One of the gardens I work in I refer to – possibly slightly rudely – as the chicken garden, mainly because whenever I go there I am surrounded by a bevy of under-gardeners in the form of a dozen or so hens.
They are the most free-range, happy hens I have ever met, despite being apparently totally unprotected from foxes: they live at the edge of a very rural village, fields all around, a few neighbours but nothing that would stop any self-respecting fox in search of his tea.
But – and I have all fingers and toes crossed and touching wood as I type – they are all still very much alive. And that’s because of the four little oddities which bustle around with them.
These are the first guineafowl I have ever been at close quarters with, and they’re quite captivating. They look awful: they are possibly, in fact, the ugliest birds in existence from the neck up, where they bear more than a passing resemblance to a small and scruffy turkey.
From the neck down they are absolutely gorgeous: fluffy and puffy like great balls of beautifully patterned eiderdown. It’s as if whoever put them together got distracted halfway through and picked up the wrong pattern when they came back to the job.
They are also enormous characters. They are given to doing very odd things: yellow builder’s bags bring them out in mild hysteria and they will stand there for hours attacking it determinedly and ferociously. Cars suffer the same fate.
But best of all (except for the neighbours) they make a huge racket whenever anything at all alarming comes near. It’s hard to describe the noise: a bit like a cross between an old fashioned car horn and a chronically creaky door. If that means nothing to you, just have a listen to this.
But it’s really, really loud. If you were a fox and you came within a snifter of this lot everyone for about fifty square miles would know all about it.
Keeping guineafowl is a little different from chickens. They’re very flighty, and not particularly tame (though they will follow you around the garden like a phalanx of little guard turkeys). They are extremely free range, wandering much further than a chicken would – these ones regularly go walkabout around the village. And they won’t roost in a house, preferring to fly up into trees, and lay their eggs all over the place. If you can find them, they’re small but worth having – a bit like a bantam’s.
And of course to include them in your self-sufficiency repertoire to the full you really ought to eat them. Guineafowl are among the most prized of poultry delicacies: I’m told the meat is rather like pheasant.
I couldn’t quite bring myself to do that – haven’t even screwed up the courage to despatch a chicken yet – and the eggs are too small to make me want to give them the field room. But the guard-turkey thing: that’s worth having. You could save yourself an awful lot of chicken wire with a few of these. Not to mention the cost of a TV licence too: guineafowl are much more fun to watch.
You can visit these particular ones yourself if you happen to be down these parts: they live at The Beeches B&B, and a very fine and beautiful place it is too.