Chickens for the Soul

Both myself and my wife grew-up in cities, so when we decided to start keeping chickens four years ago it was something neither of us had any experience of at all. I can’t remember what prompted us to think about it in the first place, but I do remember neither of us were too enthusiastic about the idea at first. We both felt quite apprehensive about the whole thing –  I remember spending an evening on the internet reading about poultry diseases and parasites, how to kill birds humanely, rats, foxes and electric fences, and thinking there was just no way I wanted all that hassle and stress, just for a few eggs.

Needless to say, four years later, we all love keeping chickens !

The first thing to say is you don’t have to turn into a farmer! In many respects keeping a few chickens is very similar to keeping rabbits or hamsters or any other pet – just home them, feed them, look after them and clean-up their mess – but with the added bonus that they pay you back with the ingredients for breakfast !

It’s always good advice before starting something new to talk to someone who actually knows what they’re on about, and fortunately we knew a family that had quite a few birds locally and arranged to spend an afternoon with them learning the basics. I’m pretty sure that no matter where you are in the world there will be someone not too far away you can ‘talk chickens’ with.

So we decided to give it a go and I built a large run out of timber and chicken wire, and used a small lean-to shed as the coop. If you know one end of a saw from another chicken coops are easy enough make, but if you don’t fancy building one yourself, there’s no shortage of different types  to buy – including the highly styled Eglu from Omlet !

Once we had the coop and run, we just had to buy some feed and water dispensers and a bag of food (we tend to use organic layers pellets), and we were ready . . . well after buying some birds of course !

We initially bought four young birds at ‘point of lay‘ at a local agricultural show for around £15 each, but many people rehouse former battery hens. Properly sourced ex-battery hens are healthy and present no problems, but they are likely to be quite unfit and may look a little bedraggled at first. In the UK several organisations, including the British Hen Welfare Trust, can help source ex-battery hens for very little cost.

There is a little welfare involved in keeping chickens, but nothing too difficult. We keep the birds wormed by adding worming compound to their feed every month, and routinely dust both the birds and the coop with powder to discourage red mite and other external parasites. The powder we use is organic, and supposedly not 100% effective, but we’ve never had any problems with mites.

Several of our first batch of birds were quite inclined to roam – flapping over the 3ft fence we have dividing our garden, and helping themselves to our vegetables. As a result I got advice on how to clip their flight feathers on one wing, which makes it difficult for them to fly. While it wasn’t the most pleasant job in the world (similar to clipping a dog’s claws) it only had to be done every six months or so. Our current batch of birds seem far less inclined to escape, however, so I haven’t felt the need to trim their feathers at all.

We have lost birds to foxes which have come into the garden, though fortunately they’ve never broken into the henhouse. Though upsetting, especially for the children, I’m fairly philosophical about this and forgiving of Mr Fox . . . after all they have to feed their family too. I’ve improved the fencing around the garden to make fox raids more difficult, but I’m under no illusions I can keep a determined hungry fox out of my garden. Perhaps it’s enough just to make my chickens more difficult to get at than the other chickens in the area ?

Our current three birds give us on average two eggs a day – which is enough to keep us in cakes, omelets, fried breakfasts and pancakes !

All the chickens have names, and are now just as much our pets as the cat, and seem more than happy to be stroked or picked-up.

I’d recommend keeping chickens to anyone with even a fairly small garden.

Not only do their eggs provide a thoroughly local source of food, without any concerns about standards of animal welfare, but they also help improve the overall sustainability of the garden – consuming kitchen scraps and producing fertilising manure, as well as being quite an efficient form of organic pest control, even eating the odd slug !

Even more importantly, keeping chickens has given my children opportunities to have caring relationships with animals, and helped us all reconnect both with the source of our food, and the natural environment . . . and all without leaving the garden.

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Meeting Nature Halfway

The garden suggests there might be a place where we can meet nature halfway. MICHAEL POLLAN

We’ve achieved a lot in our garden this Spring.

The six new raised beds are doing well. I planted two with first-early potatoes, one with salad and sweetcorn, one with onions/carrots/beetroot, and another with brassicas (sprouts and broccoli). My girl’s have taken over the final one, and planted it with a chaotic mixture of peas, sprouts, poppies and sunflowers – it actually looks very good ! As we now harvest the potatoes, I’m replanting with leeks, late peas and cabbage.

Elsewhere in the garden we’ve a number of other beds – the rhubarb and berries are all doing well, but the peas and beans seem to be struggling a bit.

In my endless fight against the weeds I’ve used grass cuttings from the lawn as a mulch, which seems to be working up to a point. As well as acting as a weed-suppressant, mulching supposedly limits the loss of moisture from the soil, and when dug back in over the winter will return nitrogen. A lot of gardening websites advise against using grass cuttings for various reasons (weeds, soil heating etc) but I’ve not noticed any problems so far.

We’ve recently harvested our first potatoes, which have mostly been fantastic boiled or steamed, but a small number have been extremely bitter. This is caused by the chemical solanine, the same toxin that’s found in deadly nightshade. Potatoes produce solannine in response to infection and predators, and so is an indication of disease or other problems in the plants. Many people assume the green colour potato tubers go when exposed to sunlight is the toxin, but strictly speaking this is not the case. The green colour is chlorofil, but it does usually indicate solanin presence.

My best guess is that the solanine has resulted from water stress, as we have had a very dry spring. I plan to dig and lift all my remaining potatoes as soon as I get chance and will make sure to peel them well when cooking (as the majority of solanine is found just below the skin).

Note to self – water potatoes more !

The other big change in the garden is the chickens. We had four older birds at the start of the year, but unfortunately lost three due to a fox attack around a month ago. Foxy came into our garden over a 3.5ft wire fence and killed the birds on the lawn mid-afternoon (we have them running  free during the day). It wasn’t able to carry the dead birds back over the fence, however, and simply left them at the end of the garden.

We’ve had chickens for three years now, and have lost a couple of birds to the fox previously, but to loose three at one time, and the ‘mess’ that was left was certainly a bit upsetting. An electric fence is now on my shopping list . . . clearly I’m turning into a farmer !

Our remaining bird managed to escape by flying over a dividing fence in the garden, but was clearly badly traumatised. In fact it died overnight a couple of weeks later, which I’m sure was down to the stress of the attack and loosing it’s companions. Chickens are social birds, and don’t thrive when alone.

Last week we brought three new birds (of three different breeds, all aged between 12 and 16 weeks) from a local family supplier, and am looking forward to the respective brown, white and blue eggs. They should start laying when they reach around 20 weeks old . . . hopefully they ARE all female! I’ll write more about the joys of keeping chickens shortly.

I’ve also installed another water butt, which is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, the dry weather finally nudging me to get on with. We’ve now a total of three, which should be enough to see the garden through all but the most extended period of drought. We only normally water the vegetables, soft fruits and the greenhouse in any event, leaving the lawns and trees to their own devices. Most people’s gardens in the UK shouldn’t really require watering from the tap, so long as there is sufficient rainwater storage available and I recommend all keen gardeners maximise their rainwater storage. Treated tapwater isn’t just subject to seasonal scarcity in its own right, but has both a significant chemical and carbon footprint associated with its abstraction, treatment and supply. Minimising water use means saving energy too.

Overall I’m pleased with progress in the garden so far this year, though the proof will be in the eating, as the saying goes. Every year we seem to do a little better, and produce a little more food and I’m already planning next years changes in my mind . . . but if gardening is teaching me anything it’s that nature has it’s own ideas about things, so if I can continue to ‘meet it halfway’, I’ll be happy.