19 April 1996

A LIFE PASSION

FOR POULTRY

Its hatching time at the Domestic Fowl Trust where 170 breeds of chickens, bantams and waterfowl are raised. Tessa Gates went

to Honeybourne to find out more about the trust, and Jeremy Hunt visited

breeding and showing enthusiasts in Lancashire

MICHAEL Robertss passion for poultry started early. He had a little flock of White Silkies when he was just four years old and has been interested in fowls of all sorts ever since.

Michael runs the Domestic Fowl Trust, which aims to preserve rare and minority breeds of domestic fowl.

"It is our 21st year as a trust and we have been at this site for nine years," explains Michael. The trust is in the centre of Honeybourne, a village near Evesham, Worcs, and 170 breeds of birds are kept on the 12ha (30-acre) holding.

"We are a private trust. I dont want to lose control by becoming a charitable trust – it is difficult enough being in business today without having another tier of people above you," says Michael, who started it because he was worried that the pure breeds would lose out to the quest for highly productive commercial hybrids.

"About 22 years ago there was nothing being done about poultry although a couple of people had collections of rare breeds. I decided to start a centre where people could come and see all the different breeds, and where they could be bred and improved."

An early conservation success was the Scots Dumpy, an old breed with short legs and a rolling gait. It had almost died out in Britain but Michael found some through a friend in Kenya. Apparently Lady Violet Carnegie had taken a flock of Scots Dumpies to Kenya in 1902 and in 1977 Michael was able to import some from the stock that had remained in the family.

America was the source of the trusts Sicilian Buttercup hens and Pomeranian geese -"we are hoping for some goslings from these this year"- and in a roundabout way, the Fayomi. "I was at a conference in Atlanta and sat next to an Egyptian. I asked him if he had any of these village birds – the Fayomi is hundreds of years old – and said I could do with some hatching eggs," says Michael. "I didnt hear anything from him for six months and then he contacted me and said he was in London with two dozen eggs!"

"The ministry threw a wobbly – they hate me because they think I break the rules but we have our own quarantine centre and do everything properly," he says.

Breeding and spreading the birds to widen the gene pool as much as possible are the main aims of the trust. Fertility is very low in some of the rarer breeds because of lower genetic diversity.

Michael has a 12,000-egg incubator and from early spring eggs are picked up daily and marked then washed. They are candled and set on Tuesdays and Wednesday is usually hatching day. When Farmlife called in March, the first few chicks of the season had just hatched and looked a little lonely in a brooder that can take up to 300.

"The first chicks are always the best; you get a bit blasé towards the end of the season," he confesses.

The dearest birds Michael sells are Toulouse geese – which can cost up to £200 a bird. "They are very exaggerated and because of this they dont breed easily – in America they overcome this with AI," he explains.

All the birds are fed on wheat and a pellet made specially for the trust. "Before the salmonella scandal we realised that chicken food was unpalatable for the birds so we have had ours made up for the last six or seven years. People come for miles for it," says Michael.

They also come for stock, housing, equipment, medicines and know how. "We like to think we are a one-stop shop for all poultry needs," he says.

He is often thought of as the fount of all knowledge, from finding a mate for a lonely goose to giving an opinion on the ailments and treatment of hens, to vets.

"We have such a good base of knowledge here but some calls we could do without. Unfortunately it is a bit like being a doctor on call, you dont know how serious it is until you answer it," says Michael, who has his tenth book about to be published, and often refers inquirers to these.

"When we are asked so many questions this is our way of getting our own back," he jokes.

The Domestic Fowl Trust has been a familiar sight at agricultural shows all round the country for many years but may be harder to spot in the future. Michael has decided to make the centre at Honeybourne more public-friendly and will be spending more time there rather than on the show circuit.

"We already have around 20,000 visitors a year and we are hoping to build this up. We are going to make much more of a garden with interesting vistas, rather than just hen runs and have seats and more information, so people can make more of their visit here. The interest in poultry is growing and we get all sorts of people here from young couples intensely interested in keeping poultry, through family groups and the elderly."

The visitors will find utility breeds and the exotic and everyone has a different favourite. "They have all got something interesting about them," says Michael, "but I still quite like my Silkies."

The Domestic Fowl Trust is open daily 10.30am – 5pm (except Fridays). For more details tel: (01386-833083).

Gold Brahma.

The first chick of the season. Wednesday is usually hatching day at the Trust.

A Blue Turkey shows off to visitors to the Domestic Fowl Trust.

Black Minorca hens with a Cuckoo cockerel of the same breed. The Trust has 170 different breeds of fowl.

Chamois Poland.

Gold Silkies.

North Holland Blue.

Geese are only sold as young adults but Michael Roberts (above) has a wide range of day-old chicks and growers for sale, and equipment and books.