How to Keep Chickens in Your Garden
Meet Hattie and Joyce!
Hattie and Joyce are ISA Warren hens (AKA ISA Brown), a hybrid breed known for their placid characters and for reliable egg-laying. Named after Hattie Jacques and Joyce Grenfell, they are cheerful ladies who know exactly when it's feeding time. They enjoy sunbathing (on their sides with one leg stuck up in the air) and a cuddle, and fresh snails rooted out from under a plant pot are considered heaven indeed.
Happy hens will lay eggs without a cockerel being around. If you have neighbours who are likely to object to cocka-doodle-doing, then make sure you only buy hens. Here in England, the law allows people to keep hens in their garden but some bylaws forbid cockerels because of their noise.
What does it take to keep chickens?
Not much, actually. They need a dry, dark, well ventilated coop with clean straw to make warm nests in. Both the chicken coop and run need to keep them safe from predators. You can buy these as flat-packs, and prices vary considerably so it's well worth shopping around. If you're handy at DIY you can save a lot of money by making your own, or you can convert an existing shed.
And they need food and clean water.
In return, you'll get fresh eggs and some surprisingly amusing new companions.
After handling chickens or adult hens, always thoroughly wash your hands. Teach your children and household guests to do likewise. Hens can carry various germs including salmonella.
Do not wash out chicken feeders or drinking bowls with the same things as you use in your kitchen.
The chicken coop should be cleaned out thoroughly and regularly to prevent red mite and other parasites. Birds need dry, clean straw or hay bedding. They can withstand the cold, but damp will quickly make them ill.
There are two basic types of coop - the triangular arc, which is fine for two or three birds (usually); and the house and run. The arc is perhaps more readily portable, so if you want to move it around your garden you can. Some have wheels to make this even easier. Or you could find a set of discarded wheels and devise your own method of moving the arc around.
First decide how many birds you want to keep, then make sure your house and run will be big enough. Birds need space, especially if you don't plan to let them wander round your garden - where they'll eat bugs and weeds (and all other edible plants they can get at.) For example, the run in the video above is just big enough for two hens - and only just, which is why I'm about to replace it with something more suitable.
Adult birds can cope with being cold, but cold and damp together will kill them. The coop needs to provide a dry, predator-proof and quiet environment for your birds. Clean straw and hay should be provided for warmth and for nesting materials.
The coop should be kept clean and well ventilated, especially in summer. The walls of the coop should have ventilation holes to ensure a constant supply of fresh air as otherwise ammonia fumes can build up. Keep an eye out for red mite, which feed on your chickens' blood and deplete their vitality. There are products available to eradicate these pests.
A chicken's instinct is to roost on a perch. They were jungle birds once, a long time ago, and they feel safer higher off the ground. Provide perches as well as individual nest boxes, and you'll have a happy flock of chickens.
These are sociable birds, and it is cruel to keep one on its own. They will establish a pecking order - the highest ranking bird will sit on the highest perch. Any new birds need to be introduced carefully as they'll be bullied for a few days until things settle down again and the new pecking order is in place.
Purchase commercial chicken feed from a farm outlet and you'll find that so much cheaper than at a pet store or supermarket.
Chickens need grit to aid digestion, and there are a number of products in pellet form which provide all the nutrients needed for happy hens to regularly lay eggs.
They'll enjoy your kitchen's vegetable peelings too. Mine aren't over-keen on too many potato peelings but any green leaves are devoured rapidly. Weeds, such as dandylions and chickweed, are welcomed too, as are avian seed mixes. There's not much they won't eat.
No need for bug spray when you have chickens!
Allow your hens to walk around your garden, and they'll happily devour any snails, worms, ants and bugs rash enough to cross their path. My own garden has enjoyed a minor renaissance in growth since Hattie and Joyce arrived.
If you've any bits of scrap dinner left over, they'll demolish this too. Ours adore pasta, roast potatoes and gone-soggy veg. In fact, there's not much they won't have a go at eating - including the dog's dinner (so keep them away to prevent Fido's cross reaction!)
In the UK., it is now illegal to feed domestic hens on meat scraps, even though they'll happily devour them. This is allegedly to prevent disease getting into the food chain.
Actually, our other household pets soon accepted the chickens as part of the family. Our Jack Russell Terrier has even been known to join the chickens for a snooze in the straw inside the chicken coup, and the hens were not troubled by this at all. In fact, all the pets tend to sunbathe together on the patio.
Chickens make great pets, and looking after them is easy enough for a child to take responsibility for. They will quickly learn to recognise you. They will learn to come when you call them if you regularly offer food. They also like being stroked and talked to.
You can buy your birds as youngsters from a chicken breeder, or you might prefer to give a 'forever home' to ex-battery hens which wil be around a year old.
The ex-battery hens will probably look quite bedraggled at first, as intensive farming has a heavy impact on the quality of the birds' well-being and they tend to have plucked out their own feathers due to stress. But the feathers will slowly grow back, and once they've settled down in their new home they will begin to lay eggs again. However, their best egg-laying days will already be behind them and their lives may be shortened due to the harshness of the intensive farmings methods.
You can also buy chicks which had yet to be hatched from the eggs, but for this you will need appropriate heating and lighting facilities.
Hens love company.
It is cruel to keep one hen by itself, and these will likely pine away. They love to cluck to each other, groom each other, and potter around the garden in a little group and have communal sand baths, even if their chosen site happens to be right in the middle of your favourite flower bed. Mine love listening to classical music, and wander into the house and sit down by the speakers. (This also means various disasters on the carpet...!)
Hens will devour anything they take a fancy to. This means if you're trying to grow a few veggies, you might want to consider fancing off part of your garden as a bigger chicken run as otherwise the birds will demolish your entire crop. On the other hand, they will quickly clear your garden of slugs, snails and other bugs.
- Loose Chickens!
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© 2009 Adele Cosgrove-Bray