Emine Saner of The Guardian gives the low-down on the joy of keeping chickens, with expert input from the British Hen Welfare Trust’s Jane Howorth – and The Country Smallholder’s very own Liz Wright…
If you’ve been looking for an excuse to get hens – and really, if you’re lucky enough to have the space, you should – an impending egg shortage may be it. British egg producers have said there could be one coming. Blame rising costs of feed and energy, and avian flu. For commercial free-range producers, this means hens have to be housed (they’re still allowed to be labelled as “free range” for the first 16 weeks), and many have reduced the sizes of their flocks.
In the smug self-sufficiency dream, you’d wander to the bottom of the garden to collect still-warm fresh eggs, rather than fight over the last box in the supermarket, but there’s no guarantee. I have four hens who seem to have given up for winter – decreased daylight and energy diverted towards keeping warm can result in fewer eggs. Still, I’m hopeful for an abundance come spring, and you may be able to use the potential egg shortage to convince any reluctant domestic companion that chickens would be a good addition to the household.
Admittedly, avian flu has made it a little arduous. Backyard keepers are also under a housing order – chickens have to be indoors, such as in a shed or garage, or a covered run – and you will spend more time than you’d like on the Defra website, but once you are set up, “it’s done,” points out Howorth. The BHWT rehomes former battery hens – about 60,000 a year – which make, she says, “fantastic pets, because they are so docile and friendly, and they’re bred for egg production.” But because of avian flu, the charity is not rehoming birds, though the waiting list is open for when it starts again (you can still buy hens from other suppliers).
How much space do you need? “As large as you possibly can,” says Liz Wright, the editor of The Country Smallholder. The henhouse can be small, but that’s just their sleeping quarters. “There are some stupid little runs around. For four birds, you’re going to want at least 8ft by 4ft, but bigger really.” For smaller spaces, “just don’t get very many”. Perhaps a couple of bantams, the smaller breeds.
Keeping chickens in a town or city garden is fine, though Wright says that you may want to check the property deeds – there could be a covenant against keeping poultry. “When some houses were built, chicken-keeping was pretty prevalent,” she says.
We started keeping chickens last year, partly for the eggs, but also because the children’s dad thought it would be good to introduce them to ideas about the circle of life – less gentle than it sounds when the reality was a vulpine ambush, frenzied squawking that suddenly goes sickeningly quiet, and a pile of bloodied feathers.
We live in a town and have sadly provided a couple of meals for the local foxes, even in the middle of the day (RIP Big Gugu, the matriarch, who would come running for treats, her ginger bellbottoms flapping). We have three new bantam chickens now, but because of bird flu, they’re confined to their run. “The only positive I can find to avian flu,” says Wright, “is that you shouldn’t lose any [to a fox].”
Keeping chickens probably won’t save money, and probably won’t beat any egg shortage. “But what you would have are the most delicious eggs,” says Howorth. And there is, she adds, “a cosy feelgood factor” to rescuing ex-battery hens, otherwise destined for slaughter. One day, when ‘flockdown’ ends, my chickens will once again be scratching around the garden and hiding under bushes; they will come running, as delighted to see me as any spaniel. “They will want to be on your lap, they’ll want to come in the house,” says Howorth. “I’ve had chickens that used to come in and stand under the fruit bowl because they hoped a grape would roll off. They’re not bird-brained.”
In the meantime, get to know your new chickens while they’re penned in. With avian flu restrictions expected to continue well into the new year, they will need fun things to do. “Make sure you’ve got different-height perches. Things to hang up – cabbages, that sort of thing,” says Wright. Eggs or not, there can be no greater sight than that of a chicken on a swing.
Chicken keeping in half a dozen steps
1) “Top of the list has to be commitment,” says Howorth. “They do need daily care.” You can’t just install a run at the end of the garden and forget about them.
2) Get the basics right. “Particularly now, be aware of the avian flu housing restrictions,” says Wright. You’ll need a house, and a run which is covered in mesh or netting, with fun things to keep them occupied. “If you have more than about four to six hens, you probably need other water and feed containers,” says Wright – dominant hens will prevent those lower down the pecking order from getting what they need. Research red mite –“the scourge of every chicken keeper’s life” – and stock up on preventive treatment.
3) Fox-proof your run. “Foxes will get into anything if they can,” says Wright. You should shut your chickens in their house at night, even if it’s in an enclosed run.
4) Consider your neighbours. “Don’t get a cockerel,” says Wright.
5) Choose the breed that’s right for you. Saving a battery hen from slaughter is rewarding, and you should get eggs in return. Smaller breeds such as bantams are beautiful and varied and, says Wright, “are good if you’ve got small children – they’re docile”. A breed such as minorca, adds Wright, “really can’t stand the sight of people, let alone be handled”.
6) It’s illegal to feed your chickens waste from the kitchen, even vegetable peelings, unless your home is 100% vegan (it’s to prevent disease). “This country dwells far too much on the wartime – people think they’re going to feed their chickens on scraps,” says Wright. “They’re not.” You need quality pellets, a bit of corn in the afternoon, plus “green stuff for amusement”. For instance, a cabbage or apple strung up to peck at.