They're easy to look after, friendly and funny, and every day they give you a special present. Harvey McGavin explains why children just love chickens
With its whitewashed facade and handsome sash windows, Evans's house at Eton might not be the most spectacular of the many ancient buildings that make up Britain's most famous public school, but it has, in the words of its jovial house master Peter Broad, "a certain Jane Austen feel to it".
Indeed, the walled garden of Evans's house would make it the ideal setting for a Victorian romance. But beneath the mulberry, pear and rowan trees, there lurks an interloper from the modern age. In the middle of the lawn, where the boys like to play croquet in the summer, stands a bright red fibreglass "pod", an object so out of keeping with its surroundings that it might have crash-landed from another planet. Except that its occupants aren't aliens but Holly and Ivy, a couple of chickens Mr Broad bought for Christmas.
"It is a rather eye-catching design," Mr Broad admits. The Eglu is indeed a revolutionary coop which, by reinventing a forgotten feature of the farmyard, has succeeded in putting the chic back into chickens. And as more schools are finding out, chickens are cheap and easy to look after, friendly and funny and give their carers something special in return: a daily egg.
By making chicken-keeping accessible and fun, the Eglu has made unlikely hen-trepreneurs of its inventors - four friends who studied industrial design at the Royal College of Art just two years ago.
After graduating from their MA course in 2003, and trialling a series of prototypes in back gardens, they launched their company, Omlet, last May.
Since then they've sold more than 1,500 of their restyled chicken houses, which come complete with two chickens, a foxproof run and full instructions on how to care for your birds.
"It seemed to be the right thing at the right time; people were getting more interested in food and healthy eating," says Johannes Paul, one of Omlet's founders. "We entered all these competitions and never won. We could have got disheartened, but we were never in any doubt that this was something that was going to be successful and people would go for it."
Their enthusiasm comes from the fact that Johannes and James Tuthill both grew up in families which kept chickens. At Omlet's headquarters, an outbuilding in the garden at James's parents' house in the Oxfordshire village of Wardington, there are Eglus on every spare patch of grass and chickens around every corner.
"They are such great pets," says Johannes. "Children absolutely love chickens. With any other animal they like them when they are small and cuddly and that's it. But chickens never get boring; they have a kind of fascination with them."
The two hens that come with the Eglu are a Ginger Nut Ranger (like a Rhode Island Red), which James describes as an "adventurous, outgoing chicken. It will come and sit on bonnet of your car when you are washing it, that type of thing"; and a Miss Pepperpot ("a bit more timid, but they get on well together").
"They are always doing their thing. They never seem to mind about the weather; in fact they don't mind anything." Children won't chase chickens the way they do pigeons, says James, because they learn respect for them and understand that if they do chase them they won't come so readily next time. Also, they build a relationship with hens, which doesn't happen with pigeons.
At Portland school in Sunderland, a special school for pupils aged 11 to 18 with severe, profound and multiple learning difficulties, they have found this to be especially true. Caretaker Alan Cook saw an Eglu at his niece's house and thought it would be a good idea to have one in school. But he can't have imagined just how popular Henrietta, Chucky and Belle would become.
"It has really been a smashing idea. All of the children have a great interest in the hens; they are brilliant," says headteacher Jennifer Chart.
Portland is divided into three departments (each has adopted one hen), and its floor-to-ceiling windows provide a bird's-eye view for its 150 pupils.
"For some of our students, who have more complex and profound difficulties, if they are down on the floor they are on the same level as the hens and the hens come and peck at the windows. That's a lovely interaction."
The effect on one autistic child has been particularly dramatic. "They are a calming influence. Often he will hit himself or screech out, but if he's in the presence of the hens that stops. We really have to think outside the box with our children and get them to experience lots of different situations in school. The chickens have definitely provided that."
Over the holidays they have been hoping that Henrietta will provide them with an unusual - if entirely appropriate - Easter present. She became broody a few weeks ago and a local farmer provided the school with some fertilised eggs for her to sit on. With any luck, there will be the added thrill of a new-born chick very soon. Being portable, the Eglu solves the problem of who looks after the school pet in the holidays; at Portland there was a queue of children offering to take the chickens home over Easter. "The only downside," says Alan Cook, "is the poo."
At Eton, Peter Broad gets two of the 50 boys who board at Evans's house to do the dirty work, clearing out the coop and tending to the hens. "It's good for them. Plenty of boys at this school have no experience of animal husbandry," he says. Mr Broad changes the hen monitors every three or four weeks so that most of the boys will have had a turn by the end of the year.
Keeping chickens is an education in itself, Johannes Paul believes.
"Looking after animals teaches you respect and responsibility," he says.
Following a flurry of calls from schools, Omlet is preparing a pack for schools on chickens and the curriculum that includes ideas for biology, maths, art and literacy.
But the best thing about chickens, says Johannes, has to be "the daily excitement" of an egg. The proof, as they say, is in the Eton. And Peter Broad, who enjoys a boiled egg for breakfast most mornings courtesy of Holly and Ivy, declares their brown speckled offerings "quite delicious".