I have kept poultry since childhood ever since returning with my parents from a farm on Exmoor with a box containing half a dozen bantams smuggled into the back of their car. When one laid an egg en route and started cackling, my mother was furious. Fortunately we were too far into our journey for them to be taken back. In time, she became equally fond of them and even allowed them to wander into the house to be given scraps of food.
The original bantams were farmyard mongrels but since I came to live in the secret valley I have kept Lavender Pekins. These are allowed to wander the fields, even though they become supper for the fox, for there is nothing more delightful than to see happy hens striding down to the river or up the valley and (hopefully) back again.
Bantams – or Cochins, as they are called in Canada and the USA – are ideal as garden birds for they do very little damage unlike their full sized relatives. We keep those too but they are – with difficulty – kept firmly beyond the fence. I have written about the bantams in an earlier post and this can be seen by clicking here.
The other day I came across a couple of abandoned bantam eggs put them into a basket, kept them warm and waited to see what happened.
What a result! An hour later it was dry and fluffy ….. and making even more noise!
According to one tradition, the first Pekins were smuggled out of China and presented to Queen Victoria in 1837, the year of her coronation. Whether this is true or not is immaterial – it just makes for a nice story. The first Pekins (I have read that in the States and Canada the breed is known as Cochins) presented to me were a gift from a friend several years ago and we have been breeding them ever since, concentrating on the more unusual lavender coloured variety.
Pekins are a breed that is only found as bantams – which is fairly unusual in itself – the majority of bantam breeds have a ‘full size’ chicken version as well. Recognised most easily by their feathered feet they are friendly, almost cuddly, as the hens especially are rounded and dumpy, another recognisable feature.
The cockerels, too, are reasonably lacking aggression (some bantam breeds I have kept in the past would attack at every opportunity). They do, however, have their moments, especially at this time of year. I have found that the way to deal with this is to arm yourself with thick gloves and ‘teach’ the cockerel that you are not intimidated. As he attacks, I catch and pin him to the ground, holding him there for a few seconds: he soon learns that he is second in the pecking order to me and the only thing to be hurt is the cockerel’s pride. We have a number of cockerels (too many) and, surprisingly, they show no aggression to each other.
Penned away safely at night, during the daytime we release them when they have the freedom to roam the fields of the secret valley. It is extraordinary the distance they travel in the course of the day as they cross back and forth. With the odd handful of corn to entice them back, I try to keep them reasonably close to the house for safety but, even then, the fox takes them from time to time.
Ramblers dogs are also a threat – it is amazing the number of people that seem to think it is acceptable for their animals to chase livestock when they are in the country. She-dog, our lurcher, a type of dog specifically bred for hunting, had to be taught that chasing certain animals was unacceptable if she wished to remain living on a farm. From the earliest age she was made to sit amongst sheep and also the bantams, which made useful training aids, with the consequence that now she totally ignores them. It didn’t stop her stalking them when a puppy if she thought we wouldn’t notice!
Would I recommend Pekins? Only with reservations. If it’s egg production you want, they are fairly useless although they lay enough for our requirements and the eggs are full of flavour with rich yolks. If it’s meat, then there isn’t much food on a bantam! If it’s just the lovely sight of a group wandering about the open fields, scratching in the hedgerows and dust bathing in the sunshine then yes, they win hands – or even feathered feet – down every time.
Coronation chicken? We don’t eat our bantams but I bet they would taste good and coronation chicken has to be one of my favourite dishes. If you want the recipe you will have to ask……
Deddington, lies to the east of the Cotswolds and is an old coaching town, although only the size of a large village by modern standards. The golden ironstone buildings have a solidity that makes them neither quaint or especially pretty, unlike our limestone ones. However, they do have real charm and character. And most important of all, they hold a regular farmer’s market, reputed to be one of the best in England.
In this week of climate change summits in Copenhagen, there is something rather special in buying produce that is grown locally. The beef for sale from this farm in Duns Tew has travelled less than five miles from village to market. Not only that, but it looks so much nicer than the racks of clinically presented supermarket meat. Why eat meat from, say, Argentina, when you can look at the cattle grazing in fields nearby?
Crowds throng the produce stalls – the queue for bread so long that neither the purchase of some home baking or a photograph was possible. A gap at the cheese stall meant that tastings and subsequent purchases were more easily made. And despite the pushing and jostling, being Christmas, the mood was relaxed and vibrant for a market is a place to meet and chat with old friends as well as make purchases.
The church, which dates from the 13th century, dominates the market place and is itself busy selling cups of tea and homemade cakes. But when the hustle and bustle gets all too much there are quiet alleyways that you can slip into, away from the crowds. One day, I shall have to return and explore Deddington further, for it is a fascinating place.
Star shaped almond biscuits from the ladies in the church, buffalo cheese from Somerset, beef from Duns Tew and eggs from another nearby farm made our purchases of the day. The bowl of satsumas were also locally produced – grown in a client’s orangery which we created earlier this year. The holidays are going to be a great time of good and local feasting….
Postscript: I am ashamed to say I ate all of the biscuits already, they were so delicious. I knew it was a mistake to try one.