I've always wanted to keep chickens but this interest was not shared by other members of the family and as I spent most of my time abroad, I'd have had to rely on an unenthusiastic home farmer to look after them.
Lockdown changed all that and focused the mind - it's now or never for many things. I've a pretty garden, and some space and the ability to give ex-battery chickens a new lease of life. I'm also making a television series called Gardening Together which needs content so despite family opposition, I've got my way.
Paul Smyth, who I work with, is from a farming background - hens were second nature to him and because gardens and plants were first nature to him, he convinced me that they were the perfect partners.
So a couple of weeks ago I took delivery of three hens who were rescued from a battery farm and installed them in the new coop. In advance I'd fenced off an area of the garden. This was to protect them from predators and to protect the rest of my garden from being hen pecked. Hens can cause damage to plants so I've been learning from experts what plants to grow and what to avoid. It's also going to be a matter of trial and error and already some plants have been trampled. However, in terms of cost-benefit analysis, I'm happy to trade some herbaceous plants for those delicious daily fresh eggs.
There are other benefits to the garden. Hens are fantastic at hoovering up slugs and other pests so I'll probably let them go free range around the whole plot occasionally to do a bit of pest control. Their manure will also be a valuable fertiliser. Like other animal manure, such as horse manure, it shouldn't be used fresh as this can burn plants. It's best mixed in with other garden compost where it accelerates the composting process. Even then it tends to be quite alkaline so it's best not used around your ericaceous plants such as rhododendrons (pictured above), azaleas, camellias and any heathers.
Hens will eat almost any plant if hungry but they're not overly fond of pungent tastes, so anything herby may survive. I sited the chicken run where my herb garden is and so far they aren't tucking into any of the rosemary, sage, chives, lemon balm, mint, thyme, or bay. They have, however, quickly decimated the hostas, sweet peas and echinaceas and there's no point growing any leafy veg here as that would be simply irresistible to them.
I've been told daffodils and other spring bulbs such as crocus, snowdrops, hyacinths, blue bells and tulips should be fine so I'll be planting bulbs here in the autumn. Prickly evergreen shrubs such as holly will probably be last on their menu so could form a useful barrier in areas you don't want them to roam. There are many ornamental salvias which should be fine as well as lavender and achillea, both of which are fragrant when crushed.
I've had my three hens living here for a few weeks now and so far it's a joy. I open their coop in the morning, scatter their feed and give them fresh water. And they cluck away happily. They each produce an egg a day... which up to this point is still thrilling for me. I clean out their mess every few days and close their door at night to keep safe from the nocturnal fox.
And I find myself sticking around their enclosure for 20 minutes here and there, enjoying the sound and movement they've brought to our suburban space.
Littlehill Animal Rescue and Sanctuary is active on Facebook and regularly announces rehoming dates. It has a sanctuary in Co Kildare where it can arrange a hen adoption for which it charges a small fee.