Wednesday 29th May 2024
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Counting her chickens before they hatch

Anyone thinking of keeping a few chooks to sell eggs at the gate is unlikely to feather their nest but the pleasure of caring for a flock  of friendly hens brings its own rewards as HELEN PERRY learnt on visiting Poultry Valley and Lifestyle, in Waiuku, home to  17 breeds of heritage chickens.

Fiona Vincent on her daily round of chicken checking. Photos Wayne Martin

When Fiona Vincent sells a dozen eggs they’re not destined for the frying pan or mixing bowl. Instead some three weeks after delivery they will hatch, the  new owner taking charge not just of any old chooks but 12 adorable heritage chickens.

Fiona and husband Bruce’s Waiuku lifestyle block is home to 17 rare breeds which doesn’t make choosing easy. There’s the cute, the colourful, the comical  and the cuddly, most with striking plumage; others with brilliant upright combs and vivid wattles.

As well as selling fertile eggs, Fiona also sells day old chicks and pullets and her breeding regime means she generally has new chickens every week.

“The eggs take 21 days to hatch; we collect eggs weekly so there is a constant rotation of baby chicks.” But there is a lot more to breeding these beautiful heritage chooks than just collecting eggs to be couriered to new owners or waiting for them to hatch
before sending them on.

“Like every job it has its daily grind; on a Monday it’s not unusual to work from six in the morning to 11 at night,” Fiona says. “Monday is the weekly  clean and we have the 17 separate pens for each breed plus the rooster paddock and the incubator shed to attend to.

“We also sell poultry housing, feed, waterers and feeders so that’s another arm to the business.” While the breeding project is Fiona’s, she says her two younger daughters, Maria (16) and Abigail (13) both help with collecting eggs and cleaning.

“Bruce usually pitches in too if he’s here; he also makes the coops and does the maintenance.”

But it is Fiona who oversees the general running of the business which she took on just 12 months ago. Raised in the Waikato, Bruce a former dairy farmer gave up farming when he, Fiona and their five children returned to New Zealand from northern Queensland
four years ago.

“But we still wanted land and this block, just a few minutes from Waiuku township, is perfect. We’re handy to everything yet we have all the country we need  to run a few beef cattle and grow lucerne in addition to breeding chickens,” Fiona says.

“But it has been a learning curve. Being on the farm for years meant I knew a bit about chooks but breeding heritage chickens, some quite rare, was another  thing again and I’ve had to learn a lot. I also breed Muscovy and Buff Orpington ducks; they’re a lot messier than the chooks!”

With the annual moult now over and the hens rested from laying, Fiona says she is now coming into the busiest time of the year.

“I initially expected the business to be pretty much part time but, really, it is full on most days.’

Yet this former accountant still manages to home school Maria and Abigail.

“Being on some isolated farms I’ve home schooled all the children and though we are now close to schools again, it’s become a lifestyle thing so I’ve just  kept it up. This way they have all had the benefits of formal learning as well as discovering what it takes to run a farm and a business.”

While her three eldest children (19, 18 and 17) are now intent on pursuing their own careers, Fiona says she’s grateful that all the family willingly pitch  in when the cock crows so to speak.

“With about 100 chickens hatching every week now, and eggs in need of packaging and posting, I have to keep a tight routine. But I enjoy it and the good
thing is, I always have plenty of eggs for baking!”

Eggs for breakfast!

Fiona Vincent’s heritage hens include the glamorous, the pretentious and one or two plainer Janes but whichever breed takes one’s fancy it’s easy to see why
all have been admired or coveted.

Many find it difficult to resist the showy Wyandottes with their lacey ‘shawls – Fiona breeds gold laced, silver laced and blue laced, their plumage quite  stunning.

Then there’s the lavender Araucana, which lay eggs with a pretty blue/green shell, exclusive to this breed. I laughed at their distinctive feather ear  tufts, muffs and beards. They have only a small feather crest (no wattle and a reduced comb) plus a stumpy tail end giving this rare breed an endearing,  comical appearance.

Perhaps one of the most handsome in the chicken run was a large Welsummer rooster, whose rich russet red and orange colouring was finished with contrasting  black tail feathers shot with green. And, I also admired the large and vibrant red comb and huge floppy wattle (with a splash of yellow) of the equally  handsome Blue Leghorn whose ‘harem’ seemed quite enamoured with him.

It’s easy to wax lyrical about each of the 17 breeds which, between them, were flecked, speckled, two-tone, black, white, buff coloured and lacey. From the  Barred Plymouth Rock to the well rounded black Orpingtons, which exuded ‘mother hen’ charm, visitors have plenty of choice.

What’s more, these fortunate breeds won’t be destined for the pot (well, not many), although some were originally bred for that very purpose, their  meatiness, an attractive feature. But, today, chickens from Fiona’s poultry pens are chosen for their laying qualities, their beauty and their affectionate  nature.

“Of course, when we send out eggs or day-old chicks there is no guarantee that the new owner will end up with hens; they could all be roosters in which case  some will probably go for meat. However, that’s a risk we also face but on balance, we aren’t doing too badly. We also keep quite a few roosters so we can  rotate them among the hens and keep the stock changing.”

Fiona says those who do keep heritage hens will know how gratifying the hobby can be. “Owners can expect 250-300 eggs a year, usually ample for any  household and birds will lay for up to seven years, some may even go as long as 10 years.”

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