Feeling broody? Meet the chicken boy
Simply sign up to the House & Home myFT Digest -- delivered directly to your inbox.
When Arthur Parkinson was a preschooler growing up in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, in the early ’90s, his daily walk to nursery took him through the narrow footpaths that bordered the local allotments where, eye-level with the bases of the hedgerows, he could peer through to the chickens that were kept there. “Very quickly I developed an attachment to them,” says the gardener and writer, who has since built a career creating magical gardens that co-exist with his hens, who often appear in Instagram posts sitting nonchalantly on his shoulder or in deft drawings of his latest favourite breed.
As such he’s become head cheerleader, adviser and influencer to the legions of us who have added hens to our gardens. Chicken-keeping has boomed lately as threats to food supply chains have led to a renewed interest in self-sufficiency, and time at home has allowed more people to have pets; in the UK around 1.4m of us now keep chickens. During the lockdowns last year, the British Hen Welfare Trust had a record-breaking waiting list for its rescue hens (over 16 years the charity has saved more than 850,000 battery hens from the slaughterhouse). “It’s exploded and I’d say it’s become very fashionable,” says Parkinson of the rush to rescue. “People enjoy getting them back to health and full feather. It’s very fulfilling.”
Parkinson also keeps flocks of pure and traditional breeds – exquisitely beautiful soft-feathered Silkies, fluffy-footed Cochins and Pekin Bantams. Other irresistible garden companions include Cotswold Legbars, speckled French Marans and anything in shades of orange or taupe, such as the late Queen Mother’s favourite Buff Orpingtons.
Chickens had become an obsession from those first allotment sightings. In his local library he bypassed the children’s section and headed to Smallholdings and Gardening (“though I couldn’t read them – I didn’t learn to read until I was about eight”) and immersed himself in all things poultry. At home he was learning about pure breeds, hen house hygiene and how to kill a poorly bird by watching Victoria Roberts’s practical video Poultry at Home on a loop. “It was on every weekend back to back – it drove my mum crazy.” By the time he was seven he’d persuaded his dad to build a hen ark.
His fascination moved up a gear when his maternal grandparents took him to the Chatsworth estate, where he could see the Duchess of Devonshire’s flocks of laying hens. “She had them in the car park so they used to peck around the cars, knowing that families were arriving with picnics. I’d been saving up bread all week so I’d be surrounded and I loved it – I had to be dragged away at the end of the day.”
Few poultry fanciers are as legendary as Debo, the late Dowager Duchess, who was famously photographed by Bruce Weber feeding her chickens in haute couture. In a typically Mitfordian move – she was the youngest of the six aristocratic sisters – she once used a Buff Cochin cockerel, two hens and some freshly hatched chicks sitting in hay-lined china baskets as the table decor while entertaining Oscar de la Renta.
Parkinson corresponded with the Duchess until her death in 2014. “For me, Chatsworth was this chicken archipelago of beauty. The farmyard she made was so beautifully done and I absorbed every moment of that – the galvanised chicken-feeders and the runs full of autumn leaves. I’ve taken all that into how I keep my own chickens.” Parkinson eventually trained in horticulture – at Nottingham Trent University and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew – and worked with Sarah Raven at the bucolic Perch Hill in Sussex. Almost a decade later, he and Raven now co-host a weekly podcast, Grow, Cook, Eat, Arrange. He then took on a public garden at Emma Bridgewater’s Victorian factory in the centre of Stoke-on-Trent. Here, in a yard with raised beds, woven birch arches and containers overflowing with colourful bulbs, annuals and perennials, the young gardener channelled the charm of Chatsworth to create an inner-city idyll that inspired his first book, The Pottery Gardener. There were roaming chickens and handwritten signs, and his garden would eventually spill out into the factory’s other courtyards. At one stage he estimates he had 50 birds, including chickens and their fluffy hatchlings, and ducklings that would swim in enamel baths full of duckweed, charming the pottery’s youngest visitors. “They were totally engrossed by that, just as I had been,” he says.
Fowl play: Arthur Parkinson selects five of his favourite breeds…
Not a breed per se, but a great way to spend your time. Once recovered, they will in retirement lay a few eggs a week. Having been bred for intensive farming, they aren’t densely feathered so give them a deep-littered greenhouse against the cold.
The Maran is one of the stalwart old speckled hens, famed for their dark-brown eggs. Makes for a stylish kitchen-garden hen, but don’t let them have too much corn – fat hens don’t lay well!
Elegant layers of powder-blue eggs with a tiara of feathers either side of their combs that flop about charmingly once they are in full lay. With light and bouncy figures, they enjoy stretching their wings. Happiest running around orchards – and my current Legbars occasionally roost up in a tree.
Gentle giants with short legs but large appetites, the Buff is forever popular, with the lavender variety most in vogue. These ladies won’t enjoy a hen house with a ladder, they like a bungalow. Beware of bullying by more robust breeds.
If you plan to allow hens into the garden, true bantams are a good option with tiny bodies and feet. Pekins are wonderful, like cuddly tea cosies, and I love the Barbu d’Uccle Millefleurs with their little fluffy beards.
Early this year Parkinson moved to Filkins, a village on the boundary of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, where he lives with his partner, the art adviser and interior designer James Mackie. “James is a cook so I have a flock of 10 layers – Cream Legbars that lay blue eggs and Marans that lay dark brown eggs.” But beautiful eggs are not the main reason he keeps them. Parkinson has been very open about his struggles with mental health – his chickens provide a routine as he cycles twice daily from home to nearby Little Faringdon where he keeps the hens in a friend’s garden. “To cope mentally here I quickly realised I needed some hens. If I am having a bad day with depression, just knowing I am going to see the birds is helpful. To have that structure to my day to day life is really important.”
It’s a theme that’s woven through his next book, Chicken Boy – A Life of Hens (working title, due out in 2023), which will be part memoir, part guide to keeping hens at home. “I see it as my grief book,” says Parkinson, who spent 2020 nursing his late grandma through dementia back in his native Nottinghamshire. “I used to bring the hens in and she’d get really excited over how many eggs the girls had laid. It was a very meaningful time, having the hens as a comfort for me and for her – her dad had hens, like most of their generation.”
For Parkinson – and many others – chickens are much more than the egg-layers at the bottom of the garden. “We have this bizarre view of how animals should be treated even in a domestic setting, which I find quite troubling. Dogs are treated like animal royalty – but I want my chickens to have a gorgeous nesting box and be on the best chopped straw.” Recently he’s invested in a timber hen house on wheels from the Domestic Fowl Trust (which dispatches its carpenters to assemble on-site). He’s also installed an automated Chicken Guard system, which is programmed to let the hens out in the morning and close at dusk when the birds will naturally go in to roost. He is quick to point out what a serious commitment it all is. “I don’t like to see a quick pop-up chicken-keeping situation happening – it shouldn’t be seen as an easy thing to do. You have to invest time, and if you’re not willing to clean them out well once a week then you should question whether you should have them.”
Two of the biggest concerns for any newbie owners are rats, and how poultry can co-exist with a garden. For the latter, he says, careful planning is required. If you want to keep your chickens away from beds and borders then a permanent run in the garden could be a sensible option.
But if you’re determined to let them roam, then plant roses, rosemary and woody herbs and give them places where they can scratch about – they love the naturally dry hedge margins for dust bathing, which helps to keep their feathers clean. Some birds – such as soft-feathered bantams – are naturally less impactful on the garden too. And as well as providing eggs, the birds will gobble up slugs and snails and provide gardeners with the most fantastic rich compost that, says Parkinson, is second to none.