Keeping a few hens in the back yard is one of the fastest growing hobbies in the UK and it’s no surprise because it is incredibly straightforward. If you keep hens without a cockerel, they make very little noise and shouldn’t be any trouble with the neighbours. A supply of fresh eggs is always welcome and friends will always appreciate a gift of half a dozen free range eggs.
Rules and Regulations
In the UK, there are very few restrictions preventing you from keeping chickens in your garden. Providing you don’t intend to keep more than 50 chickens, there is no need to register them with Defra, A few houses have restrictions in the covenants and it’s worth checking with your local council, as some do have by-laws that prevent you from keeping any sort of livestock at your property.
Choosing your Hens – Pure Breed or Hybrid?
There are essentially two paths you can take when deciding on your hens. The first is the pure breed. Pure breeds are usually bought from breeders who specialise in a small number of different breeds of chickens. It is always a good idea to check that the birds you are buying are good representations of the breed which you can do buy looking through a good poultry breeds book such as Storey’s Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds
or on the internet by looking through the chicken breeds photos on poultrykeeper for example. For every pullet (young hen) that a breeder rears, they have also reared a cockerel up to about 8 to 10 weeks of age when the birds can be sexed so expect to pay from £25 upwards per hen. Some rare breeds can cost a considerable amount more than this and only bought as a trio (cockerel and 2 hens). Pure breeds lay between 50 to 200 eggs per year depending on the variety you chose amongst other things.
Hybrid hens are crosses of pure breeds that have been carefully selected to give specific qualities. Egg numbers or feather colour for example or in a commercial environment a good feed to egg ratio and the ability to identify male chicks at day old by the colour of their down. Hybrids are usually produced by large hatcheries and day old chicks are bought by the hundred and raised by breeders to point of lay when they are sold on. Hybrids are normally the best chickens to start with since they are usually very hardy, lay anything from 200 to 300 eggs per year and are usually available for about £15 per hen.
House and Run
Chickens can handle the cold well – however you must ensure their house is well ventilated (but not draughty or damp) it is also a good idea to give them a covered area where they can get out of the wind and rain. Chickens love free ranging so if you can’t provide them with a large area to roam safe from predators such as foxes, then you can let them out of their run when you are around to have a scratch around the garden.
Hens should be fed a balanced layers mash or pellet ad-lib. Mixed corn should only be fed as a treat in small quantities (a handful per hen each day) since it doesn’t contain enough protein for hens to lay eggs. Chickens will always appreciate greens and other tit bits. Some food can be hung in their run for them to peck at like corn on the cob and spring greens. Chickens of course don’t have teeth, they do have a gizzard though that grinds food down with grit that they pick up. For this reason, insoluble flint grit should always be available if they want it. Ground up Oyster shell can be provided to provide extra calcium to form good egg shells although most balanced layers feeds contain sufficient levels of calcium for them.
If your house and run isn’t movable, chickens will soon turn the ground to mud and keeping them on the same piece of ground can cause a build up of worms.
Worming chickens is fairly straight forward but it is also a good idea to cover the floor of the run with wood chippings that can be replaced from time to time. Worming chickens every 6 months routinely is a good idea to help prevent a build up of worms.
During the summer months, Red Mites are fairly common. These are very small mites that live in the cracks and crevices of the chicken house that come out to feed on your birds at night. A small infestation can quickly multiply so it is advisable to check their house from time to time. The easiest way to do this is to run a piece of white kitchen towel along the underside of the perch at night when your birds are roosting. If there are streaks of blood, you’ve got red mite. There are many products available to kill Red Mite some organic, some chemical but whatever method you decide to use will need repeating over the space of a few weeks.
Don’t forget you can make good use of the chicken’s manure by composting. You shouldn’t use chicken manure directly on the garden without composting it first since it is very high in Nitrogen but it does make fantastic compost that will improve your soil no end.
My favourite beginners book is Keeping Chickens: The Essential Guide to Enjoying and Getting the Best from Chickens
that is well worth reading before you get your chickens. Don’t forget further articles and advice can be found in the keeping chickens section of the poultrykeeper.com website too.
Keeping chickens can be a great deal of fun, not to mention the added benefit of a supply of freshly laid eggs. A final warning though: if you need to get things done in your garden, allow yourself extra time because you will not be able to resist spending some time sat watching your chickens and their funny antics as they go about their daily business. This is sustainable living at it’s best working in your own back yard!
Tim Daniels. Poultrykeeper.com