Fresh eggs every day, a motivation for going outside, the joy of keeping animals and the satisfaction of a successful project… what’s not to love about keeping chickens?
If you have a garden, maintaining a backyard flock is a great way to make good use of that outdoor space – even if you live in a city.
Chickens are social and need little space – as long as they can move around during the day, you will find they will happily sleep inside a converted shed or home-built coop.
You don’t need to be out in the countryside, either: celebrities such as chef Jamie Oliver and TV host Paul O’Grady have made urban chicken-keeping more popular.
Before you start planning for a flock, it’s important to think about why you want one. As each bird has its own personality, it can be easy to treat hens like pets, but some people prefer to think of them as livestock.
Regardless of whether you give them all names or maintain emotional distance, you will need to dedicate plenty of time to keeping them happy, healthy and laying lots of eggs.
Hens are creatures of habit and don’t respond well to changes in routine, so if you work shifts or go away often, your lifestyle may not be suitable.
Everyday tasks include feeding them and removing old food, cleaning the pen of droppings, collecting the eggs and putting the birds ‘to bed’ – shutting them up in the coop for the night so predators can’t get to them.
SARAH SAYS... 'We've had chickens many times - they do tend to poo everywhere but the fresh eggs are delicious. Sadly, we lost ours to urban foxes which will kills all your birds rather than just one. It's not for the faint hearted!'
The first step is assessing what sort of hen house is suitable for your available space. If you are a keen DIYer, knocking up a coop from old pallets and chicken wire may be an option, and a quick search online will throw up dozens of designs.
Some look like big rabbit cages, others like extended aviaries, and others resemble tiny human houses with a run attached.
Avian charity the British Hen Welfare Trust (bhtw.org.uk) has a hen-keeping starter guide that highlights some important points to bear in mind:
- Hens need something to perch on at night while they sleep
- They need individual nesting boxes in which to lay their eggs
- Coops must be completely secure to protect the birds from mice, rats and other vermin, as well as predators such as foxes and stoats
- People must be able to access all the areas for cleaning and egg collection.
Buying a ready-made hen house may be more expensive in the short term, but could save you a lot of heartache, bruised thumbs and wasted cash than if you try to make one yourself. The most common materials for coops are wood and plastic: the first are often bigger and more versatile, but the second type are easier to keep clean.
Each bird needs to have least 4sq ft inside the coop if it is allowed to range free outside, either within the entire garden or a run. Make sure the flock cannot get into neighbours’ gardens!
Local authorities may have by-laws over where livestock is allowed to be kept, so it is best to check your home isn’t in a restricted area and that you are allowed to have such animals under your house deeds or tenancy agreement before buying anything.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Pullet – a female chicken that is less than a year old
Started pullet – a female chicken that is 15–22 weeks old
Point of lay chicken – a female bird that is 22 weeks old and is expected to start laying eggs soon
Hen – a female chicken that is older than 22 weeks and is laying eggs
Cockerel – a male chicken that is less than a year old
Cock/Rooster – a male chicken that’s older than a year.
BIRDS OF A FEATHER
Another consideration is the size of your flock. Suzie Baldwin, author of Chickens: The Essential Guide to Choosing and Keeping Happy, Healthy Hens (£14.99, Kyle Books), says: ‘I’d recommend a minimum of three birds together because any fewer will bicker and quarrel.
When buying chickens, look for bright eyes, clean nostrils, smooth legs and glossy feathers.’
Chickens are stereotypically obsessed with status and the term ‘pecking order’ originates from their behaviour. Too few or many will upset the group dynamic, particularly if you add extra birds to a group later on, or get a rooster to breed your hens.
If your focus is getting a regular supply of breakfast eggs, it’s best to start off with a few hybrid chickens created from different pure breeds, which will be hardy and healthy.
Suzie recommends the friendly Rhode Island Red Blacktails, Light Sussex, White Leghorn and Blackrock as good layers. She sells chickens at Hollywater Hens, Hampshire (found at hollywaterhens.co.uk).
‘Always buy from a reputable supplier who is willing to give advice freely and offer help,’ she says.
Hens are foragers who will peck the ground for slugs and other morsels, but it is best to give them formulated feeds that contain a balance of nutrients, vitamins and minerals to keep them healthy. These come as pellets or a powdered mash.
An average-sized adult hen will need 100g–120g of feed per day, according to the British Hen Welfare Trust. It says: ‘Feed can either be given in a rationed amount daily or via a feeder that is large enough for several days.’
Hens also need flint grit to help them grind down food and high-calcium oyster shell grit to create strong egg shells.
Tim Daniels, who runs the online forum poultrykeeper.com, says: ‘Common foods that are poisonous to chickens are avocado, potato plant leaves and rhubarb.
‘Mixed corn can be given as a treat – but don’t overdo it as maize is fattening. A handful per hen per day as a general guide is enough. Fat hens don’t lay eggs!’
Under UK law, it is illegal to feed hens scraps from a domestic kitchen.
IN FINE FETTLE
As long as you have no more than 50 birds, you are not legally required to register the flock with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Yet the department encourages chicken-keepers to register so it can contact them if there is a disease outbreak.
There was a prevention zone in place across Britain until 28 February this year (and some high-risk areas must maintain these precautions), after cases of avian flu were found in commercial and backyard flocks.
This ordered all domestic chickens, hens, turkeys and ducks to be housed indoors, or for their total separation from contact with wild birds, see right.
Common chicken parasites to watch out for are lice and mites. Search on bhwt.org.uk for symptoms, diagnosis and treatments, as well as a guide for telltale signs of sickness.
Tim says: ‘Parasitic worms are frequently found in backyard chickens and I have always been an advocate of having a regular worming regime to ensure they don’t take hold.’
You will also need a local vet who can treat poultry if one of your hens gets ill – visit chickenvet.co.uk to find your closest practice.
With research and preparation, raising a flock of chickens will give you years of ethically produced eggs – and a great addition to the family, as watching hens interact can be soothing and amusing in equal measure!
The British Hen Welfare Trust works to rehome former commercial laying chickens so they can have free-range ‘retirements’, rather than be sent off to be slaughtered.
It cannot guarantee that the birds it supplies will produce eggs as they are past their peak age for laying (72 weeks), but as they can live up to 10 years, it is likely you will get a regular, if not daily, tasty reward for your generosity.
SUNNY SIDE UP... A Hen can lay more than 600 eggs in her first two years – that’s a lot for you to eat!*
AVIAN INFLUENZA STRAIN H5N8
Cases of this potentially fatal disease have been discovered in wild and captive birds in the UK, so Defra has issued specific guidance for owners of backyard flocks.
Signs of the illness include loss of appetite, swollen heads and respiratory issues.
Bird influenza can spread through direct contact or via the environment, such as wild bird droppings, so in designated higher risk areas, owners are required to move poultry to a suitable existing building, such as a shed, or construct a lean-to or polytunnel to house the birds in temporarily.
Chief veterinary officer Nigel Gibbens says: ‘A finding in a backyard flock shows how essential it is for all poultry owners, even those who just have a few birds as pets, to do all they can to keep them separate from wild birds and minimise the risk of catching avian flu.’
Until Defra lifts its prevention zones, if you can’t house birds inside, you must feed or water your flock inside its usual hen house, use netting to prevent any wild birds accessing outside enclosures, minimise your movements in and out of the coop, and clean your footwear before and after visits to the enclosure.
Confined hens must not be kept in the dark full-time, require distractions such as straw bales, perches or grain to scratch – to discourage them from pecking out feathers – and need plenty of water, food and dry bedding.
England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have different arrangements. Go to gov.uk/guidance/avian-influenza-bird-flu for more details and to find out if your property is affected.