Farming up here in Morvah, we needed our chickens to be a hardy breed. Our farm is at the top of the cliffs towards the very end of Cornwall. Heading west from St Ives, you leave the pretty town behind and enter a rugged landscape of moors and mines, with the sea to your right. It’s beautiful and wild, and completely at the mercy of the elements.
Like I said, our chickens need to be a robust bunch. We chose the Hubbard as it is independent and resilient (just like farmers, really…), and they certainly do well with their very free-range lifestyle. But (again like farmers), do they ever peer outdoors and think, hmm, looks a bit damp, I’d rather not be free range today?
The chickens do not like the rain. At all. You can open their hatches on a wet day, and they’ll just stare at you. However (and the chickens fail to appreciate this), they have a lot to thank the wet Cornish climate for. They roam and peck on the lushest meadows, and eat their fill of the rich, green grass that has grown so abundantly this year thanks to the rainy spring. It’s particularly good for clover this year, which they love, and 2015 also seems to be Year of the Tasty Bugs. They’re happy chooks.
Another real advantage of the lush grass is that is helps to keep our flocks healthy. As soon as one flock leaves, we move the house to a different section of the meadow, where the grass is fresh, and just ready for pecking. Chickens kept in fixed houses do not have this pleasure, with all flocks having to use the same ground, which is gradually stripped of its nutrients, and the soil can become impregnated with any diseases present. A constant supply of new grass not only keeps the chickens well-fed, it prevents our need to use any antibiotics. So chickens, we know it makes your wings wet, but rain helps to keep you healthy!
Naturally, on the cliff top, it gets pretty breezy and feathers certainly get ruffled. We open the hatch in the mornings and watch them tumble out, occasionally sidewise, into the wind. On the whole, the meadow is relatively sheltered and if it gets too rough they wander back indoors. Writer and farmer Chris Stewart visited Iceland, and was fascinated by a farmer’s method of keeping his chickens safe by the wind-swept fjord: “He ties them to rocks…The rocks are big enough so the wind can’t blow the chicken away, and yet small enough so that the chicken can drag them about.” We haven’t had to resort to that, even in Morvah…
We don’t keep flocks in January – it’s our month for deep cleaning and planning, although we still sell frozen chicken. This way the flocks miss the worst of the winter, and by the time the February batch are ready to leave the brooder and go into the fields, it’s nearly spring. It may be windy in West Cornwall, but we rarely see snow or heavy frost, which is ideal for free-range farming.
Now it’s high summer, and although we’ll probably still get the odd bit of mizzle (Cornish misty drizzle), it looks like it will be a fine one. That’s good for the flocks, as they will have plenty of foraging time in the longer days, and can pop inside to shelter if it gets too hot.
Cornish chickens – hardy, wild and free, and definitely built to live in their landscape.