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Learning about life… from chickens

PUBLISHED: 18:57 10 March 2014

The children are learning so much from the hens

The children are learning so much from the hens

Copyright Alexander Caminada 2011

Children at a Cotswolds primary school are learning so much from their hens - and now the parents have got in on the act too

Ernest Cook Trust

Rooted in the conservation and management of the countryside (it owns 22,000 acres of estate land throughout England) ECT distributes many educational grants each year but also takes the curriculum outside, for 16,000 children and young people every year, from pre-school age to undergraduates. Making great use of the Trust’s woodland, rivers, farms and wetlands, this includes Forest School, showing children where food comes from on its farms, orienteering and river study. Learning from the land through ECT allows teachers to take any part of the National Curriculum outside and includes residential visits and even teacher training opportunities. Celebrating its Diamond Jubilee in 2012, 60 trees have been planted by children and the Trust is funding in perpetuity an apprenticeship in rural crafts, coppicing and green woodworking. They have an ongoing commitment to providing grants and help to enable several schools to teach henkeeping. MORE: www.ernestcooktrust.org.uk

When children at Fairford Primary School in the Cotswolds go home and ask their parents if they can have pets, they’re more likely to plead for a chicken than a hamster or guinea pig. After five years of hen-keeping at the school, children and parents have gone poultry mad, with one in five families now keeping hens.

It all started with some rescued battery hens. A chicken run was built at the school in the village of Fairford, east of Cirencester, with the help of the Ernest Cook Trust, whose land adjoins the school grounds.

Teaching assistant Bonnie Martin explains: “The headmistress at the time was very keen on the ‘eco’ side of things, and rescuing battery hens, and thought it would be a great enrichment for the children to look after some chickens. I’m an animal fanatic so she asked if I’d like to help.”

Initially the school took on six Rangers from the Battery Hen Welfare Trust. Mrs Martin says: “They were in an appalling condition - lots of feathers missing, huge floppy combs, beaks trimmed.”

After some good care from Mrs Martin and the children in their new setting, a mix of shady area under trees (which they like to roost in) and grass, the chickens flourished. Some pure breeds were added, and now there are 18 chickens in a range of breeds, including Sussex, Marans, Orpingtons and Legbar. Some Jubilee Orpingtons joined the brood this year – this breed, with their beautiful copper and cream coloured feathers, were originally created for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee.

On Wednesday afternoons each week, Mrs Martin takes a group of children aged 5-11 (all ages except reception join in) to take care of the chickens, involving them in health checks, cleaning, composting, feeding and collecting the eggs.

Zena Preecesmith, 6: “I really like feeding them because when they come near to me it feels like they really like me. I like collecting the eggs.” Zena says she’s used the eggs to bake with in cookery classes.

William Chambers, also 6, agrees about how much fun egg collecting is: “Touching the warm eggs is the best thing.” They come in different colours here too – varying hues of white, brown and blue. The eggs are given away within the local community and donations made to the school help fund the henkeeping. The school incubates some of the eggs and, when the chicks are old enough, they are given to willing parents in return for donations.

Mrs Martin says that while getting involved in the appealing activities of egg collecting and watching some chicks hatch out from eggs in incubators, the children don’t even realise that they’re learning, yet they get so many things out of it. “With some it teaches them to overcome fear as they start off scared and end up very excited about it. Some children don’t have pets at home so it’s enriching to learn about life cycles.”

The first thing the children learn about is hygiene, including washing their hands, thinking about preventing cross-contamination and cleaning out. Mrs Martin says that they do regular observation health checks on the hens, teaching them what a healthy chicken looks like. They learn about life cycles including death and culling, get to handle the chickens and learning not to chase them. This all helps the children “learn respect for other living creatures,” says Mrs Martin.

The children also find that the chicken poo makes great compost and liquid manure to help feed the school vegetable garden. But perhaps some of the most entertaining discussions are over naming the chickens: children take part in a competition to name new chickens, which is how the French Marans came to be appropriately named Phoebe and Fifi whereas a chicken whose cluck sounds more like that of a duck than a chicken is called ‘Duck’. With henkeeping proving to be so much fun, it’s no wonder that school chickens are going home to roost.

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