Chicken School Swindon
Thinking of keeping chickens? Then ask Val in Cheney Manor
They say your schooldays are the best of your life - but the best could be yet to come if you enrol for Chicken School.
You won’t find it in any league tables, but Chicken School is one of Swindon’s finest educational establishments and comes with a national reputation.
Together they are helping people get to grips with one of the country’s fastest-growing hobbies - keeping chickens.
The school is at Val’s home in Cheney Manor, where she dispenses all kinds of expert advice to chicken fanciers - and leads by example.
As soon as you step into her beautiful garden, all your preconceptions about keeping chickens disappear - and you realise there’s much more to it than eggs, even though a ready supply is what often attracts people to getting their own feathered friends in the first place.
They lay one a day each, but (depending on breed, weather, time of year and other factors) often produce them on a string of consecutive days, so you are likely to end up with more than you can eat.
Long before then you will have realised the eggs are only a bonus, on top of the many other benefits.
“For a start, they teach responsibility for looking after animals and are very educational,” says Val, “and they satisfy the increasing number of people who like the idea of living ‘the good life’.
“There is also a growing trend for people wanting to understand more about where their food comes from, and chickens are a good way for people and especially children to learn.”
But it comes as a surprise to many that chickens are so interactive and possess many of the qualities that people like in other animals, and ultimately this is probably their greatest appeal.
“Yes, they make wonderful pets,” says Val - and five minutes with her and her “girls” in her garden is all you need to understand why.
They scamper after her when she calls them to feed; some will sit on her lap and expect to be groomed; and - best of all - they all have their own unmistakable personalities.
“You could say they are perfect pets,” says Val, “because they are pets that also give you something you can eat.”
Eggs and more
For the vast majority of keepers that means eggs, but Val could also advise people who want to rear chickens to eat, because the care strategy is similar.
She is philosophic and realistic about this aspect and has no qualms about eating chicken herself, but, as any visitors to Chicken School soon realise, chickens are even more appealing in your garden than they are on your plate.
No wonder business is booming for Val, whose work includes Egg 'n' Chicks classes in schools, where the children get to see them hatching; shows and exhibitions; talks; and holiday camp courses for people wishing to learn more about this booming hobby.
It's become so popular so quickly that nobody really has accurate figures on how many people now keep chickens in their gardens.
But some estimates say the number of keepers is currently increasing at 30 per cent a year, and sales of new chicken coops in Britain has passed a thousand a week. Val estimates the number of chicken fanciers in Swindon alone now runs into thousands.
Beginners advice and help
Back at Chicken School, Val’s courses are suitable for existing keepers who want to improve their skills, as well as beginners, and all visitors get a unique chance to see ideas in practice, while Val’s experience means she can advise on individuals’ needs, including key information about choosing a suitable breed.
“When I first started I bought some books on keeping chickens and found they often contradicted each other,” said Val, "so come and see how we do it, and then you can decide what’s right for you.”
She can also give a head start to people who have only got as far as thinking about keeping chickens - and it could save you money.
“If you are still not sure it is suitable for you, I say come here before you make your decision, and before you spend good money on equipment that may turn out to be unsuitable.
“Some of the chicken coops on the market are not ideal, including many that are made in China.
“I eventually decided to design my own - and came up with three, which are now being made by Swindon Enterprise Works.”
Chicken School Dormitory Nos 1, 2 and 3 all have different uses but all provide not only ideal laying conditions, but exactly the kind of accommodation the chickens like.
Keeping them may provide lots of benefits, but their welfare is always top of Val’s priorities - both in terms of her own birds and when it comes to passing on her knowledge to students.
That means that while children’s sessions mix education and fun, her courses for serious chicken keepers are comprehensive.
“There is a lot to learn and I believe you should know it all,” said Val.
“When students leave, they take a 32-page ‘manual’ with them. You need to understand all the problems and do the right thing, because it is possible for chickens to get stressed if you do it wrong.”
That would be a shame because if they are looked after properly, they can reduce stress in humans - because they are fascinating to watch and have a calming, even therapeutic effect.
It means they are suitable for all different kinds of people, from all walks of life, and different ages, and provide extra benefits if cared for by children. And Val has also noticed, from her work locally, how well those with learning disabilities respond to the pleasure and the responsibility of keeping chickens.
And then there is that other quality that cannot be denied - chickens are cute.
Val’s five Peking bantams are all different colours, but if you are more concerned about them being green, chickens come up trumps yet again.
“That’s an especially pleasing aspect,” says Val. “Their droppings go into the manure which I use on my vegetable patch, and they eat the leaves of the plants that come out of it. It’s perfect recycling.”
They are economical, too.
Once you are over the initial outlay of chickens and coops, which will cost you around £500, feed costs as little as 4p per chicken per day and your only other expense is vets’ bills.
“But that shouldn’t cost you too much, because a lot of it is down to prevention,” said Val. “If you care for them well, you should be able to spot problems before they get out of control and become expensive.”
The big threat to any chickens, of course, is foxes, but Val has been keeping hens in her Swindon garden for 12 years and is yet to suffer a fox attack.
“It’s all about being vigilant,” she says. “They need to be shut in their coop at night, and even if they are out in the garden during the daytime, which mine often are, I have to keep an eye on them.”
Ironically, her garden features a weather vane in the shape of a fox, and even a chicken lover like Val feels sympathy for urban foxes, which struggle for survival, and she is keen to bust the myth about foxes and chickens.
“They will wipe out all your chickens in one go,” she warns, “but they will take one away, try to bury some of the others and leave the rest with the intention of coming back.
“It’s only when we intervene that it looks like the fox has killed them for sport, not food, but it’s not like that at all.
“I love all animals,” she says, “and foxes are no exception.”
But it’s easy to see why she finds chickens so charming - and why they are top of her list.
And this is certain too: school was never this much fun before.
For more information about chickens, courses and ways to learn, including Val’s ebook and DVD, see www.chickenschool.co.uk
Also check out the website for the local club, the Cotswold Pheasant and Poulty Club - www.cotswoldpoultryclub.co.uk
10 things you didn’t know about chickens
1. Chickens are not stupid.
Like most animals, they are responsive, display lots of common sense and, like people, all have their own personalities and peculiarities.
2. Chickens don’t smell.
If you care for them properly, they are completely odour-free.
3. Chickens last longer than you think.
They can live to up to 15 years old, although this is rare. Depending on breed, life expectancy is typically five to eight years.
4. You can't rush an egg.
It takes 24-26 hours for a chicken to produce each one - and nothing makes it happen quicker.
5. Chickens keep laying.
They will produce eggs for several years, but show a slow decline in the number of eggs over time, whereas battery chickens generally lay for three years and then stop suddenly.
6. Chickens mix well with other pets.
They tolerate cats, which don’t pose a threat, and can be kept with many breeds of dog (although certain breeds, such as terriers and lurchers, are not recommended).
7. Chickens don’t hurt.
Their peck is hardly noticeable and they are not generally aggressive. You just need to be careful of their claws, which are sharp and can injure accidentally.
8. Chickens eat lots of different plants and leaves.
Lettuce is not good for them, but they are particularly partial to spinach.
9. You don’t need a large garden to keep chickens.
Although they prefer to be free range, they can be permanently housed, which requires up to 10 square feet per bird, and less for smaller breeds like bantams.
10. Chickens can fly!
Many keepers clip one of their wings to ground them, but Val’s are free to fly the roost, and could easily escape by going over fences if they wanted to. But they choose to stay as they have everything they need and they know when they are on to a good thing (see 1, above).
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