Chickens in Our Garden: Building a Coop, Sourcing Chickens, Looking After Them and Encouraging them to Lay
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Well, for us it was the chickens. Three appeared with little warning last Saturday lunchtime. Don’t worry, they weren’t on the menu, it just happened that way.
But I’m telling the story backwards. Let’s rewind a few weeks.
From Smallholding to Somerset Garden
Once upon a time, my longtime partner Arthur had a smallholding, with chickens, ducks and geese. Later, we had two hens at his French longhouse where we spent many pleasant holidays. They were borrowed from a neighbour, housed with us during our times there, then went back over the wall to join their old friends; the system worked well.
Since the sale of that house he has wanted to have hens again.
Moving to our present home three years ago, much renovation was necessary, all done by Arthur. By means of a rest from that, a few weeks ago he built the coop which had been on his mind for so long.
Sourcing the Hens
We were talking to a neighbour about the coop. It transpired that he had a friend with some spare chickens, three of them at 19 months old. Although we only required two, we didn’t quibble. They were free to a good home.
Nothing was mentioned for a while, then our neighbour said,
‘Oh, the chickens will be with you tomorrow.’
Good job the coop was ready! Great excitement! So on the morrow they arrived. They settled immediately, seeming happy with their new home and muttering softly to themselves. I would love to know what they were saying,
“Not a bad pad, think we’ll have the feed over there, good roost, great nest box, easy access….”
We had no idea what to expect regarding colour, breed, look, or anything else. They are Sasso hens, a breed created in 1978 in Sabres, south-west France. They are often brown but can be several colours, known for providing good meat as well as being good layers.
Let’s look at the coop first, then I’ll tell you more about our lovely ladies.
Work in Progress
Criteria for the Coop
It had to be
- big enough for 3 or 4 hens
It had to have
- a roof for protection but also to allow light
- a roost with enough space for 4
- food and drink facilities (mouse and rat-proof)
- easy access for collecting eggs
- a pop hole for them to go in and out under supervision
- a gate with latches inside and out
Shelter and Safety
For shelter, our hens’ residence was built between the brick garage and the wooden shed, backing onto a perimeter fence close to trees. The back required a wall along the boundary, built out of a fence panel. As foxes are numerous here and have a penchant for chicken, vertical foundations of stone-slab and wood have been laid deep beneath the fence panel, to make sure no animal can dig underneath to access the coop.
The roof is almost-clear box plastic, sloped towards the back so that water will run off into the natural irrigation drain next to our garden, also allowing plenty of light.
The roost sits diagonally across a back corner, providing maximum shelter and darkness at night. The ideal is 3-4” wide for their feet to be comfortable and must be long enough to accommodate the number of hens in the coop, unless you have more than one roost, but then it’s important to have them at the same height, with no other shelf higher, due to the natural pecking order. The dominant hen will want to be above the rest if given the opportunity and arguments can ensue.
Feeder and Water FilterClick thumbnail to view full-size
Food and Water
Food is dispensed via a feeder, hung from a cross-piece so not touching the floor. Mice and rats would enjoy the food too so it must be away from their thieving mouths and paws! Seed is fed in from the top. A piece of wood, sloped diagonally downwards to the back of the structure, leaving just a little gap to a trough at the bottom, will ensure that the seed is dispensed at a sufficient quantity, but gradually. That way, the girls can be left for a few days if needs be and still have plenty to eat. We give them food scraps too. They love apple (NOT the pips, they are bad for them) and cauliflower stalk. Citrus fruit is a no-no so I left a few raspberries for them; they turned up their beaks and went to look for something else.
Water is available via a similar method. A large canister of water also hanging from a hook is filled, the water trickles into a gulley all the way around the base, again a little at a time to ensure it doesn’t overflow but allows them whatever they require.
Nest Boxes from Outside and InClick thumbnail to view full-size
The nest boxes have been positioned so that we can open a flap and access the eggs easily, without having to enter the coop. They have a ladder to reach the boxes which are lined with straw for warmth and comfort. Each box has a ‘dummy’ egg in it, to encourage the hens to lay. We already had a ceramic one but the other was made by whittling a small piece of wood - it doesn’t have to be artistic, just roughly oval as the hens aren’t fussy about the aesthetics; well, they haven’t complained anyway.
To avoid us having to open the main gate to let them in and out, they will have a hinged section beside the water feed, secured with a latch. When we allow them out, they can go freely both ways whenever they like. Then when it’s time to go indoors, we will usher them in and close the flap.
The gate is the height of the coop, providing an easy way in and out for us. A bolt secures it from the outside and a hook and hasp are fixed inside so that the gate remains closed when we need the hens to stay indoors. There is a story attached to that which I found amusing but ‘he’ didn’t.
The day after they arrived there was just the bolt on the outside. I was showing our chickens to my grandsons, via FaceTime, and Arthur asked me to bolt the gate whilst he was inside the coop. I did so and continued chatting. Then I went indoors and was talking for a while. I didn’t hear the screams of imprisonment from outside, nor did the neighbours. It was colder that day and the house windows were shut. Somehow, Arthur managed to escape and came in to rebuke me - he was not a happy bunny!
The inside hook went on pretty quickly after that. I left it a while before I got him to laugh about it. Now I tell everyone!
Something to Do
It’s a good idea to add Mite Powder to the nests. When the hens sit the powder gets into the feathers and kills any unwanted guests. You can buy Layers’ Pellets too, a supplement to help them start laying.
We tried giving them a fat-ball, the sort made for wild birds in the garden. Boy, did they love that! It needs to be broken up so that they don’t fight over it. Generally though, our girls are genteel and don’t snatch when there’s plenty for all.
Apparently chickens also like to have something to think about, to work out. They like to play! The coop was therefore kitted out with a swing, an angled piece of wood from floor to wall and a short stump of wood to fly up to. We’ve taken out the swing for a while as it gets in the way of their flight to the roost. Things need re-arranging a little; shame they can’t tell us what’s best but we’re quick learners too.
They say you shouldn’t give names to those you keep to provide food. We don’t have any intention of eating our hens; they are there to give us some eggs when they feel like it and to be a source of interest for us and for the children.
So they have names. One has a crazy hair-do; she’s called Punk. Another has small wispy feathers protruding in a haphazard fashion from her cheeks. She is Whiskers; original, eh? Punk and Whiskers are those who have laid. Punk provides blue-ish eggs, Whiskers has light brown ones.
The third hen is called Norma. She has no particular distinguishing features, a couple of black splashes in her feathers, and I remarked that she’s just a normal hen. She seems more refined. Well we couldn’t call her Normal, could we? That would imply the others were abnormal, apart from being a dull name. So we feminised the word to give her more respect.
Each one has a particular characteristic. Punk is nosey and bossy but rather elegant in her precise way. Whiskers mutters a lot and is the biggest. Norma just goes about her business as hens do.
Punk laid the first egg and Whiskers the second. They have kept to that routine each day since. I find it strange that there is any routine at all but maybe that is coincidental. However, we had two blue eggs today, so we think Norma has now joined in and Whiskers is having a day off!
The names allotted above are ours. The children have decided otherwise. So when they visit, Punk will be ‘Jemima’ (two youngest granddaughters’ choice), Whiskers will be ‘Snowy’ (the grandsons’ idea) and Norma will be whatever my 19 year-old granddaughter decides in the meantime! Maybe they will be ‘Jemima Punk’, ‘Snowy Whiskers’ and ‘….?…Norma’.
So.... the Chickens have Landed!
I’m writing this six days after they arrived. On Monday we had our first egg, laid on the floor and broken, followed by another egg laid in the nest box. They have used the box since and we have had two eggs a day! We didn’t expect any at all for a few days as chickens need time to settle into a new home. Either we are good keepers or they are exceptionally happy hens. Maybe it’s a combination! We are certainly happy owners.
They are a fascinating addition to our garden. We shall allow them out from tomorrow, to explore a wider area of grass and land. It should be fun watching them. I hope they get used to us handling them too, so that the children can do the same when they finally get to see them.
Up-date: 4th July 2020 - Our three ladies were let out of the coop for the first time. They thoroughly enjoyed a little wander round the garden, found lots of dandelion leaves and scratted about. Independence at last!
Keeping Birds in a Garden/Smallholding
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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2020 Ann Carr