17:09 13 February 2017
Charlotte Carnegie has built a thriving poultry business in Wiltshire, and has even featured on TV. She talked to JOHN WRIGHT
Charlotte’s Poultry is located on a green hill far away in rural Wiltshire, and owner Charlotte Carnegie herself has to make a 45-minute drive each day (and back) to visit her chickens. If renting a remote one-acre field seems anything to lament, cut to the Hairy Bikers, who fell so head over heels for Charlotte and her set-up last year that they featured her in the first episode of their incomparable BBC 2 TV series Chicken & Egg.
Meeting another amusing and gutsy person would’ve been right up their street, and the rapport between the three is quite apparent. Still, the modest star did agree to an interview, and told me her hobby turned into a business four years ago.
Charlotte has had chickens since she was four when she was introduced to Brown Leghorns. “I have fond memories of my first hen Beauty, whom I was determined to teach to talk,” she says. “Unfortunately Beauty never did speak, but it was tending to her and her friends that sparked my passion for poultry.”
A visiting fox led to a change to Pekin bantams, and when asked what she wanted for her birthday there was little hesitation: ‘Chickens!’ Poring over the book Bantams in Colour with her mum, Charlotte went for Partridge Wyandotte bantams, a breed she has been fond of ever since. Her dad bought her first incubator at 11, which yielded only three chicks from 12 eggs. “We purchased an auto-turn cradle and soon we were overrun,” she said. “Within a year we were getting a 100% hatch rate and that little machine served me well right up until recently!
“At 14, I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome,” she said. “I found the birds very soothing and I’d often spend my hours when I was awake with the chickens, cleaning out and feeding. Over the years we began collecting more breeds and colours (up to 20 colours of Pekin bantam) and, with more chickens, came more incubators! By the time I left school at 18 I’d bought a few more Brinsea Octagon 20s and an Octagon 40, from which I’ve had many successful hatches. Charlotte now supplies incubator specialists Brinsea with hatching eggs which they take to shows.
Launching the business
“With my illness, job searches proved fruitless and eventually I came to the conclusion that working for myself may be the best option. The obvious answer was, of course, chickens. I’d had my website (Charlotte’s Poultry) since 2003 for selling surplus from my own breeding programmes, but now it was time to give it a revamp and turn my hobby into a job. My partner Simon’s idea, in June 2013, was that we found some land to rent.”
A plot of land was found west of Chippenham in the Cotswolds in Wiltshire and, after weeks of clearing brambles and nettles and building pens, Charlotte’s Poultry started to take shape.
“My main aim was to have a good selection of pure breeds of good quality,” said Charlotte. “The next challenge was choosing which breeds and colours to keep, which was quite difficult as I felt I needed to feel passionate about the breeds in order to put 100% into improving each type, but each breed needed to be popular enough to sell well. I found there were many things to consider: colour, egg colour, size of the bird, to frizzle or not to frizzle?
“I thought this would also be a good opportunity to show some of the rarer breeds to people who’d not seen them before and chose Cream Legbars, Vorwerks and Groninger Meeuwen. Now that the Legbar has been taken under the wing of the new Autosexing Breeds Association, I’m planning to add a new rare breed, perhaps a Dorking.
“In the first year we hatched 200 pure breeds but, as breed numbers and demand grew, I found I was in need of even more incubator space and purchased our large Brinsea OvaEasy 380, which has helped us produce much needed stock. I prefer to use my 20s and 40s more for hatching now to keep the big machine clean at all times, allowing me to set the eggs weekly so they’re as fresh as possible. My stepdad Martyn is our resident incubator operator and, with his help, we manage to run incubating and hatching like a well-oiled machine. He sets the eggs, I candle them and my mum oversees the hatching, though we do occasionally find that Martyn has gone rogue and end up with some ‘Martyn surprises’ in the hatcher!”
Charlotte now has 25 different breeds and colours on site and is looking forward to a good hatching season this year. “Nothing beats coming in to find hundreds of fluffy chicks waiting for me in the incubator.” She usually has more than 1,000 birds in the summer and most of the pure breed stock is sold by the end of August/September, winter jobs being cleaning out and deep littering. Charlotte uses various types of litter: wood shavings or easichick bedding (which she buys and sells), and she has straw in two polytunnels for the larger flocks.
Starting her business involved six months planning and a start-up loan from a family member to cover her outgoings for six months, including equipment and fencing, a big electrified main fence and pens within, 9m x3m for large fowl and 6m x 3m for bantams. As well as chicken houses, Charlotte has a chick shed for up to 200-400 young birds of various ages (which Martyn has gentrified with a ‘Rearing centre’ sign), a feed shed/store, gift shop, and an aviary Charlotte designed and Martyn built for keeping quail.
Charlotte travels to the land from Stroud, Gloucestershire. It is her full-time job (Simon works elsewhere), but she can pick her own hours and call in at her mum’s on the way for a cup of tea or advice. The farmer who owns the land has planted it out with English woodland species, and Charlotte likes the idea of her chickens eventually enjoying some more of this cover to roam in.
Help from Mum
“My mum, Caroline, and Martyn help me,” Charlotte says. “My mum is disabled and she comes up with many a ‘To do’ list, saying ‘I know you’re the boss, but...’”
Costs are cut with some DIY, Martyn both making hen houses with different wire gauges, nest boxes and perches and selling them. Charlotte returns the favour by finding him customers. “One lady had a green and purple one on wheels with fairy lights and automatic door opener which she needed for her illness.”
The rare breeds Charlotte has at present are Vorwerk (large fowl) and Groninger Meeuwen (bantams). “Both are good layers, very pretty, not too bonkers, and don’t have enough recognition yet,” she says. Her favourite birds are pure breeds and bantams, though she also keeps and sells hybrid laying hens. Her favourite pure breed is the Salmon Faverolles. “They’ve got big characters, are not in a rush to do anything, and are friendly and hardy,” she says. Her second favourite is the first she bred, the Wyandotte.
The poultry books Charlotte has found most useful have been The Chicken Health Handbook, the first edition by Gail Damerow. “Whatever’s wrong with the chickens I know it’ll have it,” Charlotte says, suggesting that other good books are Bantams in Colour by Michael and Victoria Roberts, Creative Poultry Breeding by Dr W.C. Carefoot, and The Poultry Handbook by Jamie Toms of Poultry Talk.
Birds bought from her are usually for backyard pets and (often no more than six) have been collected from as far away as Plymouth and London, one boy getting his very agreeable parents to drive him down from Lincolnshire. Charlotte sells hatching eggs all over the UK, several thousand in 2016, the year she started breaking even. She markets her birds on her website and Facebook, uses PayPal and hopes to put up more pens and get more pure breeds.Any doubts about how things would go for Charlotte’s Poultry must have been dispelled the day last May when the roar of approaching motorbikes could be heard over the hedge and Charlotte was about to find out from two charming guests that of all the poultry businesses they had shortlisted to approach ‘they liked our place best’ (as a filming location). I like the way she says “our”, not “my”. They would have noticed that too.
MORE: Website: www.charlottespoultry.com Text or call 07585 921541
Facebook: https://en-gb.facebook.com/CharlottesPoultry/ Buy her episode Meeting Mr Red or the whole Hairy Bikers: Chicken & Egg BBC 2 TV series from store.bbc.com