So you want to keep chickens in your garden. Our beginner’s guide tells you all you need to know to get started
CHOOSING YOUR HENS
Keeping hens in your garden will give you great pleasure and endless amusement as well as delicious eggs and in return your hens will be leading happy, carefree lives. I assume you have already made sure that your garden has enough space for hens and that you and your family can spare enough time to care for them. After that, the most important decisions for you as a beginner are what breeds to choose, how many, how big and what colour. Nearly every breed of large fowl has been created in a smaller version, known as miniature fowl or bantams. Bantams will eat less but will lay smaller eggs. However if you are limited on space these are a good option. If you want a good supply of eggs from a traditional breed go for Rhode Island Reds or Leghorns. As a general rule lightweight breeds, such as Leghorns, that lay white eggs are more skittish than heavy breeds such as Rhode Island Red that lay brown eggs. If your main priority is to get eggs every day, go for a hybrid such as Black Rock or Isa Warren. If you want dark brown eggs from the traditional breeds you should go for Maranses, Welsummers or Barnevelders. If you want pretty bantams go for Wyandottes. If you want pretty bantams who are also reliable egg layers go for Sussexes. If you want small cuddly bantams suitable for young children to handle, go for Pekins. If you want blue/turquoise eggs go for Araucanas or Cream Legbars.
GETTING YOUR HENS
Starting with three or four hens is a good idea which you should buy as pullets (young female hens between 18 and 22 weeks of age). Pure breeds can cost between �20 and �40 and even more if the breed is rare while hybrids generally cost around �15 each. If you want to give your hens names, don’t buy four hens of exactly the same breed and colour or you will have problems distinguishing them; but do buy hens of roughly the same size – a small hen may be bullied. If you can, try to buy at least two of any one breed as chickens seem to be happier hanging out with a friend. Alternatively go for cross breeds which are hardy, long-living and will cost less. You will find that every bird has its own individual personality and traits, regardless of its breed. Beware of buying your first hens at a livestock market (you may end up with four young cockerels!) Go to a reputable source and see your hens before you buy them. The Domestic Fowl Trust is worth a visit as you can take a good look at the variety of breeds. If you decide on hybrids you can find various companies through a search on the internet that advertise Point of Lay hybrid hens. They will lay very well for two, possibly three years and then production may reduce dramatically, while pure breeds will lay fewer eggs each year (stopping for a well-earned rest in the winter) but will lay for longer. The alternative to pure breeds or hybrids is to rescue some ex-battery hens. This can be tricky if you are a first timer since they are going to need special treatment to start with. They may be badly defeathered, unfit and unable to fly up on to a perch or into a nest box. You will need to keep them confined for the first couple of weeks so that they can build up some strength and get used to their new surroundings.
HOUSING AND SPACE
The most important thing for your hens is space – the larger the area of grass you can give them the better and the happier they will be. You will need to provide a secure hen house, preferably made of wood, which must be weatherproof with perches and nest boxes. Always go for the biggest hen house you can afford to fit in your garden. If you are a DIY enthusiast you can make one. You need to make sure the roof is waterproof, preferably made of onduline or plain treated slatted wood. The hen house should be well-ventilated because hens excrete half their daily amount while roosting/sleeping. If you decide to buy a hen house there are specialist catalogues and many websites selling housing. Perches are essential for roosting and should be wooden slats about 5cm wide and between 60 – 90cm above the floor. You should use shavings or straw for bedding. If you have several hens you will need at least two nesting boxes which should be about 45cm wide and deep, placed in the darkest corner of the hen house and filled with shavings or straw. Hens will regularly queue up to lay in the same nest box. You may have to enclose your hens in a run. As a general rule a minimum space for three chickens is 3.6m by 4.8m but make sure there is some shade, shelter from wind and rain and grass to peck at and roam on. You should make the run fox-proof by using 1.8m fences, preferably chain link, with an overhang at the top to prevent the fox climbing over and you should bury the wire 30cm into the ground. Alternatively use electric fencing. Arks which attach to hen houses are another option since they are on wheels and can be moved to fresh grass. If you have a large garden or field and want your hens to be completely free range you need only a secure hen house in which to close them up every evening and let them out in the morning.
Never underestimate the risk to your hens from predators such as foxes or badgers. A fox could kill all your hens in one go especially if he gets to hens confined in a run. At least if he comes during the day and they are free ranging some will be able to get away. Be sure to give your hens the best protection against foxes.
You will need a drinker (hens need fresh, clean drinking water at all times), a feeder, mixed poultry corn and/or layers pellets or layers mash. Pellets are small and cylindrical – they are clean and easy for hens to eat. Mash is harder to pick up. A normal sized hen needs about 100g of food a day in the form of grain. This is a rough guide; hens like to eat small quantities throughout the day so food must be available to them at all times. Mixed poultry grain and layers pellets cost between �6 and �8 for 20kg. If your hens are enclosed give them as much green stuff as you can but also grit mixed with oystershell to aid digestion and provide calcium for strong egg-shells. If they are free ranging they will feast upon grass and many other delicious green weeds. The green stuff will give their eggs lovely yellow yolks. Free range hens will enjoy worms, slugs, snails, ants, woodlice and try to eat flies and other flying insects. They should also be able to pick up enough grit and calcium from the soil, especially if it is chalky.
Hens have many needs – apart from making nests and laying eggs, they love to exercise, flap their wings, preen, dust-bathe, sunbathe, scratch, peck and forage for food as well as perch during the day. Once a routine is established with your new hens you’ll find maintenance easy – the least you need to do is to let them out in the morning, making sure they all look well and have food and water, collect the eggs and shut them up at dusk (they will put themselves to bed). The more you handle your hens the friendlier they should become. The more docile breeds such as the hybrids will enjoy coming inside. When you go on holiday, neighbours will jump at the chance of free eggs in exchange for looking after them. You will need to clean out the hen house at least once a week. If you grow vegetables or flowers and your hens are free ranging they will quickly ruin the borders, eating your greens, scratching up susceptible plants and making craters with their dust-bathing. If you are going to give them the run of the garden you’ll need to net the vegetables. However, your hens can be a useful addition to the garden – they are very good at breaking up the soil after you have dug over your vegetable garden in the winter; they forage for pests and produce droppings, which make an excellent fertiliser. You should allocate a patch of bare earth where your hens can enjoy their dust baths – dust-bathing is the hens’ way of cleaning themselves.
THE HENS’ ROUTINE
A typical day in hens’ lives runs something like this: they will get up at sunrise, the cockerel (if there is one) will rush around trying to mate with his hens, they will be more interested in feeding and doing some foraging before hopefully laying their eggs. They may well then decide to preen their feathers and clean the more inaccessible parts of their bodies with their beaks. The feathers are also oiled by the beak (oil is picked up from the preen gland on the tail). They may do this standing on top of hutches, especially in winter when the grass is wet. At about midday hens will often like to relax in a dust-bath and doze in a cool place if it is hot or do a spot of sunbathing – they will lie on one side and spread out their uppermost wing. Later on, a second peak of activity occurs in which the cockerel may be mating with his hens and, if not confined, all the hens will be out and about foraging for food. They need to fill their crops ready for the night. Hens like to sleep in groups on their perches. Pecking order is evident at this time because the hens who come first in the pecking order will want to sleep on the highest perches. Once they are settled, hens will retract their necks, shut their eyes, put their heads under their wings and go to sleep.
Hens lay eggs whether or not they are fertilised, so you don’t need a cockerel. Pullets should start laying eggs at around 20 weeks. When a hen has a nicely developed red comb and face, this is a good indication that she is about to start laying. You may also see her checking out the nest box a day or two before she starts. A good layer, at her peak, will lay six eggs per week. Hens will generally stop laying in the autumn while they moult and all their energy will go into producing new feathers. Hybrids will then start laying again and hopefully continue through the winter. Pure breeds will stop for the winter as the days get shorter and start again in the early spring. Eggs take about 25 hours to form and pass through a hen’s system. The natural behaviour of a hen is to lay a clutch of eggs and then start to incubate them. So you may find that some of your hens go broody.
HEALTH AND WELFARE
You have a ‘Duty of Care’ to your hens by law. My hens tend to live up to six or seven years but sometimes a hen will die younger, for no apparent reason. Be aware that not all vets will treat sick hens and the treatments offered – eg antibiotics – may not be successful in curing your hen. Problems to look out for are: White crusty legs caused by the scaly leg mite – brush the legs with surgical spirit once a week for a month; Red mites which live and breed in crevices in hen houses and at night run up the chicken’s leg and suck blood. They don’t live on the bird but can be spotted during the day, red if they have recently sucked blood, or grey if not. There are various products on the market available to deal with them; Lice are another problem. Irritating for the bird, they can be treated with louse powder. If birds are kept too long on the same ground they may need treatment for worms. You may have a hen laying shell-less eggs. This is usually due to a lack of calcium so you will need to make sure she is eating oystershells. It can also occur when a hen first starts laying or at the end of an egg laying cycle.
RULES, REGULATIONS AND CONSIDERATION FOR NEIGHBOURS
There are no legal restrictions on keeping a small flock of hens in your garden but do check with your neighbours to make sure they don’t mind, especially if you are thinking of keeping a cockerel! Local authorities can take action if they get complaints about noisy cockerels or an increase in the rat population due to feed being left on the ground. You only need to register with DEFRA if you have more than 50 hens and you do not need to register as an egg producer to sell eggs to friends and neighbours.