ISSUE   |  Children's Garden

The Trouble with Chickens (and Ducks, Donkeys, and Flamingos)

May 28, 2013 3:00 PM

BY Kendra Wilson

It has been noted that the British care more for their animals than for people. Gardeners too seem to have a remarkable tolerance for anti-gardening creatures. With their scratching, digging, nibbling, and trampling, animals create extra chores at the beginning and end of the day. Should one have dinner before putting the chickens to bed in summer, or eat very late because they refuse to retire in daylight?

Beyond these dilemmas, we would like to know: How is it possible to keep the chickens away from the flowers and the fox away from the chickens, without turning your garden into a high-security jail?

Photographs by Kendra Wilson.

Above: Coton Manor in Northamptonshire is one of the most glorious gardens I know and yet there they are: chickens by the lake, chickens in the exquisite borders. No one seems to care. This is partly because they are Barbu d’Uccle bantams, of the Millefleur variety. The ones with feathery feet.

“Their efforts at digging up plants are not very effective,” says Susie Paisley-Tyler, chief gardener and mistress of Coton Manor. “It’s quite touching,” she continues. “The bantams dig in the soil after you’ve been working in that area. They follow you around.” There is not a slug problem at Coton.

Above:”They don’t bother going into the borders once everything grows up,” says Susie. ” So it is only a shortish interval, March-April, when plants are vulnerable.”

Very full borders do not provide an entry way for fowl; those in need of a dust bath have to look elsewhere.

Above: One of the bantam houses, tucked behind a tree but not fenced off from the garden. One anti-fox and deer parameter fence surrounds the areas of the garden which back on to open country. It is electrified but barely noticeable.

Above: Chickens, ducks, and exotic birds are not treated as second class citizens at Coton Manor and this is key. The pond at the top of the garden is connected with the water ways at the bottom through a series of rills. The bog garden, woodland garden, and orchard all have water running through and the birds are free to wander through all of this. Only one waterway is diverted into a fenced off area, also known as the Sin Bin (they are not all good mixers when it comes to the general public).

Above: “Ducks were my father-in-law’s introduction,” explains Susie Paisley-Tyler, who has lived at Coton for 22 years. “He got some to clean the pond by the house, and then he started to collect different breeds.” By the time Susie and Ian, her husband, moved in, there were cockatoos, sea lions, penguins, and 20 flamingos.

Above: The geese and swans had to go because respectively they were too destructive and violent. Three of the original flamingos still live at Coton and are at least 40 years old. They couldn’t be less trouble, says Susie, though harmony is ruined if her cocker spaniel gets amongst them.

Above: The vibrant color of the flamingo livery can cause visual discord. There was once a giant pink cherry tree by the pond near the house, and it clashed with the flamingos who also congregated nearby. Susie couldn’t live with this color combination (the first thing you saw on arrival), so the flamingos moved down to the bottom of the garden. The cherry tree fell in the pond a few years later.

Above: There are pigs at Coton, fenced off but not imprisoned.

Above: Other four-legged animals including sheep, cattle, and horses are wonderful providers of manure. Vita Sackville-West had a couple of donkeys roaming around the front lawn at Sissinghurst. Not elegant, show-off steeds but friendly grazers. Would you consider a donkey as an alternative to a ride-on mower?

For more ways to dress up the countryside with animals, see The Most Glamorous Cows in England.