Hens in the Garden
By Charlotte Popescu
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Around 21 million hens live in battery cages in the UK and the majority of eggs produced from all hens come from battery hens. Only around 18% are free-range. I keep bantams as pets and for their eggs and have gradually increased my flock over the years so that I have 20 hens and one cockerel. I have different pure breeds and various cross breeds and I have Tilly, (our oldest resident) a little speckly bantam bought seven years ago, a wonderful mother to several broods of chicks and still very active. We particularly like our silver-laced Wyandottes (four hens and a cock) and I hope to breed some more this year. I also have a couple of buff Sussexes, a Vorwerk hen (from a hatchable egg bought from the Domestic Fowl Trust) and some Araucana/Buff Sussex crosses who lay bluey green eggs.
When I first had bantams my husband built me a chicken hutch and we kept them enclosed in a run with a six foot fence. I tried to keep my bantams inside their run but they were forever getting out – the grass being much greener on the other side! In the end I netted all my vegetables and let them out during the day to roam the garden. They now also have a field in which to roam and they are completely free-range. Most of them roost in a coniferous tree for the night but the others sleep in hen houses. They are a happy bunch and, because they eat so much green-stuff, their eggs have the most wonderful deep yellow yolks. Cake sponges and ice creams made from their eggs always look much yellower than anything shop-bought! I take the risk with foxes (I’ve been lucky so far) because I know they are much happier when they are not marching up and down behind chicken wire all day looking for ways out.
During the winter months eggs are scarce and if you keep poultry you may have to buy some eggs – I had to buy only 12 eggs this winter. The chances are you may have a hen or two that moults early and begins laying again in January and one or two who go on laying into November before moulting. December is probably the worst month for eggs. If you have bred some new bantams/hens they may start laying in December if they were born in April/May.
Come the spring I am inundated with eggs and sell them or give them away to friends and neighbours. However I have three growing boys and there are many, many different ways I can use them in the kitchen. Eggs can be used almost exclusively for a main meal such as an omelette or for fried eggs to go with chips and beans for a quick meal, or for curried eggs for example. You can’t be without them for cakes, custards, quiches, soufflés, meringues, ice creams, choux pastry, pancakes, as thickening agents for sauces, for binding meat balls, or for glazing pastry. That is why I have devoted the second section of this book to recipes giving you lots of ideas for using your eggs. Every recipe uses at least two eggs and most use three or more. I have also included recipes using just egg yolks and those using just egg whites which you may find useful.
Finally I would like to say my bantams live a full and happy life – some are already five or six years old. They are not laying like they were two or three years ago but it would be cruel to cull them now when we have enjoyed their eggs in the past. This book is not going to tell you, like many books, to kill off your flock after the second year of laying. This book is about keeping hens for pleasure and about encouraging others to keep hens in the hope of giving them a better life – a life that should be valued highly for where would we be without eggs?