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Lyn Lister from Buckinghamshire, England, first started keeping chickens 35 years ago. She’d grown up with them, so when her husband Gerry suggested they start keeping hens, it was a no-brainer. Today the chickens help raise funds for Parkinson’s UK and the Rennie Grove Hospice, which provides care for people in their own homes.
Lyn and Gerry keep Warrens, a gingery brown hybrid hen. “We’ve kept chickens for years and had Rhode Island Reds, Leghorns, and all sorts, at various times,” she says. “This time, it was all about the eggs, so we went for the best layers. They lay all through the winter and summer alike.”
When I spoke to Lyn, the birds were in their enclosure due to bird flu restrictions, but they’re usually free-range and running about foraging in the garden. “They are looking a bit scruffy at the moment because they’re not running free,” she explains.
“They go into the coop at night and are in the pen in the daytime, so they have a change of scenery, but it’s not the same as having free run of the end of the garden. They don’t seem as happy. I think they find being locked in quite stressful, but it’s necessary to keep them away from wild birds while bird flu restrictions are in place.”
Do they keep cockerels? “We had cockerels before but gave them away as we didn’t think it was fair on the neighbors.” That hasn’t stopped their broody hens from raising young birds, though. “We had a duck that laid eggs. A fox took the adult, so we put her eggs under a broody hen. When they hatched, the mother hen was confused. She couldn’t understand why her babies wanted to go in the water.”
Lyn’s grandparents kept chickens, and she was always very fond of them. “My grandad kept them when I was a child. I lived with my grandparents because my mum was in the hospital for six months. So, I’ve had chickens around me for most of my life. When my husband said he’d like some, 35 years ago, we decided to get some. It was nice to have the fresh eggs, and it’s been nice to be able to supply eggs to the neighbors during lockdown.”
A life-changing diagnosis
Eleven years ago, Lyn was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a nervous system disease that causes shakes, slow movement, and stiffness, leading to disability.
“When I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, I’d just had treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome,” Lyn explains. “A short while later, my hands started shaking, so I went back to the hospital, but they said it was nothing to do with the treatment they’d given me. They sent me to see a specialist, who said I had Parkinson’s disease. I was crying and distraught, but it’s been 11 years, and some people say they wouldn’t even know I’d gotten it, as it’s quite mild at the moment. I stay active, enjoy gardening, and walk the dogs, which all helps.
“I wanted to do something about my Parkinson’s diagnosis, but I didn’t want to go to clubs and sit in a room with people who are worse than me. That’d make me more worried about the future. So, I decided to do something positive to help the research instead. I’m hoping they might find a way to prevent the disease, stop the deterioration, and ultimately, find a cure. So, I decided to raise money for Parkinson’s UK. My daughter-in-law, Emma, works as a Rennie Grove Nurse, so I decided to raise funds for the Rennie Grove Hospice too.”
It’s been about five years since Lyn started selling eggs and plants to raise money for the charities. “We used to sell duck eggs too, but when we went on holiday, it was too much to ask a neighbor to look after them because the ducks would give them the run around the garden. The chickens are easy — they’ll go inside on their own in the evening. But it didn’t seem fair to ask people to look after the uncooperative ducks while we were away too, so the ducks went to live with my daughter Kelly, on her smallholding in the Outer Hebrides.”
In addition to selling eggs and plants, Gerry raises funds by playing the banjo in a bluegrass band called the Hemley Hillbillies. They even have a song about chickens, called Cluck Old Hen. Watch videos of the band on their Facebook page.
People in the band grow plants to support the fundraising effort. One of their wives volunteers in a Rennie Grove Charity Shop, so they’re very invested in the project. In total, Lyn, Gerry, and the band have raised £16,000 for the two charities, £4000 of which was raised last year due to the lockdown and all the plant nurseries being closed. Lyn and Gerry don’t take anything from the proceeds for chicken feed, seed, plants, pots, or even band equipment or expenses, as that is their financial contribution to the charities.
Demand for the plants can get confusing!
“I take cuttings of anything,” says Lyn. “I divide the big plants, and I have two greenhouses, where I sow seeds and cultivate the plants. Last year I couldn’t keep up with the demand and got confused with all the orders. In summer, it’s bedding plants, seeds, tomatoes, runner beans. In the early spring, I sell hardy perennials, bulbs, and winter flowering plants. Everything is £1 unless marked. I love gardening.”
Do the chickens enjoy some of the plants too? “No. The hens are fenced off, away from the plants. When we had one or two, they’d have the run of the whole garden, but with 10, they’d destroy the plants, so we keep them apart.”
Lyn likes to be sustainable with her gardening. She reuses pots as planters and asks people to return egg boxes to be used again.
“It all helps to reuse pots,” she says. “I use various yogurt pots and meat trays for my plants. I don’t have to buy so many planters if I have more tubs and yogurt pots. Someone made some plant labels from cutting up milk bottles, which was a great idea.”
Originally published in the 2021 special issue of Backyard Poultry — A Natural and Sustainable Flock — and regularly vetted for accuracy.