Chickens can suffer in both winter and summer. It is important to understand why
We are all longing for a lovely hot summer after such a dreadfully wet winter. But due to the high insulation factor of feathers, hens can easily get too hot. They hold their wings out and pant to lose heat, but because of their normal high body temperature (40-42°C), they overheat quickly and can suffer heat stroke which may be fatal.
Hens like to sunbathe with their wings stretched out; the UV light turns the preen gland oil on the feather to active vitamin D which they then preen and ingest, helping to keep bones strong. They do not sunbathe for long, however, and will actively seek shade.
What happens if the sun is strong on an early summer morning when they have not yet been let out? If the ventilation in the hen house is not good enough, the hens will overheat and begin to attack each other, creating a health hazard. So not only check the ventilation (at the top on two sides and open all year round), but provide some enrichment such as nettles hung up – these provide insects, good minerals and some entertainment.
Speaking of the wet winter, please remember that if you have endured flooding, those flood waters could easily have contained and left behind disease-causing bacteria such as E. coli and Erysipelas, both of which can be fatal. Keep an eye out for any hen whose behaviour changes even slightly, this is generally the first sign of disease, so get her to your vet quickly.
Most hens have the wit to get out of the rain, except Silkies and Polands who can get severely hypothermic if they get wet – the Silkies due to their unstructured and therefore non-waterproof feathers and the Polands due to their thin skull which supports their enormous crest.
Not only do hens seek shade when the sun is hot, they make every effort to keep out of a strong or cold wind. Their feathers get ruffled by the wind and then cannot do their job of keeping the hens sufficiently warm, which can make them susceptible to disease and/or encourages them to eat more to keep warm, but they may not be brave enough to dash across open and windswept land to get to the feed in the hut.
A simple shelter to avoid the wind hazard is a 60-90cm high cross or T- shape of exterior ply or similar, so that from whichever direction the wind comes, they can shelter behind it and, if this is not far from the hut, they can avoid starvation and dehydration. Hopefully, the wind will not blow the hen hut over: on exposed ground, tying down hen huts is a sensible precaution.
Then there is the cold in the winter, which, if it is dry, is not too serious a problem since feathers are good insulators. Remember to keep the ventilation open in winter as respiratory diseases are more likely to infect hens during the long nights.
The consequence of frost is that water freezes in the drinker, leading to reduced egg production as hens need a constant supply of water to lay well – an egg is 75% water! Galvanised drinkers seem to freeze their contents quicker than plastic ones and all of them are vulnerable to damage when you try and get the ice out. Washing up bowls that have sloping sides may be the answer for those of us who live further north and regularly get frosty weather, as these can be tipped over and the ice just slides out. Recently, water only stayed liquid for a couple of hours before needing to be replenished – this makes looking after livestock very hard and time-consuming work.
The final weather hazard is snow. No hen worth her salt will immediately venture on to ground that has changed colour overnight! Quite apart from the damage that heavy snow can do to netting or hen housing, hens with feathers on their legs really struggle to get about in snow (and mud) and may need to be kept indoors during this type of weather. Cut them a turf and/or hang up dark green vegetables at this time to encourage good ingestion of vitamin A which helps mucus membranes to remain healthy.