10 things you should know about keeping chickens

  1. Keeping chickens is rewarding but not cheap. They will produce the most expensive eggs you can eat, but also the tastiest. As with most animals, it is not the birds themselves that will set you back most when you purchase them, but equipment and upkeep. You will need a good chicken coop – not worth stinting on – and some form of run or netting. Then you need bedding materials, probably some wood chippings for the run – preferably hardwood; drinkers, feeders, food and medication. Chickens need regular worming and mite control. You may also need rat-poison, as unfortunately rats will never be far from free food.
  2. Chicken-keeping takes time. My daily routine of feeding, cleaning, letting the birds out and shutting them up at night takes around 30 minutes a day. If you miss shutting the birds in one night and the foxes slaughter your chickens, you are not unlucky. It was not the one night that foxes happened to come past. They will include the run on their nightly circuit, and take advantage of any lapses. I have lost birds to foxes during the day when the dogs have been away. Contrary to reputation foxes don’t just kill for fun. They aim to kill all the birds in one go, take what they can carry and return later to remove the rest. I try to remove droppings from the run and coops every day so as to avoid a weekly clean and to keep the ground fresh. This reduces the risk of coccidiosis, a parasitic disease of the intestinal tract that thrives in chicken faeces and dirty conditions. About once a month the houses get a more thorough clean and a couple of times a year a deep clean, along with a change of chippings on the ground. My hens free range during the day, which also reduces the risk of disease and problems caused by boredom. The more varied their diet, the tastier the eggs.
  3. If you want to keep chickens primarily for their eggs you need to select a breed that has a high year-round pattern of laying. Ex-battery hens, the common brown hybrid, are excellent, but there are many other good layers out there from the fancy breeds. Ex-battery hybrids also make friendly garden birds, being docile, curious, and easy to handle. The British Hen Welfare Trust gives advice on how to go about re-homing battery hens. You will have the satisfaction of giving a new lease of life to an abused bird.
  4. Chicken breeds all have their individual strengths and weaknesses, and each chicken its own character. No two breeds and no two birds are the same. It pays to do some research and to get birds that suit your needs. I always keep some Silkies as all-round multi-purpose birds. They are pretty to look at, being quite small and fluffy, and come in a wide range of colours. They are reasonably docile, hardy, excellent broodies (i.e. good at sitting and hatching eggs), good mothers and all-year-round layers. They can’t fly so don’t need to be clipped or pinioned, and obediently put themselves to bed inside their houses, rather than on the roofs or in the trees, at night.
  5. If you are after a child-friendly pet that seems to enjoy being handled and will take an interest in your activities there are many breeds to choose from. Hybrids, White and Light Sussex are the most curious birds I have had. If you want something smaller, Polands and Barbu d’Anvers are delightful, friendly little birds. Some of the heavier, fluffy breeds such as Buff Orpingtons and Cochins can be very tolerant of handling, especially if handled frequently when young.
  6. Some chickens are very good flyers, and prefer to roost in trees at night, but whether they are wanderers or not, and whether this matters to you, depends on where you live and the individual bird’s characteristics. Some of the smaller lighter breeds are more flighty. One of the first breeds I tried to keep were Ancona. They flew off into the woods within hours of being released into their run, never to be seen again. It is quick and painless to cut the flight feathers on one side (clipping) if you want to keep your birds on the ground. This does, however, make it harder for them to escape from predators. Training your birds to sleep in their house or run at night when young can take patience, plucking them from wherever they have roosted and putting them where you want them. Chickens are generally creatures of habit and most eventually get the idea. It is never worth chasing a chicken as they will outrun and outsmart you. If you can get your chickens tame enough to come to you and allow themselves to be picked up that is very helpful. If you have a bird that doesn’t like being handled wait until it has settled at night before attempting to lift it. Even the most nervous bird will allow itself to be plucked off a roost to be powdered or moved. I keep a fishing landing net for emergency captures.
  7. There is nothing quite like hatching your own chicks, but beware of inbreeding if you have a closed flock. Swapping cockerels is a good idea or they will breed with their mothers, sisters and daughters. Hatching eggs can be purchased on EBay. These are generally newly fertilised eggs, and will take around three weeks to hatch in an incubator or under a broody hen. The hatch rate for bought eggs is nothing like as good as for those from my own birds. With eggs laid in situ I generally get close to 100% hatch rate. For EBay eggs it varies between Zero and 50% at best. Only clean, regular shaped eggs should be set (chosen for hatching). Using a broody hen is far preferable to an incubator. She will do all the work of keeping the eggs at the right temperature and humidity, turning them regularly. Just make sure you lift the broody off the nest once or twice a day to eat and drink. Left too long she may soil the eggs. Many chickens make excellent, attentive mothers and will teach the chicks were to go and what to eat, and keep them safe and warm.
  8. It is a good idea to separate a hen and chicks from the rest of the flock just before or immediately after the eggs hatch. Having her own broody coop and run will reduce stress and give the chicks protection from other birds, who might peck at them. Chicks vary greatly in how good they are in following mum and keeping out of trouble. Gradually increasing the size of their territory so that they get used to roaming safely is a good idea. By about three months of age most chicks will be reasonably independent, and their mother will become less attentive as she gets ready to start laying again. Many breeds will go broody without any eggs to sit on, Silkies notoriously so. I have used Silkies to hatch other small birds, such as guinea fowl, and larger broodies such as Cochin and Orpingtons to hatch ducks, geese and peafowl. A devoted mother hen can even learn to imitate the call of her foster chicks when rearing them. I had a Silkie hatch a brood of guinea keats (chicks). When they became too flighty and were in danger of disappearing into the neighbouring woods, I returned them to the farmer who had given me the eggs. The hen spent the next couple of days calling for them in guinea fowl.
  9. You will probably hatch more cockerels than hens, that’s just the way it is. As surplus cockerels can be a nuisance, not just to the neighbours but also to the hens, you will need some means of disposing of unwanted birds. One well-behaved cockerel to about half a dozen hens is ample. You don’t need to keep cockerels at all unless you want to breed, but they can make a lovely and interesting addition to your flock. Some are perfect gentlemen, looking out for their hens and calling them excitedly when they discover a new food source. Others are bullies and can be aggressive, and are always trying to pick a fight.
  10. The famous pecking-order is really more of a network. The status of a mother hen will affect that of the chicks she raises. The chicks of a high-ranking mother will benefit from her position. The chicks of a timid mother will have to fight their way up from the bottom of the pecking order. A sick bird will quickly lose its place in the flock. Chickens try to disguise the fact that they are ill, so you need to be attentive for signs and react quickly, and be prepared to isolate a sick bird. There are friendships and enmities in a flock, and some of the smaller breeds such as Pekins, can be quite feisty. Part of the pleasure of keeping chickens is getting to know them as individuals, and watching their domestic dramas unfold. Talk to your birds as they will get used to your voice. I also carry a small tub of dried meal-worms that the chickens follow – very useful if you have to shut them in early for some reason. Chickens will reward you not just with eggs and perhaps meat, but also with companionship and hours of entertainment.

Further information

A-Z of Chicken Diseases taken from the wonderfully informative website, Keep Hens, Raise Chickens.

It is worth buying or subscribing to a poultry keeper’s magazine, such as Practical Poultry. You can find this and other similar publications in the county stores that sell equine equipment, lawnmowers, chicken and dog food by the sack, and overpriced wellington boots. The magazines are full of useful adverts for housing, fencing, feeding, medicating and everything else you might need to use or know about keeping chickens.

Two of my favourite UK retailers for chicken equipment:

Omlet, particularly good for high quality, innovative plastic housing, runs, and general equipment. Their houses are expensive but very durable and easy to clean and move.

Flyte so fancy, good quality housing and runs in more traditional wood. I have several of their raised, covered platforms for feeding and reversed as a dust bath. They also supply hemp bedding and hardwood chippings, and disinfectant and dusting powders. All cheaper in bulk if you have somewhere to store them.

If you want to know more about the therapeutic benefits of keeping chickens, check out Hen Power, sponsored by Equal Arts. This is a scheme to promote wellbeing and combat loneliness among older people, particularly men, who often have more limited social networks. According to a study carried out by the University of Northumbria in September 2014 (Practical Poultry, Jan.2015, p.5), male participants of HenPower all reported improved wellbeing, and reduced depression and loneliness. In one dementia care home it found that, since the hens had arrived, violent incidents by residents were down 50%, and the use of antipsychotic drugs was so reduced that they were no longer used routinely.

It is not just older men who can benefit from the companionship of hens, and the ways in which they can bring people together. Children often benefit from having chickens and generally love to watch and handle chicks, and there are many people living alone who value their company. My chickens are a source of meditation and relaxation in an otherwise overcrowded life.

10 things you should know about day surgery

  1. The pressure on the NHS in the UK has led to a steady increase in the number of elective procedures carried out as day cases since a strategy to move away from inpatient care was introduced in 2002. I have recently had three operations performed on this basis, two in a private hospital (cataract removal) and one in an NHS hospital (breast tumour removal).
  2. In the private hospital I had my own en-suit room for the day, with a TV and complementary toiletries (useful Christmas presents). In the NHS hospital I was in a ward with a trolley rather than a bed, on which I was taken to and from theatre. It had flimsy curtains that could be pulled around it. These gave only minimal privacy and no soundproofing. The beds/trolleys were pretty close together. There was just room for a chair, the narrow trolly and a bedside cupboard to leave clothes and a bag – with no locks. In the private hospital there was plenty of free parking, in the NHS one it cost almost £10 for a day, and it proved quite difficult to work out the system and find a machine to take payment. I heard visitors later in the day say that they had spent ages looking for a parking space.
  3. In both cases the protocols of admission were the same; a visit from the surgeon, whom one had seen previously, a visit from the anaesthetist, a nurse taking personal details and giving me a wrist band with name and address on. The surgical procedures were explained and consent form signed. In both cases there had been a pre-admission check for MRSA and general health.
  4. The staff, including nursing staff and porters, surgeons and anaesthetists in both cases were brilliant. They couldn’t have been kinder, more attentive or more reassuring.
  5. The NHS hospital was under far more pressure to keep patients moving through the system, with two shifts of operations a day, morning and afternoon. In the private hospital there was not the same sense of urgency and the room was mine for the day, for as long as I needed it.
  6. The private hospital gave me the aftercare notes to read after eye surgery, which was a bit late as I couldn’t read for a few days, and was dependent on my husband to read them to me. They would have been far more useful in advance of the operations (each eye was done a month apart). I only went privately when it became clear that the NHS could not provide the surgery – I had waited 18 months and would not have been able to drive had I waited any longer. In that time I had not even seen the ophthalmologist for an initial assessment. From first ringing the private health care company to completing surgery on both eyes took about nine weeks. If it hadn’t been covered by insurance it would have cost me about £7000.
  7. In the NHS hospital I was woken up in the recovery room when still deeply asleep, and wheeled back to the ward. I reacted badly to the general anaesthetic but there was a considerable effort to get me up, dressed, eating and drinking, and discharged so that an afternoon patient could take my place. I felt as if I had a massive hangover (weak, very tired, headache, visual auras, nausea, dizzy) and the nurse in charge eventually accepted that I wasn’t going anywhere quickly. They discharged me early afternoon, as soon as I was able to get dressed and could keep down some liquid and a biscuit, and let me sit uncomfortably to wait for my lift home, as my husband couldn’t come until after work in that evening. In the end I was the first of the day to be operated on and one of the last but one to leave at night.
  8. Feeling as sick as I did, the noise of patients’ beepers going off whenever they wanted anything, the constant talking from other patients and more particularly their families, mobile phones going off, and the bright overhead lights was a bit of a torture. Even with my eyes firmly closed all day the lights left my eyes sore and inflamed, as after the cataract operations they are particularly light sensitive. I didn’t have any dark glasses with me and felt too self-conscious to put the discarded hospital gown over my head.
  9. I would have been happy to wait in a discharge area to be collected but there was no such space in the NHS hospital. I did feel that there was a certain frustration that I was taking up someone else’s space, even though I had told them that I would not be collected until evening (the operation had been cancelled the week before and rescheduled, making planning logistics particularly difficult). In both cases the protocol was that patients to be collected in person from their room or ward before leaving.
  10. I received a follow up call the next day from the surgeon in the case of eye surgery, and breast care nurse in the case of breast surgery. A follow up appointment is scheduled in both instances. Both hospitals looked clean and I had confidence in the care I received.


10 things you should know about death

  1. It doesn’t exist. You leave your body behind but your consciousness remains. You still have a body of sorts, but finer and lighter than the one you have left behind. You merely step out of one type of existence on the ‘heavy’ material plane, into a finer, lighter form and place.
  2. Dying isn’t difficult. You have almost certainly done it many times before. Even if your final moments of physical existence are traumatic or painful, the transition is simple and experienced as a form of release.
  3. You are not alone. You have a spirit guide or guardian, someone who has taken on the task of accompanying you through life and aiding your transition at death. You may also have friends and relatives waiting to greet you when you pass over from this life to the next.
  4. You will not become instantly wise and omniscient. In fact you carry on much as before, with the same emotions, cravings, habits of mind and body, likes and dislikes. There is no physical pain because you no longer have a physical body, but your energetic body remembers much of the physical body’s experience. Your memories will gradually increase to encompass much that you forgot when you joined with the foetus, becoming a baby again in your mother’s womb. By the same token, once you have absorbed the lessons of your past life, memories will fade.
  5. If you have been ill for a while or death was traumatic, you may need a period of rest and recuperation before finding your feet in the next phase of your existence. There are healers and helpers there for this purpose. You may even decide to become one yourself in due course.
  6. The next life, much like this one, is a place where you continue to grow intellectually and spiritually. It is a life of love, work and service to others. You will still be able to enjoy music, sport, or scientific discovery. You can learn new skills, expand your horizons, enjoy your own company and that of others. Where you go next and what it is like will depend on how you lived your last life, and where you feel most comfortable. As much of what you see is created mentally, it will reflect your tastes and desires, and the thoughts and feelings of those around you.
  7. There is no judgment, except the knowledge of how you lived your life and how it affected others. You measure your own life against the goals you had set yourself. Your life review may be joyful or painful, or both. You will clearly see and feel not only each moment of your past life, but experience each event from the perspective of those whose lives you touched for better or for worse. You will have no special privileges, but neither will you be cast into oblivion. You be treated with loving concern rather than condemnation.
  8. It is possible to get lost on the way, but if you ask for help it is always there. Those who get stuck in the lower or darker zones are the people who are not ready for a lighter, more loving existence. They are not abandoned or forgotten, but they need to want to move forward before they can be helped.
  9. Some people hang around the earth plane because they don’t realise that they are dead, or are afraid to move on (ghosts). Some lost souls may even try to possess the living, attaching themselves to their aura and affecting the lives of their hosts. There are people on both sides who seek to help those who get stuck here, or who possess or attach themselves to others.
  10. Life is a gift and a privilege and death gives it meaning and purpose. Each day is a chance to grow in love; to learn and to experience all that life has to offer, whatever path we choose to take, whatever life may bring us.


Further reading

Bowie, Fiona (2011) Tales from the Afterlife. Hampshire, UK: Zero Books.

This short book presents a kind of road map of what you might expect when you die. There are ten scenarios regarding the transition and afterlife experiences of individuals, depending on their personality, character and circumstances. Each one draws on actual experiences and real people. Included are extracts of channelled writings from those who have died and moved on to the next plane of existence, to further illustrate each theme.

Fenwick, Peter & Fenwick, Elizabeth (2008) The Art of Dying. London & New York: Continuum.

Peter Fenwick is a neuro-psychiatrist, who has spent many years as a clinician studying death and dying, in particular what we can learn from near-death experiences. In this book the Fenwicks present some of the accounts they have come across of those who are dying and of those who accompany them, as well as what we can learn from those who have left their bodies and returned. The message is that death is not to be feared and can be a peaceful and hopeful journey if we learn how to approach it without fear.

Robert Kastenbaum (2004) On Our Way: The Final Passage Through Life and Death. Berkeley: University of California Press.

This lovely book moves between personal reflections, academic works and case studies. Kastenbaum, a clinical psychologist, draws on many different disciplines to take a look at the ways in which human beings approach life and death, as well as what comes after. Kastenbaum introduced the notion of a ‘death system’ that reflects the socio-cultural ways in which an individual comes to understand and experience their relationship to mortality.

Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth (1999) The Tunnel and The Light: Essential Insights on Living and Dying. New York: Marlowe and Co.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross spent much of her life as a doctor working with dying children. In this personal, inspiring book she presents her philosophy on dying and living, sharing many of the insights she gleaned from the children she treated and accompanied along the way.