French Fancies

Jeremy Hobson (who has lived in France for over a decade) investigates the attitude the French have towards back garden chicken keeping…and discovers that the hobby is as popular amongst ‘ex-pats’ living in France as it is in the UK

There’s a feeling amongst many French – especially those living in the more rural areas – that there is no point in having anything in the garden unless it can be eaten! This thinking does, it must be admitted, mean that most gardens are full of immaculate vegetable plots, but perhaps it might not bode too well for any chickens kept there!

La Fleche Chicken
La Flèche chickens have a comb that looks like the devil’s horns!

In actual fact, although some do keep a few chickens bought from the local market simply for their egg laying and table bird potential, a good deal more have a keen interest in pure-breeds and chicken-keeping here in France has a very strong following. It is, after all, the country which has given the world a great many breeds – amongst them, the Houdan, Faverolles, La Flèche and, of course, the Marans.

More modern types of egg laying poultry can be seen at any of the country markets around France and are mainly hybrids. One, which is similar in appearance to the Black Rock in being basically black with a few copper coloured feathers around its neck, is an extremely prolific layer – in fact, from personal experience, they will produce eggs on an almost daily basis for at least two seasons without even pausing for a break during the moult.

Our nearest French neighbour Clem, in common with many others living in rural France, keeps chickens for eggs but, in late summer each year, there always appears in one corner of his field, a temporary pen and about 20 adolescent chickens. These are ‘Sasso’, a commercial breed similar to the ‘Cobb’ table bird found in the UK.

Before the ‘Sasso’ (the name is an acronym) was developed some three decades ago in order to provide a modern strain of meat producing birds, probably the best known of all French table birds was the ‘Bresse’ – the only poultry breed, as far as I’m aware, to have ever been granted its own Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée.

‘Ex-pats’ like chickens!

Blown Marans Eggs
Marans chickens are famous for their dark brown eggs.

One of the reasons that many ex-pats come to France is for the chance to indulge in the ‘Good Life’. First and foremost in their consideration is invariably a good vegetable plot…second, an opportunity to keep chickens. Some are, it must be admitted, chicken-keepers’ by default (you wouldn’t believe just how many have inherited poultry along with the purchase of their property!), but most have made a conscious decision to become owners.
Helen Tait-Wright who has lived in France for a number of years says; “I grew up around chickens and have fond memories of collecting eggs with my grandmother. When we moved to France and got some land, I was keen to keep some of my own, and so when a friend had six to re-home I jumped at the chance. I find them quite entertaining, particularly the pair of Silkies I have recently added to the flock, and of course there is nothing like a free range, ‘home grown’ egg!”

Peter Dewar has lived in Les Adrets near Cannes for over 20 years and has, in that time, reared a few chickens. He has recently become interested in obtaining a few bantams – in particular some of the Araucana breed as he is fascinated by their unusual ‘blue’ eggs. Peter has even gone to the trouble of having a special chicken shed built because of the fact that his area of France, “has more than its fair share of wild boar (which can quite easily bulldoze their way into a run or shed in search of food), foxes and pine martens…both of which enjoy a tasty chicken dinner from time to time”.

Valerie and Stephen Bentley are proud owners of a small pen of Orpingtons‘ and Brahmas’. The Orpingtons’ were apparently chosen because of the fact that Steve’s mother keeps them at her home in Gloucestershire, but the Brahmas arrived purely as a result of some being seen at a nearby garden centre and there being an instant attraction. Further stock eventually came by way of the Internet.

Sourcing stock

There are then, various methods of purchasing one’s birds – by far and away the best of which is (as it is in any country), to get to know a reputable breeder. Another option is to peruse the adverts in local newspapers and ‘ex-pat’ magazines (of which the various regions of France has a plethora).

Whilst I’ve not come across many magazines aimed directly at the garden chicken-keeper here in France, books on back garden poultry abound – a fact which must indicate that the hobby is as popular here as it is in Britain.

A good website for all things chicken is that of ‘volaille poultry‘ (some parts of which have the opportunity for an English translation). From this website you can learn a great deal about the French chicken breeds; find the names and addresses of their breeders…and also details of various chicken-orientated organisations such as Fédération Française de Volailles and the Société Centrale d’Aviculture de France. Even better is their extremely comprehensive guide which gives the dates and location of many of the country’s (and Europe’s) poultry shows and exhibitions for as much as a year in advance.

Show and exhibitions are as popular (if not more so) as they are in Britain. Many breed clubs have their own championship shows and local groups organise events up and down the country.

French chicken oddities!

For several years, I was confused as to why the French had selected what looked to be an Old English Game cock as their national symbol – and it was not until fairly recently that the mystery was explained. It is not, as I first surmised, an OEG at all, but an example of the Gauloise Dorée – an ancient French chicken which was chosen as a symbol of the country’s fighting spirit.

There’s another unfamiliar French breed that’s somewhat less interesting than it first appears! When I first heard of Limousine chickens and the fact that they were also known as the ‘fishing cock of the Limousin’, I got quite carried away and momentarily imagined them being trained to dive for fish in the manner of cormorants or even ospreys! My exhilaration was short lived as I soon discovered that they had earned the sobriquet by nothing more exciting than the blue-plumed variety providing trout fishermen with hackle feathers considered perfect for the manufacture of fishing flies and lures!

It might be also be mentioned, en passant, that although there are some wonderful breeds, the French are a little unimaginative when it comes to their naming – as a result of which, a great many are simply known by the town or area from which they originate. Charming in its name is the delightfully titled Noire du Berry (‘Black of Berry’) – Berry being an old province formed by the departments of the Indre and Cher.

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Jeremy Hobson

Jeremy Hobson is a freelance writer / author living in France. Jeremy has a number of books about poultry, his most recent being Success With Chickens.

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