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.