A journey through the historic chickens of England.
Story by Christine Heinrichs, photos by Gordon Heinrichs.
We last visited England in 2019, before the Covid pandemic changed travel so much. We returned to visit in 2022.
Mudchute Farm captures the urban bustle of modern development in South East London. The banks, insurance companies, tall office buildings and luxury apartments of Canary Wharf tower over the peaceful 15 acres of Mudchute in the distance. It’s on the Isle of Dogs, an arc-shaped island formed by the River Thames.
Mudchute Farm appears to be a village farm that has been around forever. It’s actually modern, established in 1977, when South East London Docklands was being developed. It takes its name from mud dredged over the last century at Millwall Dock in the 1890s. The smell has been the subject of local comment. Football players (known in the United States as “soccer”) complained of stinking for weeks if they fell while playing on the former butcher’s pitch.
The docks were a very active economic engine for London in the 19th and early 20th centuries and were heavily bombed during the Second World War. Mudchute became part of the Home Front, London’s defense against the Nazi Blitzkrieg. An anti-aircraft gun (also called Ack-Ack gun) remains as a reminder on the farm.
Although London and the Docks recovered, the Docks were rendered obsolete by container shipping and the area fell into decline. But acres of land with river frontage would not long be ignored in London. Politicians and business executives watched him for development. In 1974, the Greater London Council designated it as high-rise housing.
Residents have organized and mobilized to resist urban development. Eventually, they garnered enough support to turn the site into a people’s park. In 1977 they formed the Mudchute Association, which still governs the park today.
From derelict land that developers envisioned as a site for high-rise apartment buildings, it is now a leafy retreat of rural peace, recognized by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) for its heritage livestock.
The farm works with the RBST, a charity focused on saving heritage breeds of livestock. Farm manager Tom Davis leads the team and lists heritage breeds of poultry (and other farm animals) in a bucolic setting.
When we were there at the end of September, the hens were moulting and were not at their best. Nevertheless, they are happy and healthy. Large light Sussex poultry and booted Belgian dwarfs, Call, Indian Runner and Rouen ducks, Czech geese, etc. Beautiful and uplifting.
Twelve volunteers from HSBC (a UK bank) were working the day we were there. Their office building is located on the edge of the farm. Employees have days off to volunteer with charities of their choice, and these people chose Mudchute. HSBC also supports Mudchute financially.
England’s landscape blends the urban and rural much more closely than the United States, so we were able to meet and visit locals who keep poultry on many small plots of land.
Charlotte Kok lives in the countryside near Dorking, an area which shares its name with an ancient breed of chicken. She moved there in 2013 to join her boyfriend. Couples always have to find ways to accommodate each other. In their case, Charlotte wanted to keep pets without triggering her boyfriend’s allergies to cats and dogs. She found a solution at the British Hen Welfare Trust.
This organization is dedicated to improving the welfare of laying hens. Among other efforts, they purchase spent laying hens and adopt them into new homes. Last year they housed 60,000 chickens and Charlotte adopted three.
She warmed up to them, but they didn’t have long lives, and she was very grieved when one of them died. Her interest in chickens now aroused, she sought to obtain a hardier breed, even one that bears the nearby name of Dorking. She had to travel to the Welsh border to find a breeder, but traveled around three hours each way and returned with three Red Dorkings – a rooster and two hens.
As part of Chicken Math, she eventually had up to 47 chickens on their two-acre farm. She has reduced her flock to a more manageable seven – six hens and a rooster.
Along the way, she acquired Cayuga ducks by trading chickens and eggs for plants from a local garden supplier.
Highly pathogenic bird flu has required all UK poultry to be kept indoors in 2022. Charlotte and her birds are enduring this difficult time, making do with a barn and a covered outdoor enclosure.
Dorkings at the British Museum
Seeking to revisit nearly 2,000 years in the past means we rely on historical artifacts from which we guess what life was like. At the British Museum, Patrick, a volunteer guide, showed us around the medieval collection.
I entered the gallery, looking directly into the eyes of the back hole of the Sutton Hoo helmet, a famous Anglo-Saxon artifact dated to 625 AD. This fatal reception took us back centuries.
On the wall above the display cases is a collection of mosaics including a chicken and a duck. The chicken appears to be a game. The duck has no webbed feet, perhaps an oversight on the part of the artist.
These Roman mosaics testify not only to the poultry the Romans kept, but also to their bringing poultry to the British Isles. The Dorkings, with their distinctive fifth toe, appear in other mosaics similar to these. These mosaics date from the 4th century AD, from what is now Turkey. The Roman Empire stretched far and wide, from Britain across North Africa to the Middle East.
The British have a long history with poultry, especially chickens. It was nice to go back to England and see that the tradition of chicken farming still lives on.
Here are links to several of the organizations mentioned in the article:
Rare Breed Survival Trust.
The British Hen Welfare Trust.
The Sutton Hoo helmet.
CHRISTINE HEINRICHS writes from her home on the Central Coast of California. She raises a backyard flock of a dozen hens: eight large fowls of different breeds and four dwarfs.
His book, How to raise chickens, was first published in 2007, just as the local food movement was beginning to draw attention to the industrial food system. Backyard chickens have become the mascot of local food. The third edition of How to raise chickens was released in January 2019. The Backyard Field Guide for Chickens was released in 2016.