Kate Fox describes how she designed a system for keeping chickens in a small space in her narrow back garden in Midhurst, West Sussex
When I decided to keep chickens, there were several aims I wanted to achieve in addition to the obvious – a constant supply of freshly-laid, high quality eggs. I also wanted to achieve a high standard of animal welfare for the birds, low labour input to suit our busy lifestyle and integration with our garden.
This led to me designing a system to meet these requirements, which differs slightly from the usual way people keep chickens, the main difference being not tied to locking up the hens at dusk every evening and opening the house up again early each morning as the whole run is totally fox proof. There is also minimal food waste and low risk of parasites (such as red mite) or disease as wild birds and rats are totally excluded.
The main constraint I had was space. We have a garden of less than 200m£ where we try to be as self sufficient as possible in vegetables, fruit, herbs and eggs. I designed the chicken run with our limited space in mind but, in principle, it would work on any sized garden. Due to our severe lack of space, I decided to keep ex-battery hens who have never known more than the bare cage they stand in for the first year of their lives. The run we have made is approximately 8m£ which is ample for about three or four hens, and we find that if we take them out onto the lawn while we clean the run, all they do is queue up at the door waiting to get back in!
I have highlighted below how my design achieves my main aims:
I wanted to give my hens as good a life as possible, so I designed the system very much with the five animal welfare freedoms as outlined by the RSPCA in mind.
1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
The hens have a self feed hopper that can carry a few days quantity of feed when full. I feed them dry mash so they spend a lot of time feeding and don’t get bored. They get a handful of corn scattered in the run once a day and I also hang up fresh greens from the garden such as spinach, chard and lettuce when there is excess and pick them handfuls of grass. They can get grit from the earth in their dust bath and from a grit hopper. Whenever I find slugs whilst gardening the chickens get them too!
They have a large water drinker which is sited on top of a stack of bricks to keep the water clean from droppings, dirt and straw.
2. Freedom from discomfort
The hens have access to a warm, dry, secure house for shelter at night and a couple of covered areas under the house and around the feed hopper for when it is rainy. There are open areas for them to bask in the sun – one of their favourite afternoon activities!
3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease
The whole chicken run is a safe environment with no sharp edges or protruding wire or nails etc which prevents injury. They are checked daily for illness and treated rapidly if necessary. There is plenty of space and a large enough feeder for the number of birds, so there is no need to fight each other and they have plenty to do so don’t get bored and feather peck. Disease is prevented by excluding wild birds and rodents, and any new birds coming in are quarantined for a week before joining the existing flock.
4. Freedom to express normal behaviour
The hens have deep litter straw to scratch and peck around in and spend a great deal of their time feeding as they would in the wild. They have a large area where they can have a dust bath (if they desire they can all fit in at once). They can go into the house and roost on perches at night and there are several perches in the run made from branches, logs and stacks of bricks where they occasionally decide to sleep at night during the summer!
5. Freedom from fear and distress
The run is totally fox and rat proof so the hens have no predators. The wire mesh used is not standard chicken wire that a rat could squeeze through but a much finer mesh. Our hens feel so safe they don’t even move away from the wire when the neighbour’s cat comes down for a look! They are never locked in the house so they are always free to choose for themselves when they go to bed and get up in the morning.
Low labour input
The main benefit in my opinion is not being tied to getting up at the crack of dawn every day and not having to hang around at night waiting for the last hen to decide to go into the house! The combination of this and the hens being on feed hoppers means that we are not tied to set times to deal with the hens so they can fit in around us and our busy lives. However, it does not mean that they don’t have to be checked every day to check for illness or any other problems, and of course to collect the eggs. What it does mean though is that it is easy to find a friend or neighbour to look after them when we go away as they literally just have to give the hens the once over and collect the eggs at a time to suit them.
I have designed the run so that it is easy to clean, with access doors to the house, nesting boxes and run, and the roof panels of the run being removable so I can walk around inside. I find that I only have to clean the run about once a fortnight at the most unless there has been a lot of rain that has made the straw soggy. The deep litter straw is on top of paving slabs so can just be scraped to one end and removed when it is dirty. There is very little waste food as the hopper is mounted high enough to stop the hens scratching food out and it is covered so it doesn’t get wet. I hang the greens so that when they have stripped off the leaves I can easily remove the stalks and put them in the compost. I have found that with this design there is no smell which keeps us, the neighbours and the chickens happy.
The water drinker and feed hopper are easily accessible for refilling and I use the water from a butt next to their house to save having to carry it far or get hosepipes out. A metal drinker doesn’t green up as quickly as the plastic ones do and therefore needs scrubbing out less often.
I try to have a system where there is as little waste as possible. All the soiled straw and droppings from the hen house go into our compost to enrich it. We don’t use slug pellets, so any slugs we find can be fed to the hens (which they absolutely love) and they get any veg that has gone to seed or fruit that has gone over ripe and weeds such as fat hen and chickweed.
In conclusion, you can have happy healthy chickens and lots of high quality fresh eggs in a small space without committing lots of valuable time to feeding, cleaning and opening and shutting doors, leaving you with lots more time to enjoy just watching them!