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From rat race to chicken run - backyard farming

PUBLISHED: 15:33 23 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:45 20 February 2013

From rat race to chicken run - backyard farming

From rat race to chicken run - backyard farming

It is 35 years since the BBC highlighted suburban self sufficiency in The Good Life. Now concerns about animal welfare and food provenance have led to a renewed interest in backyard farming. Jenny Mark-Bell speaks to some Sussex smallholders.

IAM listening to Roland Horton describe his daily grind. We are in a cold, muddy corner of his smallholding near Burwash and I am rapidly reaching the conclusion that I dont know Im born. Before commuting to work in the City every day, Roland and his wife Jane get up at 4.45 to feed their hens, pigs, turkeys, sheep and peafowl. After they arrive home around 8pm there is just enough time to see to the animals before going to bed. It is grim in the winter, concedes Roland, but when we get to March its all worth it.
The boys realise theyre boys and the girls realise theyre girls, and life gets going again.


The Hortons have carefully selected animals from traditional and rare breeds, which they sell through their website, Over the Stile. There are only 1,500 registered Soay sheep in Britain, and the Hortons own one per cent of the population. If Roland and Jane sell half their flock this year,
the Soay will have paid for their
own feed.


They are hardy animals which require no shearing and lamb themselves. They are amiable in temperament as Rameses, the little castrated ram, is eager to prove. Ramases was bottle fed after being rejected by his mother and, as a result, is very confident. Miffed at losing out on attention to the hens, he jumps up, determined to engage me in conversation.


An expensive hobby
People go wrong when they try to turn their smallholding into a miniature farm, says Roland. The trick is to look at your land and decide what you can do with it. For us, the turkeys and miniature pigs are a good use of land and a good return. We enter a warm, dark garage where sow Pancetta is feeding her litter of tiny piglets. People talk a lot of rubbish about micro pigs, says Roland. Ive heard people say that the piglets are two inches high, which would be impossible. The fact is that they are still farm animals, not pets, but they are easier to interact with and great for small children.
The next step for the Hortons is organic accreditation. Our animals eat organic feed, and no pesticides or chemical fertilisers have been used on the ground for six years, but we cant call ourselves organic until we have the certificate, says Roland. Going organic is just going back to your roots, muses Jane. I used to go to the market with my mum on a Saturday and wed come back with one bag of shopping, rather than six. Weve just come full circle. I think people have realised that the cheapest food isnt necessarily the best.


A case in point is the Hortons Norfolk Black turkeys, which take six months to reach maturity, not the six weeks of commercial birds. You can tell the difference, though, says Jane. We actually had people phoning us on Christmas Day to tell us how great the meat tasted.


The Hortons hope to break even this year as far as the turkeys are concerned, but there is no denying that the smallholding has been expensive. This is about sustaining rare breeds as much as anything else, says Roland. Were not doing it to make money. Wed have to charge a fortune for our eggs to make the hens pay, but we love them and a lot of what we do is for the love of it.


Local links
Standing guard over the new piglets is a group of Buff Sussex hens and bantams which moved into the garage during the recent freeze. Keeping the Buff Sussex was important to Jane because they are native to the area and have a friendly, investigative character.


Sussex has strong links with the poultry industry, and its place in
the annals of fowl-fancying is guaranteed in perpetuity thanks
to the native hen, which probably owes its elegant appearance to the Romans breeding Belgian birds with Old English Game.


As a good layer and table bird, it was popular with the Victorians and the Sussex Poultry Club was set up in 1903 to preserve and standardise the breed. Heathfield was a centre for chicken-fattening from the 1860s until just after the Second World War. The birds were intensively fed on oats and condensed milk, initially by hand and later by the grisly sounding cramming machine, at large poultry farms and smaller-scale backyard operations. Live birds were then transported to London, first by road and later by rail.
Roland and Jane Horton devote all of their spare time to their smallholding, but for less ardent enthusiasts, backyard poultry keeping offers a more attainable slice of the good life. Jane Howorth started the Battery Hen Welfare Trust (BHWT) in 2003, when she re-homed 450 birds. Last year, she found homes for 61,957 ex-bats, as they are known. The public got right behind us because no-one had ever focused on the welfare of these birds, explains Jane. People appreciate our pro-British industry stance and, of course, keeping chickens gives people in urban environments a little bit of the rural idyll. All the BHWT requires from a prospective owner is secure accommodation, a commitment to caring for their new pets, and fresh food and water. In return, they offer a Careline service giving advice to new owners.


Providing a home
Claire Godman-Dorington and her husband James run GD Timber Designs near Pulborough and since 2005 have been producing Cock-a-Hoop, a range of bijou residences for hens, ducks, rabbits and guinea pigs. The six spoilt residents of the original GD Timber hen house are very popular with their owner They are so entertaining and the eggs are a world apart from any Ive ever had, said Claire. Our hens have their own paddock and they eat a lot of grass, which gives the yolk their lovely deep yellow colour. Claire keeps a motley crew of chooks, including Buff Orpingtons, Marans and Rhode Island Reds, and thanks to a couple of cockerels (now deceased), has been able to breed her own.


The Cock-a-Hoop range starts at 350 and can accommodate up to a dozen hens. We hit the market when poultry-keeping was just getting popular again, and I would definitely say that demand has been consistent around 80 per cent of our business is from new hen owners. I dont think people are eating them, though: you get too attached. James is a farmers son and even he doesnt like the idea!


Learn more


Over the Stile
Roland and Jane Horton sell Norfolk Black turkeys, peafowl, Soay sheep, miniature pigs and hens (Faverolle, Buff Sussex and Buff Sussex Bantams) from their smallholding.
Longbourn, Burwash Road, Broad Oak, East Sussex TN21 8XG
Email: enquiries@overthestile.com www.overthestile.com


Battery Hen Welfare Trust
If youre interested in adopting your own ex-bats, visit the Trusts website www.bhwt.org.uk and get in touch: Regional Co-ordinator Sarah Hall runs regular re-homing days with six volunteers from her parents smallholding near Chichester.
Battery Hen Welfare Trust,
North Parks, Chulmleigh, Devon EX18 7EJ
Email: info@bhwt.org.uk
Tel: 01769 580310


Poultry husbandry course
8 May 2010, 45
Subjects include handling, housing, feeding, hygiene, breeding and retailing of eggs
Weald & Downland Museum, SPR Centre, Greenfields Farm,Fontwell Avenue, Eastergate, Chichester, West Sussex
Email: courses@wealddown.co.uk


The Countryman Inn
Alan Vaughan has set up a smallholding to supply his country pub with the help of volunteers.
The Countryman Inn,Countryman Lane, Shipley, West Sussex,
RH13 8PZ.
Email: countrymaninn@btopenworld.com
Tel: 01403 741 383
www.countrymanshipley.co.uk

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