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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Not Just the Plants that Grow

My wife is very proud of her ‘butterfly flowers’ in our front garden this year (photo above). There are over 50 species of butterfly found in the UK, but unfortunately many are becoming quite rare. There are a wide range of flowers and shrubs you can plant that will help attract butterflies to your garden, including buddleia, lavender and many other flowers. I’ve also discovered that broccoli and cabbages work well, but that’s another story !

When we think about biodiversity, we often automatically think of exotic rainforests or other far off habitats, and we can fall into the trap of not valuing our own surroundings and wildlife the same way. We should all bear in mind the old environmental mantra of ‘thinking global, acting local’, and ensure our local wildlife is also receiving our best attention. Whether you have a large or small garden, or even just a window box, there is much we can do to help our local wildlife.

Attracting more insects into our gardens will usually benefit both larger wildlife, such as birds, bats and hedgehogs, and also improve the pollination of plants. Many insects like hover-flies and ladybirds will also help keep pest insect numbers down.

The photo above is our newly painted insect box – it’s easy to make your own from a few short pieces of bamboo cane – a possible summer project for the kids !

Much as I like butterflies, I’ve netted the brassicas recently in an attempt to keep the caterpillars off. Having to make a small pile of steamed caterpillars on your plate really detracts from the taste of your home-grown broccoli.

Overall all the vegetables and fruits are all doing well this year – we’ve had huge crops of plums, gooseberries, raspberries and onions. The runner and green beans are also picking-up after a slow start.

I’m trying to improve my year-round cultivation, and have recently started planting follow-on crops for harvest in the winter and early spring. A lot of gardeners, me included, sometimes neglect winter harvesting crops, concentrating mainly on spring planting and summer & autumn harvesting, but there’s plenty of veg we can still plant in mid summer for later in the year: beetroot, chicory, winter onions, lettuce, radish, chard and winter maturing potatoes.

The easiest way for most of us to increase the productivity of our vegetable gardens is to improve our rotation and successional planting and keep our gardens productive for more of the year. This is very new territory for me, so I’ll let you know how I get on.

Our three new chickens are settling in well, and the two older birds (a White Leghorn and a Rhode Island Red) have now started laying regularly. Hopefully the younger Cream Legbar won’t be far behind.

I built quite a large coop and henhouse in the garden a few years ago, for our first set of birds, and it’s lasted well. Chicken runs can be pretty much any size though, and keeping a small number of birds in urban settings is becoming increasingly popular. We’ve found keeping chickens very rewarding, enjoying the birds as part of the garden, as well as the eggs they produce. A large range of advice can be found online, if your’e thinking of starting a flock, including excellent advice from the Government.

I initially decided against buying a purpose-built henhouse and simply bought a small wooden lean-to shed instead, which I modified a little. This has proved pretty successful and popular with the birds. We did add a stand-alone wooden henhouse later when we added a second group of birds, so they could roost separately if they wished, but in fact they never did. We keep the birds supplied with clean straw and some sawdust, which serves as bedding in the winter, but also makes ‘mucking-out’ easier throughout the year. We feed them organic layers pellets or maize, as well as most of our non-meat kitchen scraps. In return we should get on average two eggs a day from our three birds throughout most of the year.

And as for the chicken manure – all I’ll say is: great in the compost, not so great on the lawn  :)

“When gardeners garden, it is not just plants that grow, but the gardeners themselves.” – KEN DRUSE

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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.

Waking Up is Hard to Do

Guest post by Steph Best – wildlife hospital and rehabilitation volunteer with Vale animal Hospital

One of the most recognisable and pleasing noises you can hear at dusk in your garden, is the snuffling and rustling of Hedgehogs. Often you can catch glimpses of them as they forage under bushes and scurry through the flower beds, eating spiders, snails, and any other tasty morsels they deem worthy.

When they first emerge from hibernation in the spring, having snoozed away the cold winter months, they simply want to eat to fill up their fat reserves and start looking for romance!

Unfortunately every year some are not so lucky. During our hotter, longer summers many hedgehogs have a second litter of Hoglets in the autumn. These babies struggle to reach the 600g weight needed to survive the winter and as a result hedgehog carers, myself included, and wildlife hospitals sometimes receive an influx of autumn juveniles, brought in by concerned members of the public. Last year Evesham’s Vale Wildlife Hospital had over ninety hoglets due for release in the spring.

I started caring for Hedgehogs a couple of years ago after finding two Hoglets wandering around a relative’s garden. My wildlife hobby soon developed and took me to the Vale Wildlife Hospital where I began training in Wildlife care and rehabilitation. I now also enjoy doing a range of talks and school visits, educating adults and children in wildlife care, supported by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. The Vale has an open day every year, and is well worth a visit to see what they actually do.

Hedgehogs were added to the ‘species in need of protection’ list recently, but many wildlife carers believe that they should have made the Endangered Species List. Sadly humans are once again the main cause, with habitat loss, road accidents, litter, enclosed gardens and netting, bonfires, and accidents with lawn mowers.

Many people are already Hedgehog aware, and leave out food and provide shelter for them. TV programs such as ‘Autumn and Spring Watch’ have also helped popularise wildlife awareness. This is a lovely time of year to look out for and enjoy our wildlife. Hoglets usually start to appear from May onwards, and you could well have several different Hedgehogs visiting your garden each night. They can wander up to two miles in an evening, visiting ten or more gardens looking for food and love.

There are several ways you can encourage Hedgehogs in your garden:

  • Regularly put out meat based pet foods and plenty of water in shallow dishes, or on old dinner plates, which are perfect.
  • Contrary to what many people believe hedgehogs should not be given milk to drink, as they cannot digest lactose and can become very ill. Bread is also not recommended as it can cause digestive clogging.
  • You can add to their natural diet by giving fruit, unsalted nuts, scrambled egg, meat left-over’s (cut up small), and some cat or dog biscuits. They should not be fed fish, however, or pork products or other salty foods.
  • You can make a feeding station by putting the food under a wooden board up on bricks, low enough for a Hedgehog to get under or get a plastic storage box, 30cm by 45cm, cut a door way in the shorter side, 10cm square; tape up the edges of the doorway, line it with newspaper, and place the food and water inside towards the back of the box, shut the lid to keep thieving cats away. Place the box in a sheltered area of your garden where there is any evidence of hedgehogs visiting.
  • Create a daytime sleeping place for hedgehogs by putting straw or shredded newspaper in a medium sized box, under a sheltered spot, cover the top with some plastic to keep it dry.
  • Keep garden netting and sports netting up off the ground by at least 1ft, to avoid causing strangulation injuries to tangled hedgehogs.
  • Cover drains, and check compost heaps before sticking a fork or spade in, and thoroughly check bonfires before lighting. Many Hedgehogs die this time of year because they sleep in piles of dried garden refuse ready burning. If you find a Hedgehog move it to a safer quiet place in the garden.
  • When mowing or strimming areas of long grass, or undergrowth check for Hedgehogs who could be asleep. Carers and Wildlife Sanctuaries have seen a big increase in horrific injuries caused by strimmers.
  • If you use slug pellets, please buy organic varieties, which are animal friendly and widely available at garden centres, or use some of the brilliant alternatives, such as nematodes, copper tape, egg shells and beer traps.
  • If you have an enclosed garden, make a small gap under a fence to encourage Hedgehogs.
  • Don’t let your dog ‘play’ with a hedgehog in the garden, as the Hedgehog may die from shock. Move it to a quieter area of the garden where the dog can’t get to it, and distract your dog by playing with its favourite toy.
  • If you see a Hedgehog out during the day, it will need help. They never come out in daylight unless disturbed or ill. If you’re worried a Hedgehog is ill, injured, or abandoned by its mum, put it in a warm place wrapped in an old towel, offer it cat/dog food and water and ring a carer or the BHPS for advice.
  • Never disturb a nest, especially in the evening the mother generally won’t be far away and could abandon the babies if scared.

Making a few changes and adapting our gardens to help wildlife may seem small in scale, but will have a large impact overall. Hedgehogs are such a pleasure to see in our gardens and have been an inspiration for stories passed down the generations – I still have my very first copy of Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggywinkle.

Hopefully with our help they can thrive and inspire more stories for years to come.

The British Hedgehog Preservation Society

The Vale Wildlife Hospital & Rehabilitation Centre

Photos by Steph Best