Hens, ducks, turkeys and geese have been a feature of the Irish farmyard for hundreds of years. In 1871 there were c11 million hens on the island of Ireland, today in N. Ireland the number is believed to be in excess of 25m. To a large extent domestic fowl foraged for themselves but were also fed potatoes and leftovers from the house.
Ducks and geese (whilst not as numerous as they required to have access to water) mingled with the hen population.
In the latter half of the 19th century large flocks of fowl were being kept and this was especially true of small farms in The Glens of Antrim. By the early 20th century popular breeds such as the Leghorn (white hen) and the Rhode Island Red became the favoured breeds. By now poultry was part of the farm income, eggs were sold to neighbours and local grocery shops. The women of the house always looked after the poultry and the proceeds from the sale of eggs covered the cost of the weekly groceries. For breeding purposes there were lots of roosters kept with the flocks. In the glen as dawn broke, roosters would compete with each other as to who could crow the loudest – no alarm clocks necessary!
Many stories abound of the rivalries amongst owners as to who had the best breeding rooster. They were regularly sold or swapped, or purchased at the local fairs. It was also common to see 5/6 hens tied together for sale. Often roosters acted as guards around the yard crowing and making noise should an intruder approach especially predators such as a fox. Some roosters were really aggressive and would attack anybody who tried to enter the yard and indeed sometimes the owner herself.
Today poultry keeping is an industry in its own right. It has three distinct parts 1. Egg Production 2. Broiler chicks raised to 6/8 weeks old for their meat . 3.Breeding and rearing chicks for replacing the stock to 1 and 2. Initially fowl were kept indoors and farmed intensively. Now birds are kept in a more friendly and less intensive manner with many thousands roaming in pens outdoors. Poultry meat provides 20% of the world’s animals protein at a reasonable price. Ducks, turkeys and geese mirrored the hen market but not in the same numbers and were bred mostly for the Christmas market.