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In Conversation With: Creating a community chicken With Professor Ben Garrod

A community coop in Bristol is proving how keeping hens has the power to bring people together.

In September 2020 Ben Garrod adopted a dozen of our ex-commercial hens for a coop he established in communal gardens in Bristol. A few months later, he added six more girls to the flock, and the coop has been renamed Cluckingham Palace with a rota system of neighbours coming together to care for the girls.

As a Professor of Evolutionary Biology and Science Engagement at the University of East Anglia and TV presenter on numerous animal programmes, most recently Attenborough and the Mammoth Graveyard, not to mention new(ish) hen keeper and co-founder of the community coop, we were keen to catch up with Ben to find out more about what he’s learned from these often undervalued creatures and the benefits of creating this kind of coop…

How has your first year with the chickens been? What are the highs and lows?

These first 12 months have been so much fun, for so many reasons. One of the real benefits has been getting to know so many neighbours and making new friends, through keeping chickens. We live on a lovely crescent, with a big communal garden, so the community has been at the very centre of our chook project.

Getting to see the massive transition in the hens themselves has also been phenomenal, going from scrawny and listless chickens to boisterous, plump and happy girls, who are displaying naturalistic behaviour each and every day. The only real ‘lows’ I guess have been some of the inevitable health issues we’ve encountered. The flock went down with mycoplasma (a potentially devastating bacterial infection) not so long ago and some have had issues as a legacy from their life before coming to us, but with the right TLC, they’ve all come through, fitter and happier than ever.

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Why did you want to get chickens in the first place? What prompted you and why did you choose ex-bats over pure breeds?

During the first lockdown, some of our neighbours commented that there had often been an idea put forward to get a ‘couple of chickens’ in the garden, but that for whatever reason, it just hadn’t ever happened. Then, many of us found ourselves with a lot of time on our hands in 2020, so we decided we had the time and the skills to set up the project.

There was never any question as to whether we’d have ex-farmed hens or not. It just felt right, especially at a time when we, as a local, national and international community, were pulling together to care for those less fortunate than ourselves. It just felt right that we gave those first 12 girls a second chance. 

How did you set up the community coop? How many are involved, what are their backgrounds, how has it brought people together, are children included etc?

It was a way to bring a community together at a time when we needed to be physically distanced but not necessarily socially distanced. Setting up the project allowed different households to contribute in different ways, which meant we soon had a huge run, with proper fencing, a massive, enclosed coop set-up, with counterweight-controlled gates, a two-tiered coop, lights, benches, the works.

I quickly realised that we had everyone from builders and firefighters to surveyors and medics. We had students, retired folk, kids, and a whole host of other people from all sorts of different backgrounds. Everyone who wanted to take part could. Now, we have a rota where a different household takes a morning or evening shift (or two if you’re especially keen) and you’re in charge for that session. There’s a list of what needs to be done each time, from health checks and cleaning duties, to checking the perimeter fence for signs of those sneaky foxes and collecting the eggs.

It works really well, and I think that’s the secret – it’s not too much work for any one person, and we’ve made it fit around our lives, without any cost to the girls. It’s great to see so many neighbours (of all ages) collecting eggs in the mornings, talking to the hens, mucking them out and generally just interacting in a way that benefits them, as well as the chooks.

two of the community building the coop

Do you have a favourite hen? If so, what’s so special about her?

I know I really shouldn’t but yeah, of course I do. My Rosy, who can be sponsored via the BHWT, is a bit of a bully and doesn’t take much hassle from anyone, but she’s a real cuddler. Sometimes, I’ll take her for a walk if the others have all gone to bed, as she’s often the last to bed.

She was pretty sick last year, after laying a series of ‘lash eggs’, which can be disastrous for them. She ended up living inside our flat for a while, with Jack the dog and the two cats, as we nursed her back to health. She dropped a lot of weight and was very weak but she’s rebounded now and has (I think, at least) earned that top spot in my heart.  

Tell us about some of the positive or fun experiences you’ve had with your hens since rehoming them?

Every single day there’s something fun with these girls. Cinnamon went through a real phase of meticulously cleaning out every nesting box every day at one point, then Autumn started showing a real shine to Ronnie, our little cockerel, and would follow and gently peck him until the poor guy had had enough.

Jemima honks rather than squawks and Blossom, one of our newer girls, is possibly the cleverest chicken I’ve ever met. She’s one very savvy hen. As a treat, we occasionally fill a water bowl and add some peas, and there’s something very fun about watching a flock of silly hens bobbing for peas.

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As a Professor of Evolutionary Biology and Science Engagement, what have you learned from your hens? Have you learnt anything new, have they surprised you?

The thing I’ve taken away most is the opportunity for people to engage with the subject of farming, welfare, egg production and health management. I think all of us have picked up something along the way, as a direct result of the direct contact we have with the hens as part of this project.

We’ve had lots of conversations about why the poultry industry is the way it is, how to manage the health of a population of animals and how we implement appropriate and meaningful types of enrichment.

I really do think that if you want someone to learn something or engage with a topic, then a hands-on approach is definitely the best, as Cluckingham Palace, as a few neighbours now call it, has certainly enabled that.

Do you think there should be more chicken community coops in cities? Tell us why and what are the benefits?

Absolutely. It’s a wonderful way to engage with your local community, meet people and create social opportunities. Now, more than ever, we need to find ways to create meaningful ways to connect with other within and across our communities. Also, with so many of us being pretty desensitised in terms of knowing where our food comes from and all the issues surrounding that, it’s a great way to really appreciate how much is actually put into something as ‘simple’ and common as an egg.

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What advice do you have for anyone else looking to build a community around their chickens?

It’s not easy to set up a good community project like this, but once it’s up and running, it’s pretty special. You also don’t need years of veterinary or biology experience – it is pretty easy to learn much of what you need to know through books, the internet and from talking to others. You’ll soon come to know your flock better than anyone outside the project ever could and you’ll know when they’re not happy, or when they need something changed. My best advice is to just go for it.  

What plans do you have for the community garden?  Do you intend to increase the flock?

We have 18 girls now and one little bantam-austrolorp cockerel called Ronnie. We have Warrens, Cheshires, black Marams and Dekalbs and, for now at least, we have enough chickens. I’m being very hard on myself here, because I’d love more and more! We have just set up our next project, planting up an area with lots of native fruits and berries, for everyone (well, not the chickens) to enjoy. A lovely side effect of the chicken project is that it’s opening the flood gates for new community project ideas.

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What do you think about the work of the BHWT?

The work the BHWT does is invaluable – both from an immediate perspective, saving the lives of tens of thousands of animals every year, but also in terms of helping raise awareness regarding the egg industry, farming best practices, animal welfare and a whole host of other benefits. Jane and her amazing team (of staff and volunteers) work tirelessly to make the world that little bit better and I think the BHWT deserves both a lot of love and our endless support.

What’s your favourite eggy recipe?!

Oh, that’s easy. A Ugandan Rolex. I used to eat them when I lived out there and it’s a recipe I’ve brought back with me. It’s hot and fiery and I had a couple for breakfast yesterday actually, made with eggs from our girls, of course. If you fry off a load of veg (carrots, cabbage, peppers), and add some finely-chopped tomato and as much fresh chilli as you can handle, then add 3 eggs whisked together with a little milk and seasoning, then you fry it off as the worlds thinnest omelette. Then, heat a chapati or tortilla wrap and lay the egg/veg omelette on top, before rolling the whole thing into a tight roll.

Finally, chop it into one-inch-thick sections and, if you’re that way inclined, dip it in some chilli sauce and enjoy. It’s called Rolex, because it’s a ‘roll of eggs’, and if you’re ever in Uganda and want to try the best street food in the world, you’ll know what to ask for now. 

Watch this video to hear more from Ben and see the community coop in action.

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