- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.