Keeping chickens is officially chic. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Jamie Oliver and Prince Charles (among others) are all championing the humble hen, with the result that what was once considered a hobby for thrifty country types has now become a very middle class pursuit indeed. What’s more, it has all come about at warp speed. Just a decade ago chickens were regarded by most urbanites as a messy threat to health, while eggs came in box from the supermarket. Now, there’s no shortage of townies perusing the chi-chi likes of Omlet - online purveyors of ultra-cool urban-chicken homes. And the poultry keeping bandwagon has resulted a veritable library of literature, ranging from back-to-basics guides to glossy coffee table tomes for chicken fanciers. Some have been helpful, others not. So it was with a modicum of trepidation that I approached a book bearing the distinctly patchouli-scented title, Zen and the Art of Raising Chickens: The Way of Hen.
Having kept hens for nearly 20 years, I wondered whether I would really find much of use in book that has sections entitled ‘Hen Zazen’ and ‘The Such-Ness of Chickens.’ Much to my surprise however, I did. The book enthusiastically expounds the benefits of keeping chickens: never having to buy compost again for example, the steady supply of freshly laid eggs, and the presence of a ready-made gaggle of mini-recycling bins for food waste. It doesn’t leave out the pleasure that owning hens can bring either. It intersperses quotes from other books on chicken keeping with sayings from Zen Masters and amusing little anecdotes about making coops and what to do if the hens escape. It combines the factual: the amount of nitrogen contained in the manure and where to get the necessary feed and bedding; with the fun of making friends with new pets and giving them daft names. This was one thing I could really relate to, having named our latest addition Sarah Palin for her red neck, her regular forays into the house and her inability to stop squawking. Ever.
While Danaan’s tome isn’t a book for someone looking for a serious appraisal of the ins-and-outs of poultry keeping; it does touch on some of the issues, including the problem posed by cheap, battery-produced eggs and the importance of making sustainable choices in our everyday lives. Practicalities such as what to do about the mayhem that ensues if a fox gets into the garden, or how to keep garden seedlings safe from birdy depredations also get short shrift. What it does do well however, is the lighter side of hen husbandry; taking a dryly humorous look at the origin of chicken-related sayings and jokes and reminding you of the fun you can have when you remember that chickens will be chickens and that watching them can make you totally relax.
Danaan's book does occasionally veer into new age territory (‘this egg is the egg of a beautiful world. It is the cosmic ovum of existence’) but it works if you want a little context for your flock. As a chicken owner, I was enthused all over again by Zen and the Art of Raising Chickens, and it certainly made me smile. For a book with such an eccentric title, it proved to be a (mostly) level-headed and often practical guide. If you can get past the myriad mentions of Zen, the reward is a genuinely helpful – and frequently original – trove of tips.
Zen and the Art of Raising Chickens: The Way of Hen by Clea Danaan (£7.99, Leaping Hare Press) is available at Amazon
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