WE live on what some describe as “the planet of the chickens”. There are currently around 26 billion chickens in the world, all being reared to feed humans. But, a recent study has shown that our history as chicken-eaters is not as long as previously thought. Though chickens arrived in the UK in 800 BC, the Iron Age Britons who kept them considered eating their meat and eggs taboo. Rather, they kept them as pets, and held them in high regard, with some even being buried with them.

So the chicken used to be more like a dog or a cat?

You could say that. Or a feathery sacred cow. In North Yorkshire, men were found to have been buried with cockerels and women with hens. “For centuries,” according to Professor Naomi Sykes, from the University of Exeter, one of the report’s authors, “chickens were celebrated and venerated.” Red jungle fowl, it’s believed, were originally lured down from the trees by human-sown rice plantations, and this began a period of them living around humans prior to being later farmed.

And when did we start eating them in the UK?

Not until the Romans pitched up in Britain in AD 43. KFC could be said to be another example of what the Roman’s did for us!

A lot has changed for Gallus gallus domesticus in a few millennia

Indeed. The chicken is now by far the most common bird on the planet. The number worldwide has doubled since 1990 and the species now represent around 70 per cent of all bird biomass on Earth. Even the now-extinct passenger pigeon, which in the 1800s had a population of 3-5 billion, and was thought to be the most common wild bird in human history, would be dwarfed by this. Historic bones show it is physically very different from the beast it once was, raised to grow fast and die young, rather than revered. Not the gallus creature it once was.

What does that mean for the environment?

Our poultry industry tells us a great deal about the complexity of our relationship to the natural world. A story sometimes told in the United States is of how the chicken saved the country from eating too much beef, and thereby lowered greenhouse emissions – all of which seems a good thing. But intensively-farmed broiler chickens come with welfare issues, and free range poultry brings other pollutions. Mike Berners-Lee, carbon footprint expert writes, “Chicken poo is full of nutrients, particularly phosphates. Raising hundreds or thousands of these birds outdoors produces a lot of poo, which can be washed off farmyards and pastures after rain and floods. The nutrients enrich local waterways and water supplies, triggering harmful algal blooms.”