The poultry farmer
Not all free range chickens range quite as freely as you might imagine but Loose Birds really do live up to their name, running around a sizeable field on the outskirts of Harome. ‘They are happy chickens,’ says their breeder Paul Talling. ‘They live a long life – for a chicken – outdoors with plenty of space, free to walk, peck and eat whatever they can find.’
His field of tussocky grass and thistles on the edge of the village is scattered with snowy white chickens with well-spaced and open-ended brood sheds for shelter. ‘Chickens don’t like the cold and wet,’ says Paul ‘so they’ll go into the sheds but otherwise they are out all the time pecking away.’ They live double or sometimes treble the length of intensively reared birds, without the need for routine antibiotics.
Loose Birds is both hobby and business for Dr Talling, a rare Yorkshire farmer. For a start he’s a Cornishman, a Cornishman with a PhD who relocated to Harome in 1987 to work in crop management and, in his spare time, rear chickens.
Nicholson’s, the Helmsley butcher (now Thomas of Helmsley), was the first shop to take Paul’s birds. Andrew Pern of The Star Inn at Harome has also been a long champion of Loose Birds. Increasingly quality and taste in chickens is what top restaurants and quality butchers and farm shops are looking for.
But what about foxes? Free range chickens look like open season for foxes. ‘A big fence,’ says Paul. ‘I’ve only ever had one fox in the field and that was my fault for leaving the gate open. I chased him for ages but I couldn’t catch him. Eventually he ran off but he didn’t get a chicken.’
Paul is on another mission – to breed his own birds after the style of the speciality Poulet de Bresse chickens of France and this latest enterprise is to create slow growing chickens from traditional English breeds like Cornish or Indian Game, Light Sussex and Dorkings. ‘My chickens are niche and these would be the niche of the niche. They’ve still got a wildness in ’em’,’ he says, savouring the phrase in an unmistakeable Cornish burr.
It’s time to get back on his tractor and finish turning the summer hay. ‘Go and take a look at them,’ he yells. ‘The cockerel should be all right.’ His farm-hand drives me round the field on his tractor. ‘Now where’s Big Red? He’s here somewhere.’ We find him cock-a-doodle do’ing among the girls, a proud, beautiful bird with his sleek feathers in a myriad of shades from glossy blue, black, with touches of grey, auburn running to deep red and that strange wobbly red comb, a fine representative of Dr Paul’s Loose Birds.