Amateur chicken keeper, Jess Browning, met with this legendary coop-builder to discuss the joys of keeping chickens, bird safety and how securing your chickens can be achieved on a budget.
My parents were absolutely distraught when I announced my intention to be a chicken farmer. After years of proudly proclaiming my dreams of being a doctor, at the age of 10 it seemed that all of that was mere posturing and I now wished for a humbler, pastoral existence. Understandably, my middle-class parents were disappointed at first, but then struck upon the idea of realising my dreams before they’d reached fruition.
We were lucky enough to have a large back garden and sympathetic neighbours who didn’t mind the occasional squawk in the morning, so one day my parents drove me out to a farm and we purchased three chickens. Gerald, Tom and Arthur were the best gifts I had ever been given and an early indicator that I would fully embrace a non-binary approach to gender in later life. I wasn’t sure whether my parents had the intention of scaring me off the idea of keeping chickens for a career or not, but at some point they also developed quite the attachment to these birds which led to us investing in rather fancy custom-coop from a fledgling independent coop builder Richard Best.
Over a decade has passed since that day and whilst my first brood of chickens have long since departed this earthly plane, the excellent coop remains, now inhabited by a new trio of happy bantams.
I met up with the creator of these sturdy, high-value coops to talk all things chicken keeping and how his work started with just a handful of spare wooden packing crates:
It’s been over 10 years, so I doubt you remember building my chicken coop, it’s a 3-bird multi-roost with a 4x4m cage enclosure?
It’s been a long time, but I think I do recall building something like that for a little girl’s first few chickens. It sticks in my mind because at that time I was rarely doing coops, most of my time was spent doing hutches or runs for rabbits, a much more popular pet for young children. I remember being pleased that there were some children who still cared about the humble chicken.
I’ve still got that coop! My third generation of hens are currently laying regularly and are very happy, what do you think makes your coops so good at their jobs?
I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in animal psychology or even chicken keeping, but I have spent the majority of my life building things out of wood, whether that be simple packing crates (I sourced mine from Barnes & Woodhouse), bunk beds, chairs or chicken coops! One of the most important things that I’ve learnt from my career is that you get the best products by using quality materials and sound designs.
When I first started out I was using left over bits and pieces of packing crates, which were made of surprisingly decent timber. When I ran out of this stuff, I went to buy some more material of the same calibre and found that it was significantly more expensive than I’d initially thought. I had to make a decision whether or not to sacrifice quality in order to help my bottom line.
And you didn’t – which is why my coop is still standing over 10 years later.
Exactly! Although you’ve not had a reason to contact me again for another coop, I’m sure you’ve told others about where you got yours from and that’s led to more enquiries. I owe the success of my business to both my own handiwork and the passionate chicken keeping community who have been so kind to me over the years.
After spending years as a chef in a gastro pub, toiling over a hot grill and making food that he had little passion for, Jeff decided to jack-in his job and find a new way of making a living. After starting up a cleaning business in 2011 (search The BBQ Cleaner for more info on that), Jeff found a new lease of life as a travelling BBQ cleaner, driving around his county scrubbing BBQs and offering sage cooking advice to his customers.
With the money that he saved from his new business, Jeff was able to invest in his own chickens, so he was soon able to spend his weekdays cleaning BBQs and his weekend barbecuing his favourite food! With summer fast approaching, this is the perfect time to dust off your own BBQ and invest in a few recipes that you can bring fresh life to your barbecued chicken dishes.
Jeff was kind enough to supply us with a recipe that he rates as sure-fire chicken dinner winners:
Grilling a whole chicken can be an intimidating task if you’ve not done it before and the fear of undercooking the bird is a justified one. Still, if you invest in good coal and have the right lidded BBQ, there’s no reason to be worried! This recipe incorporates authentic Thai flavours, you’ll need a metal skewer to be able to cook the chicken properly.
What you’ll need: A good-sized chicken spatchcocked (1.5kg)/3 lemongrass stalks/1tsp peppercorns/8 garlic cloves/handful of coriander stalks/1 lime/3 tbsp Thai fish sauce/2 tbsp brown sugar
What to do:
You’ll need to marinate the chicken over-night to trap the most flavour. To make the marinade crush the peppercorns along with the garlic cloves. Throw in the coriander stalks and 2 sticks of lemongrass and then bash into a paste.
Finally, stir in the lime juice, fish sauce and sugar, then combine. Using your metal skewer, penetrate the chicken through leg and beast on either side, then insert the final lemongrass into the hole you’ve made. Sit your bird in a dish and cover in the marinade, make sure the chicken is properly coated. Cover and marinate overnight (if possible).
Remove your chicken from the fridge an hour before you’re ready to cook. Fire up a lidded barbecue with coals on one half and a foil drip tray on the other. Once the coals are hot, lay your chicken bone-side down over the foil tray side with the legs closes to the heat. Cover with the vents open and then cook the chicken for just under an hour.
After the bird has reached a temperature of 70C (or over), muddle the coals for more flames and the (carefully!) flip the chicken with tongs to allow it brown on the other side. Once the bird is up to 75C remove from the heat onto a board and rest for 10 mins before carving up!
The majority of my social circle either work on farms or own them, and they all attest to having a crippling addiction to their work. Regardless of if they’re working with animals or with the land, they all admit to finding it incredibly difficult to leave their respective farms.
Luckily, many of us have families and friends who will not let us go for months on end without some form of a break. Recently, my wife was good enough to book us a holiday away to a secluded Highland lodge with a hot tub, this might sound like an idyllic weekend break that would be impossible to resist, however I still dragged my heels when it came to leaving my clan of Scotland Dumpy chickens for just a few days.
I take the responsibility of looking after my flock of chickens very seriously. Each animal is only alive today as a result of my diligent work and ethics, to not treat their lives with respect would be the same as disrespecting years of my life’s work. My daily task list is long but satisfying and built around maintaining the healthy lives of the birds that are both my livelihood, so you’ll understand why I find it so difficult to leave them in the hands of another person whilst I’m miles away.
I’ve grappled with the issues of leaving my flock before of course, but somehow the same nagging issues that I’ve always had have compounded rather than lessened over the years. Thankfully, modern technology has provided solutions for many of the issues that I have had with leaving my chickens for long periods of time.
I’ve always disliked the idea of hiring a person to feed my animals. Despite having always stipulated how much feed to give the chickens, I’ve always returned from a break to find them either woefully undernourished or horribly overweight. This problem has now been solved with automatic feeders. Set to a digital timer and loaded with enough food to last a week, the right amount of food is dropped into the chickens’ trough every morning, so I no longer have to worry about if they’re getting the right nutrition or not.
If you’re an amateur chicken keeper then security will always be a worry, regardless of if you’re home or away. I’ve spent years ensuring that the coop is as fox-proof as possible and it’s been years since we’ve had an attack, still the fear will always remain in the back of my mind. Ensuring that the birds are safe has been a priority for a long time, but it’s much harder to do when you’re miles away. The installation of an automatic pop door for the coop means that I can be safe in the knowledge that the birds are getting their fresh air.
Finally, mobile technology has allowed me the greatest freedom of all, to be able to watch over my beloved brood of chickens from the comfort of a hot tub in the stunning Scottish Highlands. There are plenty of apps out there to choose from, the important thing is that you spend good money on a quality camera, so that you can keep an eye on your birds throughout the day and night.
We’re taking our first holiday in years next week and I can honestly say that my fears over leaving my chickens have almost (completely) been eradicated.