have similar success?
Constant fertility testing of the eggs throughout the hatching season and good record keeping are key. Just because a bird is in lay doesn’t mean the cockerel is active, and, even if he is, it doesn’t mean he’s getting it right.
• How vigorously do you select stock so as to ensure that you only breed from those as close as possible to any breed standard?
Assuming health and vigour are taken as read, it depends on the end game, or objective of the particular breeding I’m undertaking. The standard can often be confused with the outward appearance of a bird’s plumage etc, and whilst this is essential in ornamental breeds, appearance is not so vital in a breed like Ixworths with 40% of the points being attributed to its table qualities. Obviously it still has to look like an Ixworth, but perhaps more importantly, it needs to ‘feel’ like an Ixworth.
• Has the knowledge gained from your degree in ecology and conservation helped in understanding the specific needs of chickens and their welfare?
Interesting you should pick up on that: yes it has. An appreciation of the importance of all aspects of conservation certainly fuels my interest in working with pure and rare breeds, but equally, taking my studies into behavioural ecology and applying them to my observations of chickens helps me understand and interpret their requirements, well-being and their interaction with the environment around them.
• As a result of research for The Chicken – A Natural History, which you co-authored, what have you learned about chicken behaviour?
It’s probably that many of the cognitive abilities shown by chickens are similar to those used by primates. They are not as bird brained as people may think and their motives for crossing a road could well have been more complex and reasoned than to simply get to the other side.
• Do you think enough is being done to educate future generations?
It’s improving, but no, I don’t think there is enough being done possibly because the understanding of the educational value of chickens isn’t fully appreciated. Chickens are accessible, multi-faceted livestock. They not only provide food, but a lot of valuable knowledge can be learnt from their life cycle, behaviour, social structure, history, influence on culture, etc. The list goes on.
• You have gained a considerable reputation as a poultry ‘pundit’ – if there was only one piece of knowledge/advice that someone took away with them, what would you most like it to be?
Take time to find out what ‘The Chicken of Tomorrow Contest’ of the 1940-50’s was… and understand how it influenced and shaped today’s attitude towards poultry. It could result in a real eye opener.
MORE: Find out more about Andy Cawthray at www.chickenstreet.co.uk