JANE FRYER: The students who founded Omlet have cashed after their chicken coops became must-have

For many of Britain’s million-plus domestic chickens, it must be beginning to feel as if there are two tiers of hen in this land.

On the one hand, we have the normal, (dare I say) bog-standard, domestic fowl, who peck and roam in all weathers, perching and laying in drafty wooden enclosures.

These chickens mostly live in rural settings, eat commercial seed and vegetable waste and, when the great coop in the sky beckons, are despatched briskly and firmly — or, rather too often, they’re bundled off into the woods by a greedy fox.

And then there are the ‘Eglu’ chickens, who live a different life altogether.

These birds are given ironically retro names like Mabel and Vincent and are treated as much-loved pets.

They enjoy hot-water bottles on frosty nights, little green plastic swings in their coops and — when the temperature really dips — some of them sport £9.99 thermal jackets with a heat-reflecting lining designed by NASA in either hi-vis pinks and yellows , or perhaps a fetching tweed (yes, really).

Their owners kiss and cuddle them. Some take them for walks on leads. While others whisk them inside at the first sight of rain to peck about the kitchen or snuggle up on the sofa.

These ‘Eglus’ are a firm favorite of the urban, and suburban, middle-classes who have taken up chicken-keeping, and poshies playing at being farmers

They marvel at their silky-soft feathers and brilliant personalities, take endless photos of them and tell everyone how good they are for relieving stress.

Home for these chickens is a bright plastic henhouse made from recyclable, energy-efficient molded polymers in fetching green, yellow or red, costing up to £749. These ‘Eglus’ are a firm favorite of the urban, and suburban, middle-classes who have taken up chicken-keeping, and poshies playing at being farmers.

Everyone who is anyone has one, apparently, from John Cleese to chef Nadiya Hussain.

Last year, even David Cameron was photographed desperately trying to assemble an Eglu Cube — the biggest model, of course, fit for between six to eight birds — in his Cotswolds garden.

And it goes without saying that when Jolyon Maugham QC famously got into trouble for clubbing a fox to death on Boxing Day morning in 2019 while wearing his wife’s satin kimono, he was, of course, protecting his beloved chickens, sheltered in their Eglu run.

In fact, Eglus — and those thermal jackets — have become so wildly popular and profitable that yesterday it was announced that Omlet, the aptly-named company that makes them, has just secured £33 million from Piper, the private equity firm, in return for a significant majority stake.

Did you say £33 million for a share in a henhouse company!? It seems a lot, yes, but then, hen-keeping is big business.

According to recent figures, chickens are now the UK’s fourth most popular pet — ahead of hamsters, guinea pigs and rabbits.

Which means that hen-keeping courses are hugely oversubscribed, sales of textbooks on how to keep hens have gone bananas and online forums are awash with discussions ranging from how to deter foxes (‘get the man of the house to wee around the garden’) , to how to improve their energy (‘feed them Marmite on toast’), how often they lay (‘in a good run, every 25 hours’) and how best to fit those thermal vests (‘keep their shoulders clear or they’ ll lose their balance’).

It all started for Omlet back in 2003 when James Tuthill, then a post-graduate student at the Royal College of Art, was asked by his mother to update her rather tired henhouse.’I’d kept chickens before and I’d made a wooden house for them then,’ Tuthill explains, ‘but it wasn’t until I was looking for ideas for a final-year project and my mum suggested that I update my design for a chicken coop that I decided to take that idea further. ‘

Country folk in particular, who tend to keep a flock of chickens, ¿ between six and 20 usually ¿ consider the plastic coops absurdly overpriced

Country folk in particular, who tend to keep a flock of chickens, — between six and 20 usually — consider the plastic coops absurdly overpriced

When fellow students Johannes Paul, William Windham and Simon Nicholls saw his graduation project, they immediately spotted its potential — the gap in the market, the quirky design, how it chimed with the dual trends for re-homing caged hens and embracing home-grown produce — and all four joined forces to sell it. And from the off, it was a massive success, winning design prizes, grants and huge sales.

In the first year, they sold over 2,000 models, with more than 70 per cent going to customers in towns and cities. Then, between 2004 and 2009, sales increased ten-fold.

And it’s not just hen houses. Omlet has since expanded its range, selling goodies from ‘memory foam’ dog beds for £39.99, to a range of luxury split-level, wood-finish hamster cages and even a £499 state-of-the-art ‘Beehaus’, for Britain’s avid apiarists.

And as Eglu sales soared, so did the number of hen enthusiasts.

According to Omlet, 90 per cent of its early customers had never before kept livestock.

Suddenly, every smart urban street seemed to be waking to the sound of clucking birds, with the Eglu’s futuristic pod-like design nicely setting off expensive barbecues and garden furniture sets.

To begin with, the Eglus were delivered not just with feed, but also with at least two live chickens — by a chap in a smart sweatshirt aptly labelled ‘Chicken Delivery Man’, who walked eager young novices through the ins and outs of hen- keeping.

Today, there’s so much business the Chicken Delivery Man would probably have a breakdown.

Chickens are now the UK¿s fourth most popular pet ¿ ahead of hamsters, guinea pigs and rabbits

Chickens are now the UK’s fourth most popular pet — ahead of hamsters, guinea pigs and rabbits

Which is good news for organizations such as the British Hen Welfare Trust (BHWT), which rehomes 60,000 hens a year — many to Eglu owners and mostly from battery cages in egg farms, which retire them at just 18 months when they no longer lay perfectly uniform eggs.

Gaynor Davies is BHWT’s head of operations and herself owns 120 chickens.

‘It’s very addictive,’ she says. ‘Once you’ve had your first chicken, there’s no going back. They’re very, very rewarding.’

And not just, it turns out, in eggs (‘No other pet will lay you an egg for breakfast’, Gaynor laughs); owners also eulogise about their mental health benefits.

‘Have a chicken on your lap, give it a stroke,’ says Gaynor. ‘It takes your blood pressure down.’

While the nation’s enthusiasm for hens seems unstoppable — particularly during lockdown as even more embraced The Good Life ideal — not everyone is a fan of the Eglu.

Country folk in particular, who tend to keep a flock of chickens, — between six and 20 usually — consider the plastic coops absurdly overpriced and an excuse for ill-informed urbanites to keep the birds as pets which, they insist, they are not.

And while keepers crow about their birds’ brilliance, their neighbors are not always quite as keen — about the noise, the smell and the increased problems with rats and foxes that they bring.

None of which will have dented the zest and zeal of those four Royal College of Art graduates, suddenly awash with silly money.

Or, for that matter, the delight of thousands of happy chickens, once stuck in horrid egg farms, now looking forward to a nice bowl of scraps and the next snuggle on the sofa before they settle down for the night with a hot-water bottle in their delightful little homes.

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