In this month’s column, Jeremy Hobson talks to Fergus Collins – editor of the BBC Countryfile magazine and chicken enthusiast. Fergus lives in Monmouthshire.
When did you first become interested in chicken-keeping? My family had quite a menagerie when I was very young, including pigeons, rabbits, dogs, guinea pigs, ducks – and chickens. They were an integral part of our lives though there was a rogue cockerel called Chanticleer who was very aggressive to adults. He would often escape onto the veg patch and grandpa would go out, armed with a spade, to drive him off. Grandpa – a First World War veteran – didn’t always win. Later in life, I was seduced by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s fairy-tale efforts at running a smallholding at River Cottage and knew that I had to have a patch of land of my own one day and populate it with productive chickens. I began with two Light Sussex hens. We later added a pair of ‘Speckeldies’ and a bantam cockerel of mixed parentage. For three years we had more eggs than we needed and they were a delightful addition to our micro-holding on a Welsh hillside. We would let them out in the morning, they would put themselves to bed at dusk and gave us no trouble.
What is it about chickens that absorbs you – is it the practicalities of fresh eggs, their characters? I loved sitting with a coffee and a book and have them pecking and clucking around the garden. It was a great stress reliever. They had an acre to roam in and foraged on a huge range of plants and animal life so their eggs tasted fantastic. Each of the chickens had a clear character – one was very timid, another very friendly, a third would always go to bed early and the cockerel would always sleep in a tree.
To many, your role as editor of Countryfile magazine, must seem the ultimate ‘dream job’. What is it you most enjoy about it? I never have Sunday evening blues. I get to work with words and see the very best of the countryside – if not in person, then through the experiences of my team and contributors - learn about food and farming, wildlife, rural crafts and the many big issues that affect country life. The subject matter is endless and the team and I are only constrained by our imaginations – and what the readers want. We recently ran a very unusual piece on “Where to survive the apocalypse in the British countryside”, which, although tonguein-cheek, took many readers by surprise. It reminded us that most people see the countryside as a place to de-stress and find beauty and stability in an unpredictable world.
Do you have any specific advice to offer as a result of your chickenkeeping? Keep them safe. I’d built a high security run for them – which was never breached – but we became over-confident at letting the hens wander and a fox struck. We lost both the Sussex and one of the Speckeldies. We gave the last lonely bird to a neighbour with chickens. I don’t blame the fox at all – it was entirely my fault. I have learnt a lot about fox behaviour while working on BBC Countryfile and BBC Wildlife Magazines, and I have huge respect for their resourcefulness. However, they cannot breach a well-made run. [Sadly] the smallholding adventure came to an end not long after. I’ll certainly have chickens again though – especially some of the pretty little bantam breeds.