Francine Raymond has some tips for caring for your birds when things heat up…

W ho knows what the Met Office has in store for us this summer. Whether the good weather comes in time for our holidays or not, we can be sure there will be some very hot days, and equally sure that our flocks won’t enjoy the heat. Although chickens are descended from jungle fowl, and jungles are hot, they are also shady, and that’s what your birds need — plenty of shade to escape the worst of the midday heat.

I always recommend that runs are sited under trees and get upset when I see so-called free range units out in open fields with nowhere for birds to escape the burning sun. It makes no sense from a commercial viewpoint either, because hens lay less during really hot weather. If you don’t have shelter in your run, maybe now’s the time to plant a large shrub: hazel (corylanus avellana) is a particularly good choice, a fast grower with nuts and beansticks as a bonus. Make sure to cover the root area with big flints or pebbles to discourage dustbathing, but, by next year your birds will have all the shade they need. In the meantime, a roll of bamboo fencing can create a useful quick bosky area.

Henhouses in countries that habitually have hot summers usually have wooden side panels that can be replaced with netted ones, so there’s a gentle draught while the birds are sleeping. A roll of gardening netting and a staple gun are all you need if security isn’t an issue; a panel of weldmesh would be a safer solution if you live in a foxy area.

Henhouses will need to be cleaned out more frequently in hot weather. I line my house with the Sunday newspaper every week, then take out the top few layers every ? morning and shred it into the compost heap. This way there is no build-up of droppings to affect your birds’ health by damaging their lungs with fumes. Sweep the run to discourage flies, and keep an eye on your hens’ rear ends, keeping them clean to avoid fly strike.

You may find your hens eat less during hot weather and, subsequently, lay less. Offer them greenery like salads that have gone to seed, especially if your lawn is parched dry and brown. Short grass is a good source of protein for your birds; you’ll be amazed how much they eat. If hose pipes haven’t been banned in your area, it might be worth keeping a small area green for your flock. Certainly your birds will need plenty of fresh water. I replenish their drinkers at least twice a day and, if I’m sitting relaxing in the garden, I will often keep a big bowl of water handy for them. They seem to enjoy dipping their wattles into the bowl to keep cool.

Hens often sunbathe in light sunshine. They lie with one wing and one leg outstretched, often panting slightly. It can be a bit of a shock the first time you come across one in sunbathing mode — they can look as though they are having a turn. Make sure you enjoy yourself in the garden, too, during the holidays. Leave the gardening to cooler times and relax with your flock. They’ll relax more if you’re sitting down, less daunting for them than always looking at moving legs. I find my flock get so friendly during the summer that it’s hard to keep them out of the house when the doors are left open. My Orpingtons are so heavy that even a low panel is enough to keep them out, but I’ve seen those bead curtains used to good effect with more energetic breeds.

If you are going away on holiday, make plans and organise a hen-sitter to come and look after your birds while you’re away. Your hens need visiting twice a day to be checked, fed and watered, and for their eggs to be collected. Consider buying an automatic feeder to make life a little easier for your hen-sitter, but they can’t take the place of human care and supervision. It’s worth having an arrangement with a henkeeping friend for reciprocal duties, then you can make sure you don’t both go on holiday at the same time.

Parasites can be an additional problem during hot weather. Ensure your birds have access to a dustbathing site. The area under your henhouse is a good, dry place to site a dustbath. Put your house up on legs, then you’ll also be certain there are no rats or mice living underneath. Top up your dustbath with sandpit sand or wood ash from a woodburing stove or bonfire site and add a little anti-mite and louse powder — check the house is dusted too.

Mums and chicks need particular care during hot weather, so I often try to plan my holidays a little later in the year, and take time off to enjoy myself, relaxing in my garden with my flock, and think of those poor holidaymakers sitting in their cars or at an airport on a steaming hot day!