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Living with fowl friends

The Age

Saturday March 12, 2011


A DEAR departed friend had chooks all his life, as a young boy growing up, to a family man with children.While George loved his feathered brood and the eggs they produced, it was a different story when it was time to put them on the chopping block for the Sunday roast. He just couldn't bring himself to do the dreaded deed.A neighbour was of the same mind with his chooks, so they came to an arrangement. Each would kill the other's birds as the need arose. But even that proved too traumatic for them both, plus their respective children became hysterical at the thought of it, so they resorted to visiting the butcher once a week instead.The 19th-century novelist and ethicist Samuel Butler would have approved of their humanitarian attitude, having once said that man is the only animal that can remain on friendly terms with the victims he intends to eat . . . until he eats them.Corporate chef and chook whisperer Deb Maffescioni couldn't kill one of her feathered charges either. She loves them too much. Maffescioni started Book a Chook, a business that allows people to rent chickens for a month on a "try before you buy" basis.She supplied the chooks, the coop and the food and then it was up to the families to see if they enjoyed a touch of country life in their suburban backyards. Seventy-five per cent of renters did enjoy the experience of bonding with the chickens and having fresh eggs on tap.They could then buy the birds rather than renting them, and the business took off.She sold it 18 months ago but is still involved with chickens, being the proud owner of six pekins and pekin-frizzle crosses ‚€ little beach balls with big fluffy feet ‚€ and some chicks, plus a regular role as a chicken's ambassador whereby she gives talks to prospective owners on the benefits of having chooks in their lives, praising their gentle, affectionate natures and easy manageability."At first people thought it was bizarre that I was renting chooks to people. 'For eating', they'd ask, and I'd say 'of course not, for pets'. "Chickens have very strong personalities and I've had groups where it's easy to identify which is the top dog, the one at the bottom and which is the blonde. They're lovely little creatures and so easy to care for. I call them the ultimate goldfish."Chickens suffer from two diseases ‚€ Marek's disease (although more prevalent in New South Wales) ‚€ and fowl pox, a mosquito-borne disease that is similar to chicken pox in humans. The birds get spotty heads for a while then get better.A sick bird is easy to spot. It sits in one place, fluffs its feathers up, becomes lethargic and will go quite pale compared with its usual rosy colour. "It's easy to tell when they're not themselves," Maffescioni says.Chickens have a lifespan of five to seven years although she had one that lived for more than 11 years. Egg production goes off after about four years.Maffescioni will be imparting her wisdom on chooks and their habits on March 20 and April 10 in Prahran as part of the Australian open garden scheme. You can learn about the various breeds, how to avoid buying a rooster if you don't want crowing all day, diseases, care requirements, housing and securing the coop from predators. Tickets are $60 and include morning tea; 9am-noon. Bookings: can also see chooks tomorrow at a two-hour workshop at the St Erth Autumn Festival. There are two sessions: 10am-noon and 1-3.30pm.A perennial garden masterclass with Simon Rickard, former Digger's Club head gardener, will also feature today at the festival. He will talk about perennial garden trends and how to adapt Australian plants to this style of planting, 9.30am-3.30pm. Bookings for both events: phone 5984 7900.There will also be free workshops on seed sowing, growing berries and ornamental bulbs, plus a produce market tomorrow and Monday.Another treat this long weekend is the chance to visit three of Victoria's finest perennial collections and talk to their creators; Clive Blazey from The Garden of St Erth, the team at Frogmore Gardens and David Glenn from Lambley Nursery, who between them have 80 years of plant collecting.Stroll through their gardens and be inspired by the selection of plants in the three landscapes. The gardens are open tomorrow, Sunday and Monday 9am-5pm. Free entry except for St Eth, which has a $10 entry fee.And the Ballarat Botanical Gardens will be in full bloom this weekend, with thousands of begonias on display in the Robert Clark Conservatory for the annual begonia festival.The City of Ballarat's tuberous begonia collection is one of the largest in the world and features 216 upright, and 30 cascading varieties grown in pots and hanging baskets. The exhibition is open for three days from 10am-5pm. Adults $6, concession $4, children free.€“Lambley Nursery, Lesters Road, Ascot; Frogmore Gardens, Blackwood Road, Newbury; The Garden of St Erth, Simmons Reef Road, Blackwood.

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