Choosing Chickens for a Garden or Homestead - Old Breeds & Organic, a winning combo in your backyard.

Clogs to clogs:- New baby chicks, the pride and joy of my Great Grandma, who along with her husband was joint farmer and innkeeper at the sign of the Black Hamburg. During the First World War and by popular demand of the regulars, the Inn sign was repainted for what was seen as a more patriotic Old English Game Cock.

The broody coop
(Perhaps one of the most famous breeders of the Black Hamburg was L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In his sequel to the latter he replaced Dorothy's companion Toto with Billina, a hen, whose character is thought to be drawn from his experience in raising Hamburgs.)

Old breeds versus New Money

Thumbing through old horticultural magazines of the mid 1800s one finds included in their columns information on poultry, pigeons and bees. The editorial carries special features on specific breeds and a lively question and answer column shows that backyard poultry was alive and kicking. A glance through the prize winners in the individual breed sections of the Poultry Show results therein, reveals a fair sprinkling of the first and second estate but not exclusively. By the time poultry reaches the novels of the 30's, country people, such as Dorothy L. Sayers' spinster and prime suspect in Busman's Honeymoon is described as keeping Buff Orpingtons, a heavy, dual purpose utility breed. Up to this date a reader of a crime novel would still be expected to know about specific breeds of poultry. By the early 30s however, in the US, the battery farming of hens had reared its ugly head, along with the growing usage of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers. In the 1920s concern over these practices had also engendered the beginnings of the Organic Movement in the UK. From the 50s onwards, main stream commercial, or what has become to be known as conventional, poultry farming went underground, or rather behind closed doors and as the decades continued people began to be less and less aware of and/or concerned with how their food was produced and in particular in what state animals and birds were kept.

Making hay in the 1930s

Making hay whilst the sun still shines on the small farmer in the early 30's. My Grandmother atop the hay wain.

Farming in the 1930s
City meets Country between the Wars. My great Aunt down on the Farm having come up from the Bright Lights of London.

The Farmyard and Barnyard at War

The Second World War sounded the death knell for so many of the hundreds of different and often ancient breeds of poultry, particularly in Europe. To begin with, there were the actual physical deaths and displacement which war wrought on farm animals, the Normandy cow, for example, was almost wiped out in the intense fighting in the region.

Organic Normandy calfThis ancient race was brought to Normandy by the Vikings in the 9th century but conflict in Normandy during WWII, decimated the breed. Florence (above) is a new addition to the dairy herd on the organic farm, where I buy my grain, as are those below from a local organic farm, where I buy my raw organic milk.

Normandy ancient breed cows and calves
Other ancient breeds, such as the Oxford Sandy and Black pig, the most popular, friendly smallholder/homesteader pig for 300 years previously, were brought to the edge of extinction by the move towards faster growing, smaller pigs. These latter unlike the 'Plum Pudding Pig' as it was also known, were to be fed on cheap grain not left to forage. Again, happily, this ancient race is growing in popularity and if you want to see some in a beautiful woodland setting, then take a look at them on my sister's small organic farm in Scotland.

In the wake of both World Wars, came the concerted push to try out all the new chemical and mechanical farming systems, which had their inception prior to WW1 but advanced in leaps and bounds after 1945. Subsidies were created purely to fund farmers in the use of these chemicals and hedges and habitats were ripped out to make way for the giant bank-funded machinery. In a World of Agrochemicals and Intensive Farming, a slow growing, independently-minded, hardy forager, had no place and ancient breeds of poultry, for example, were systematically downgraded to 'hobby hens' purely for exhibition and show. Intensive indoor systems required docile, plain-feathered birds, who could survive and lay in close confinement, the White Leghorn was in the ascendancy. Finally, even this warm-weather breed from Italy could not suffice as a laying machine and new hybrids both for meat and laying came out of the laboratory and onto the market. Meat breeds were created, which had been devised to sit at food troughs eating 24/7 and killed at 41 days and hens which sat, laid and lived in a cage no bigger than a sheet of A4 paper and so it continues, to featherless GMO hens. To summarise, two forces in Agriculture and Horticulture have been at war ever since the actual World Wars. There can be no quarter given, they are diametrically opposed, the philosophy of each precluding the existence of the other. In recent years and to back up the organic farming movement has arisen the organic homesteader, permaculturist and biodynamic backyard farmer, who is a supporter of old breeds, old methods and old skills. On the side of the Agrochemical industry are the Biotech companies, patenting the gene pool, limiting, standardising and globalising  production and increasing the use of chemicals. Today the stakes are even higher.

The Second Agrarian Revolution and Backyard Organics

Rare breed bantams perching
Taking a Break - Chamois White laced Polish Crested, Silver Duckwing Ardenners and Polish/Sebright/Ardenner crosses - Willing Workers on Organic Smallholding/Forest Garden.

Hens and gardening - spreading compostAs more and more people come to understand the important effect of food on their health and happiness the more questions will be asked as to how that food is produced. In the meantime an increasing number of us are deciding that as food is the most important factor to sustain life, then we would be better off producing it ourselves. If you are going to do this, then you really have to be organic, otherwise all the hard work and effort you put in, will still produce an inferior product. There is also an added bonus beyond the production of good quality food and that is the insight keeping poultry gives into the workings of not only an avian society but also of our own. Studying  hens is far from boring, their societies and relationships are incredibly complex and individually and as a group they are capable of adapting to change with a logic which is startling. Here below, a group of hens sunbathing together, make the vital production of vitamin D3 into a social event!

Rare breed bantams sunbathing

In tandem with continuing research into poultry behaviours and animal sentience, which support hypotheses obvious to those of us who care for our poultry, there is another element. Our awareness that the keeping of animals is a sacred trust and that because of that trust we should keep them well. If you wish to school yourself in the aspects of diet or good parenting then you need look no further than the barnyard. Where poultry fall prey to disorder in their flock or habits it can usually be traced back to something imposed upon them by humankind. In my experience chickens do not overeat, nor do they become obese, furthermore they actually do not over-consume any of the individual elements of their diet. Put your hens in the compost heap and they will feed themselves on woodlice to a certain point and then stop and go off to look for greenery. Conversely, when they do not get enough greenery they will then start to attack your flowers and shrubs.

Hen and baby chicks organic and free-range

Here are some tiny gardeners. After our Wild poppy border had died back I used Lucky and her chicks to clear the ground before planting out a salad crop. The tiny feet do little damage to the soil structure but their big appetites clear the ground of wireworms and woodlice. 

Over the next few posts I will look at some of the breeds of chicken I have kept and how their dispositions and characteristics make them ideal allies and companions in the pursuit of sustainability and self-sufficiency.

If you enjoyed this piece and found it useful think about sharing it and also may be about joining this blog. Please also feel free to ask questions or make comments in the section below.

All the very best,


Polish Chickens Chamois and Golden Frizzled and Non-Frizzled.

Polish Crested - Beauty, Brains and Rusticity.

It's hard to believe that a creature which looks so frou-frou can be anything but ornamental and therefore totally unsuited to a backyard or smallholding but in the following more

© Holistic Hen 2015


  1. Hi Sue,
    Thanks for all your wonderful and inspiring work. I've learned so much! I've had hens before, four sexlink hens, and I let them have the run of our fenced backyard and they were able to forage 90% of their food. I don't have them anymore and need to rebuild housing and everything for my next little flock. I'd like to have a couple frizzle Cochin hens and a little breeding group of quail, maybe five quail or so. I'd like to get to a point where everyone is foraging, but it will probably have to be in a chicken tractor or some sort of movable fencing because we have lots of hawks and other predators and I can't turn my yard into a food forest or plant it densely enough to keep everyone safe.
    Can I keep the quail and chickens together in the same tractor or do they need separate ones?
    Can I raise the quail chicks and Cochin chicks together in the same brooder? Will the quail learn how to forage faster if the Cochins are raised alongside them?
    The local quail breeder said her quail are pretty wild and not pets and quail can't be pets like chickens. That doesn't seem to be the case with your quail. How do I raise quail to be pets? Is it the same as chicks where they just need lots of handling and time with people and hand feeding?
    Thanks so much!

    1. Hi Erin,

      You are very welcome and thanks for letting me know you find my work of use! I write all this in the hope that it will be, although I do enjoy writing and making the films anyway but feedback is just so helpful and I appreciate it.

      The thing I have always found with quail is that food counts for everything. Quail are nervous and flighty on a grain diet, if mine don't get enough invertebrate protein and vegetation, thus covering essential amino-acids and vitamins, in particular the B complex ones, they will start to get fidgety. As quail have a much speedier basal metabolism than hen chicks, they have different resting and eating patterns but I don't see that this would make it difficult to keep them together. You'd have to take into account size difference, quails get up to speed pretty quickly so will be able to dodge out of the way of being trampled on after a few days but everything will be down to observation. Also quail are very much affected by changes in temperature, they really don't handle the cold as well as chicks. If you raised them up together you would have a much better chance of them getting on in later life. That said again it would depend on temperament, quail and hens can get difficult around meal times, so if you were giving them additional food, that would be the time to keep an eye on them. Many people keep quail as pets, they can be very tame but yes they need to trust you, so handling and feeding and talking to them count for a great deal. Maybe your local breeder is either keeping them for release into the wild and/or perhaps they are on a grain diet?

      I had a great comment from Tasmania, from someone who has all her poultry foraging together in an orchard under game netting and her quail are all nesting, so they must be getting on well! Are you intending to raise the quail with a mother hen and hen chicks in the same brooder or just the chicks on their own? Cochins make great mothers for quail, the bantam frizzles in particular. They would all learn from her. If the chicks were just on their own, it would be interesting to see who learns from whom because quail chicks are precocial and in my experience, given the opportunity are very quick to learn foraging. It all sounds like a very exciting idea, I will be most interested to read more about it!

      All the very best, Sue

    2. Thanks for your response Sue. I'd love to get to a point where the hens were raising the quail chicks, but I'll have to get them all as chicks and raise the first generation myself. I've seen people hang feather dusters in the brooder box to imitate a mother hen, and I'd like to try that too. Where I'm at in Florida it is pretty hot year round and we didn't even get a frost this winter, so I'm hoping temperature changes won't be too drastic for the chicks. I plan to get the birdies outside on grass pretty soon after getting them, and I would probably carry them outside for some sunshine and let them play in the grass just during the day and bring them in at night for a while.
      I'll be sure to keep an eye on them at mealtime and if it becomes a problem I guess I could always feed them separately.
      I know the breeder here feeds her quail and chickens the same grain based diet and doesn't free range her chickens or quail, and I'm pretty sure she raises the quail in metal hardware cloth cages as is the custom here. Very sad. I will make sure they get plenty of invertebrates as you recommend and I'm in the process of growing Moringa trees which have a complete protein profile as a main part of their feed. I'd also like to sprout black oil sunflower seeds for them.
      Do I need to feed the quail and hen chicks non medicated chick crumbles at first as they've been fed by the breeder or can I start them on bugs and leafy greens right away?
      That's a great idea for using the game netting to provide a safe place for the birds.

  2. Another good fodder tree for the chooks is the Mulberry. I live in the mountains in California and we have very hot summers and pretty cold winters, so I chose to raise Naked Neck chickens (Buffs) and Indian Runner ducks. Both breeds handle the heat and the cold quite well and produce eggs year round.

  3. Hi Jacksson, Thanks for sharing your experiences! Mulberry is, I believe, one of the best fodder trees being highly palatable and with a good proportion of valuable nutrient. We have both the black and the more common red. The latter are used here in towns as shade trees and it always amazes me to see all that free fruit falling to the ground seemingly unnoticed. They seem to me a great asset, as they 'keep on giving', near to where we lived in the UK there was a stately home (Charlecote Park) with a tree that was planted in 1713 and still producing fruit and it's delicious, I tried some years ago! My chickens eat the fruit too from ours, when it drops, if we don't get to it first and when I prune it I put the leaves down as fodder. My neighbour has Naked Necks (Black) and I love Indian Runners too, I'm hoping someday we will move to a larger place where we can raise some. I totally agree it is the quality of their food that it the most important in the production of eggs, give poultry the opportunity to have a wide and nutritious diet and they will lay all year round. All the very best, Sue