Poultry People

Robert Harrison

Robert Harrison - Credit: Archant

Jeremy Hobson talks to a full-time gamekeeper and successful breeder and exhibitor of chickens and bantams Robert Harrison

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

When I was about 12, my father took me to Melton Mowbray Market and bought me a trio of Rhode Island Red bantam chickens. He was a proper countryman and I inherited my interest in birds and poultry from him.

What breeds do you keep now, why do you like them and would you recommend them to a novice?

I keep large fowl Brahma, Cream Legbars, Pekins, bantam Anconas, bantam Light Sussex and Silkies. The Sussex and Silkies are cross-bred to create what’s known as Gold Tops which make excellent broodies. For anyone new to keeping chickens, large fowl Brahma are ideal as pets; they are docile, friendly and unfazed by newcomers; my strains lay very well in season. They are very large birds and look stunning on any lawn. For those who prefer something smaller or have limited space, Pekins are great pets; they take up little space, come in a huge variety of pretty colours and absolutely love people. They are always first up on any lap or shoulder for the fun of it. Both breeds have feathered feet and legs and so do need a little more attention if you wish to show them.

Why do you, in the main, only keep pure breeds?

I was brought up on pure breed birds and, whilst egg production is very light in winter, I like to see the seasons as they should be and the birds having their moulting and rest period before coming into lay again. There is nothing more exciting than preparing for the new breeding season and seeing the birds come back into lay with the improving daylight and warmer spring days. Pure breeds generally have a longer life than a hybrid as they are allowed this natural pattern of events.

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Apart from winning, what, to you, is the attraction of showing?

It’s also the pre-show excitement and preparation, the penning the birds at the show and chatting with your poultry friends – and the anticipation everyone feels when you are waiting for cards and rosettes to be put up. It’s wonderful to win, but it’s only a part of the fun.

Obviously successful in breeding birds to show standard, what advice can you give anyone trying to ensure that their chicks hatched will be as close as possible to the necessary standard?

Always try to find the best quality breeding stock you can – buy from reputable breeders. Local clubs and breed clubs can put you in touch with the right people or go to the big shows and look at the birds, see the ones that have been placed. You can often talk to the breeders there and they will be more than happy to talk ‘chicken’ with you. The best possible foundation stock is the key and always refer to the standard; be very fussy with your choice. If you explain to a good breeder you are buying from that you need help, that you are a novice but want to breed to show, they will most likely help you select which birds to buy from them.

I know you are a member of several poultry clubs. What are the advantages of belonging to such organisations?

It’s really worthwhile joining your local poultry club. Most lay on shows, talks, workshops and demonstrations; you also get to know other like-minded people. In addition, I belong to a couple of breed clubs; they also provide additional information and newsletters. I am also a member of the Poultry Club of Great Britain to which most breed and local clubs are affiliated. If you choose to show birds, members get entry fees at a reduced rate.

What is your most useful, or essential piece of chicken keeping equipment?

My eyes! You should be observant always. Your day-to-day routine with your birds probably means you see them in the mornings when you let them out. You probably see them wandering around in the day if they free range and you will probably get to know their bedtime routine – like pecking order and which bit of the poultry shed they like to sleep in. Changes in their behaviour, manner and habits are things you should be aware of and pay attention to as these are usually the first signs that something may be wrong.