Chickens in the Garden at Rudyard Kipling’s Former Home
Keeping Chickens at Batemans
By Susie Kearley – You’re probably familiar with the classic children’s stories by Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book and Just So Stories. Well, Rudyard and his family lived in a Tudor mansion in Sussex, England, which today is open to the public, with chickens in the garden.
Len Bernamont is the estate manager. He lives in the Mill Keepers’ cottage next to the watermill and keeps nine chickens in the garden, a dog, and a cat.
“The chickens have a valuable role at Batemans,” he explains. “Visitors enjoy seeing them running around. They spend a lot of time scratching around in the grass, creating seed beds and spreading flower and bulb seeds. Our wildflowers and herbs include wild garlic, red campion, speedwells, cloves, and cow parsley. There have definitely been more flowers growing in the wild gardens since the chickens in the garden arrived, so they’re doing a good job! They’re good for keeping the bugs down too.”
The chickens aren’t allowed in the formal gardens, but while most of them are happy to stay within the confines of the wild garden, there’s one who likes to wander off and acquaint herself with diners in the cafe. Her name is Amber.
Len explains, “The other chickens in the garden seem to understand that they’re not allowed in the formal gardens, but Amber doesn’t care. She goes to eat scones and other goodies in the tearoom. I get called at least twice a day to go and collect Amber from the tearoom. We haven’t worked out how she gets there. We see her in the wild garden, and we see her outside the tearoom, but no-where in between!”
Rudyard Kipling and his family kept chickens and ducks near the main house. The pig farmer lived in the mill cottage and probably had livestock. The estate was self-sustaining, and they had eggs from their chickens.
“Quite quietly, the chickens have a role to play in terms of both conservation and keeping history alive,” explains Len. “Now the chickens are part of our family. I couldn’t tell you how many generations we’ve had, but we always have more eggs than we can eat, so I give some to friends and family.
“Most of the chickens in the garden are hybrids. We have Skylines, light Sussex, Cuckoo Marans, and Cream Legbars with blue/green eggs. We also have buff Orpingtons that don’t lay many eggs, but look amazing — they’re big and fluffy. Amber is related to a white Legbar and she’s a very prolific layer.
Len doesn’t breed the birds, primarily because cockerels are noisy! “We used to breed chickens years ago, but my wife’s a nurse and when she comes home after a night shift, she wants to sleep. She was being woken up, almost as soon as she’d got her head down, by the cockerel, so we found the cockerel a new home. He was a very good boy, called The General.” Today Len goes to a local breeder when he wants more chickens.
Are the chickens in the garden ever cheeky? Oh yes, says Len. “While Amber’s finding her way to the tearoom, the others like to go inside the mill and hang around the mill door. We put a gate on the mill to stop them going inside and leaving chicken poo on the floor, so now they perch on the gate instead. They’ll sit on the back of park benches too, and if an unsuspecting visitor sits down to enjoy a sandwich, they’ll have a peck at the bread!”
Bird Flu Restrictions
Last year there was a period when domestic birds across the UK had to be kept in their pens to ensure they were protected from bird flu, an infection that swept across Europe killing birds, and was spread by contact with wild migratory birds carrying the disease.
“This was the second year of bird flu restrictions, and the main thing was to keep the birds penned so that wild birds couldn’t get in,” explains Len. “There’s a net over the top of the pen so wild birds can’t get inside. We’re good at monitoring wildfowl that might have symptoms of bird flu. There are no big watercourses round here, so it’s a low-risk area. The infection comes on migratory wildfowl and spreads through feces and in water. We monitor any wildfowl on our ponds, and had breeding mallards this year, but by the time they arrived in the spring, the restrictions had been lifted.”
The bird flu restrictions also include bio-security measures, such as cleaning with disinfectant. Owners are required to disinfect footwear so there’s no risk of the chicken keeper carrying an infection into the pen on the soles of their feet. Even when the restrictions were lifted, keepers were advised to continue to maintain good biosecurity measures as a precaution.
“We have a foot wash/disinfectant for the soles of our shoes before we enter the bird pen,” explains Len. “I wear disposable gloves or washable gloves. Some small backyard keepers might not do the bio-security measures, but I’m very aware of the ways disease can be spread, so I make sure I protect my flock. It’s a shame to keep them penned but it’s necessary, so I try to keep them entertained, scattering food around so they spend more time looking for it, and giving them tunnels and boxes to help keep them occupied. The restrictions lasted a few months in 2018, between January and April, and then it was considered safe to let them roam free again.”
Learn more about chicken diseases and symptoms.
“Most visitors are understanding about the need to keep the chickens in their pen, but one or two people accused me of mistreating the chickens and said I wasn’t fit to look after them. You can’t please everyone. They’re our chickens – I know what’s best for them, so I keep an eye on them, make sure they’re not distressed, and always do my best for them, even in difficult circumstances”.
The chickens have two acres to explore when they’re out and about. In the summer they’ll disappear into the tall grasses. When people are picnicking at lunchtime, they’ll make an appearance in pursuit of food!
“We’d like to make more of the chickens, so people understand the benefits of hen keeping,” says Len. “You can tell when children have found the chickens in the garden because they start making clucking noises!” When Len’s out he might get talking to people, keen to learn more about how to raise free-range chickens.
“In the future, I’d like to get more varieties,” he says. “Miniature polish chickens look like they have dreadlocks, so they’re on my favorites list! I’m always on the lookout for interesting breeds to introduce to the flock. If they produce eggs, they’re welcome.”