Beautiful chickens

In a ravishing new book, the lowly farmyard fowl has decided to grab its moment in the spotlight

It may not be the most obvious glamour model, but the humble chicken, tired of being consigned to the muck-strewn poultry yard, has polished its beak, dusted down its wings and tail feathers, and shown an astonished world that it’s really a thing of beauty. This Ugly Betty of the farming world has had a surprise makeover and is demanding to be adored. In a ravishing new book, the lowly farmyard fowl has decided to grab its moment in the spotlight with both feet and, well, appears to have rather enjoyed itself.Plundering the tricks of the catwalk and the world of fashion photography, Beautiful Chickens, for such is the title of this unlikely book, follows hot in the hoof-prints of others in a series designed to transform our ill-considered farmyard animals into primped-up pin-ups.Stylishly lit and shot against a studio background, the portraits showcase 40 of the world’s most distinctive chicken breeds, preened for their moment of fame at assorted live stock shows.Whether it’s the splendid topknot of the Araucana, the ebony elegance of the Sumatra, or the comfortable shape and beautiful markings of the homely Orpington, there’s plenty to delight the most discerning fowl fancier. Not that capturing their 60 seconds of fame was easy, as Peacehaven-based photographer Andrew Perris discovered when he was entrusted with the job. More accustomed to shooting ruggedly handsome men decked in fine tailoring for upmarket clothing catalogues, he found that chickens, when they don’t have an egg to hatch, don’t make the best sitters. “I shot at two national poultry shows – at Stoneleigh and Lanark in Scotland. And as I hadn’t enlisted any animals in advance, it was just a case of spreading the word,” he says. “Initially, it was difficult because everyone assumed I was trying to sell them something. But once word spread among the breeders that their prized poultry might be featured within the glossy pages of a book, they kept tapping me on the shoulder, and asking: ‘Will you photograph my chicken, too?’”But that was just the beginning. With a ‘portable studio’ comprising little more than a backcloth, he had to get his subjects ready for their close up. “Some breeds, looking for all the world as if they’d posed for pictures all their lives, were snapped in seconds,” says Andrew. “But for others, I had to work through many different chickens before I found one that would cooperate. One very badly behaved Egyptian Fayoumi, a cock with a feral streak, even had to be sensitively restrained with leg straps. A lot of retouching was required for that picture! “But we found the best trick was to gently rock them backwards and forwards because that disorientated them slightly, and then they stood still. The more we tried to coax and direct them, the more problems we had. It was far better to let them find their own spot.”Andrew’s favourite is the Cochin, which he found surprisingly large – the size of a small child. “It had ridiculously fluffy feathers and a real attitude, so it’s top of my list for its sheer bad looks. I also liked the Poland because it reminded me of my mother-in-law. I actually sent her that image as a Christmas card and pointed out its gaudy crest of head feathers reminded me of her hairstyle. She took it surprisingly well.”At Sussex Life, of course, we’ve plumped for the Sussex, which takes its name from its county of origin, and was listed in poultry shows as early as 1845.We admit it’s not as eye-catching as some of its showier neighbours, but this lithesome foul, classified as a heavy, soft feather breed, makes up for it with good breeding. Calm and docile, it’s easy to tame and gentle with children. It also makes superior domestic garden fowl. Did we ever doubt it?With back garden chicken keeping rising in popularity as families try to live more sustainably and reduce their food bills, the so-called ‘urban hen movement’ has seen a sharp rise in recent years. More and more people are seeking a taste of the good life, including the comforting thought of cheap and plentiful home-grown eggs. Perhaps it’s not surprising when you consider that the average domestic hen will lay around 300 eggs a year. Last year, the poultry marquee at the South of England show at Ardingly received record visitor numbers, and urban and suburban dwellers alike have even taken to keeping chickens as pets. “Keepers know that individual chickens have distinct personalities, and with regular handling and care, may develop a special bond with their human companions,” says Christie Aschwanden, the author of this illuminating book, and a journalist and poultry farmer in Colorado.“Chickens can be trained to come when called and, with the right coaxing, may learn to perform elaborate tricks in return for food or attention. Of course, they have innate motives like any other creature, and many a rooster has become aggressive towards a human it perceives as moving in on his lady friends.“Likewise, broody hens will readily peck and scream at anyone who tries to disturb her nest or steal her eggs. Yet for the most part, chicken behaviour tends towards endearing, and the beautiful plumage of ornamental breeds can provide a splash of colour and beauty to the back garden equal to the most sought-after songbirds.”

Beautiful Chickens by Christie Aschwanden, with photographs by Andrew Perris, is published by Frances Lincoln at �12.99.

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