IT was a business that started by accident, but once fledged, there was no stopping it. Now customers are flocking to Durham Hens and it’s just won a major award, says Jenny Needham

The Northern Echo:

MARGARET Manchester’s holiday guests are starting to arrive. Some are regulars, who stay year after year; others are newcomers, enjoying their first break at Vine House. They enjoy clean and comfortable accommodation in the heart of the Durham countryside, and plenty of top-quality, nutritious food.

They are usually booked in as a group, and once they’ve settled in, there’s the chance for some leisure time… a spot of dust-bathing, perhaps.

“Hens love to sunbathe,” says Margaret. “But they’re even more partial to dust-bathing – it’s their way of cleaning themselves and ridding themselves of parasites.”

Margaret’s guests are of the feathered variety – a kind of hen party, if you like – and are dropped off for hen holidays by owners who have no one else – or trust no one else – to look after their broods. There’s no doubt she’s qualified for this role – Margaret knows everything about hens – but she didn’t always. In fact, she got into the hen business by accident.

“We’d been living at Vine House, near Tow Law, for about six years,” she explains. “I’m an archaeologist and worked part-time as a college lecturer, then, at the same time that my teaching hours were reduced, we lost a few hens to a fox.”

Margaret wanted to restock, but her previous supplier had moved away and she could only get the breed she wanted from a hatchery as day-old chicks, and only by the hundred. “We brought them home from Scotland and enjoyed rearing them immensely. I only wanted 12 for myself and the rest were sold at point-of-lay.”

The hobby business took off fast, Alec joined full-time in 2010, and now Durham Hens employs three full-time and two part-time staff, as well as seasonal help. It’s also winning awards and has just been named Britain’s Best Rural Retail Business at the UK-wide Rural Business Awards. They also won Microbusiness of the Year at the Federation of Small Businesses Awards in 2017.

The couple began with one breed of laying hen, but soon increased that to around ten, and then began to stock poultry supplies. The range of products has since increased dramatically and there are now 200 items listed on Durham Hens’ website.

“We set up a small hatchery and expanded into pure and rare breed hens. We sell chicks at our premises and supply many petting farms,” says Margaret. “Perhaps surprisingly, the largest increase to our business has been the sale of fertile hatching eggs, which we post all over the UK so customers can hatch them at home and in schools. They are dispatched in boxes with special foam inserts designed by Alec. I believe Durham Hens is the largest retailer of fertile chicken eggs in the country.”

In recent years, the blue egg layers, Lavender Araucana and Columbines, have been popular because blue eggs are loved by children; some people believe they are healthier and even that they can heal certain health conditions, but Margaret says there’s no scientific evidence for this.

Some of their names may sound a bit like the roll-call at a stuffy gentlemen’s club – Barnevelder, Buff Orpington, Welsummer – but they share many of the same qualities. “Hens are intelligent, inquisitive and active birds, and they all have their own personalities. Some are friendly and will follow you everywhere; some are very wary,” says Margaret. “They are great fun to watch and have a calming effect, which is very therapeutic. This is widely recognised, which is why hens are kept in care homes and rehabilitation centres.”

The Amber is Margaret’s personal favourite. “She is so friendly and runs over to meet us. She loves to sit on the tractor and trailer – I’m not sure she knows she’s a hen!”

It’s because she is so fond of her feathered friends that Margaret wants to make sure they go to good homes (don’t even mention battery hens), where they’ll be well looked after. “Our hens can be found almost anywhere – in back gardens, allotments, smallholdings, farms, schools, prisons, care homes and castles,” she says. All new customers are given an information sheet, there’s plenty of help and advice on the website, and Margaret also runs hen husbandry courses for new owners.

If you don’t have a hen house, they also sell those, made to a design by Alec. “He’s an engineer with a lot of mucky out experience, so he knows exactly what is needed,” says Margaret. The Durham Hen House is a Grand Design for poultry, made from chew-proof, recyclable plastic so it’s easy to clean and predators can’t get in. “It’s very strong and doesn’t blow over in high winds, so it’s a popular choice in exposed areas,” says Margaret. Also, there are a few unique features like the lift-up door for access, a hinged threshold on the pop-hole, and it’s been designed to fit an automatic door opener if required so that you don’t have to leave the fireside to shut up shop at dusk. The coop costs £399 and there’s an optional three-metre run for another £100.

Once they’re settled in, hens will start laying at around five to six months, but Margaret sells most at point-of-lay so customers will be collecting eggs in no time. “I still find it amazing that hens can lay an egg every day,” she says. “Modern laying hens are bred to lay as many eggs as possible, and as soon as possible, so they start laying from around 20 weeks of age and produce up to 340 eggs in the first year. Fresh eggs from your own hens are just so much nicer than shop-bought eggs.”

The busiest times at Durham Hens are spring – Easter focuses the mind on chicks and eggs – and the summer season when the Margaret’s hen hotel fills up. The summer influx is just hotting up.

“Not everyone has family and friends nearby, and after hearing people say, ‘I would love some hens, but we have nobody to look after them when we’re on holiday,’ we set up our boarding service for hens, which has been likened to Centre Parcs for hens. School holidays are particular busy so we advise booking early,” says Margaret. “We have a few retired customers who spend a lot of time travelling and their hens spend almost as much time here as they do at home.”

Everything that the hens need is included, although customers can leave their food and treats if they wish, and the hens adapt quickly to their new surroundings. Each flock is kept in its own coop and run so that they can’t get mixed up and the rent is £50 per coop (up to eight hens) for the first week and then £4 per night after that. “The longest we’ve had hens stay is nine months,” laughs Margaret. “The owners were selling their property and it took longer than expected.”

But with the five-star service on offer at Durham Hens, it’s doubtful they were homesick. This is definitely a “happy hen holiday” sort of place.