Adam Henson talks chickens
- Credit: Archant
Everyone knows that Gloucestershire is the only English county to have its own local breed of the three main livestock species; Gloucester cattle, Cotswold sheep and the Gloucestershire Old Spot pig. But not many people realise that the region is also home to a breed of poultry we can claim as our own - the Cotswold Legbar
From Lincolnshire Buffs and Norfolk Greys to Jersey Giants and Belgian bantams. It’s not often you get to ponder poultry, but recent events in the Henson family have got me thinking about the sheer variety of breeds being bought, sold and bred in the UK. We’ve been keeping chickens at the Cotswold Farm Park for as long as I can remember and new-born chicks are always a hit with visitors to the Touch Barn. But we’ve never ventured into the world of competitive poultry-keeping by putting our birds in front of the judges at an agricultural event. However, there’s a first time for everything, so we decided to try our luck in what enthusiasts call poultry-fancying. With the Countryfile cameras in tow, my son Alfie and I headed to the Cheshire County Show with three of our finest feathered friends.
People keep chickens for all sorts of reasons; there are the serious breeders, the proud owners on the show circuit, the producers who provide us with birds for the oven and many others in the egg industry. As one expert told me, there are “different breeds for different needs”. In addition there are plenty of people across the Cotswolds who consider the birds in their garden coop to be members of the family. Of course they’re not strictly pets but you can understand why some smallholders get attached to the creatures. Perhaps it’s no wonder that we have a certain affinity with poultry. After all, it’s thought chickens were the first animal to be domesticated by man. But we’ve got our great grandparents’ generation to thank for the vast array of breeds we see today, because it was the Victorians who made it fashionable to experiment with poultry genetics.
There are some terrific poultry displays and classes at events across our region, particularly at the Cotswold Show, Stroud Country Show and Frampton Country Fair. It’s always worth keeping an eye (and an ear) open for the Cotswold Pheasant and Poultry Club. You’ll definitely hear the clucks and scratching long before you see so much as a feather or a beak. The club members are a really knowledgeable and enthusiastic bunch of keepers and breeders who’ve been showing and promoting birds for more than three decades.
Now, everyone knows that Gloucestershire is the only English county to have its own local breed of the three main livestock species; Gloucester cattle, Cotswold sheep and the Gloucestershire Old Spot pig. But not many people realise that the region is also home to a breed of poultry we can claim as our own; the Cotswold Legbar. Although the history of these contented little chickens doesn’t go quite as far back as their rare breed neighbours.
The first Cotswold Legbars were bred near Broadway around 30 years ago from the descendants of a flock of Patagonian hens brought to England in the first half of the 20th century. It was all based on the work of a well-known Cotswold botanist called Clarence Elliot and they’re still bred and promoted today by his grandson, Martin. But what makes them stand out from the crowd is the eggs with their distinctive pastel coloured shells, especially the pale-blue ones. The breeders say it’s all down to their corn and grass diet and the genetics of the bird. The eggs have even become popular in some of London’s best-regarded restaurants.
Perhaps we could have taken some Cotswold Legbars to the Cheshire County Show. We actually went with a fluffy Silkie and a beautiful black Pekin cock as well as a hen which had caught Alfie’s eye. Luckily his intuition paid off because Henson Junior walked away with a rosette at his first ever show after his little Pekin hen won first prize in her class. Now that really is something to crow about.
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This article is from the November 2014 issue of Cotswold Life