Chickens are fabulous! Not only are they friendly creatures who are an absolute delight to take care of; they reward you with eggs and cost little in the way of up-keep.
There are no restrictions on keeping a small poultry flock, unless there is a specific clause in your property title deeds or tenancy agreement. If you live in an urban area, you should also check any local by-laws. When taking on any new pets, it’s important to be sure you’re making the right decision. Whilst chickens are very easy to keep, you do need have the time, dedication and knowledge to take care of them properly. Before acquiring your chickens, buy a husbandry book so that you are well prepared to provide a healthy, happy life for the new arrivals.
Acockerel is not a good idea if you have neighbours in close proximity because he WILL be noisy. A cockerel is only necessary to fertilise eggs, and your hens will still lay without one. In fact, they are often happier not having to fend off the rampant affections of a particularly horny rooster! Sexually mature cockerels may fight; especially if they only have a limited number of wives, so bear this in mind if you are thinking of breeding in the future. You’ll need to find good homes for the young cockerels (which is not easy), or be strong enough to rear them for meat and dispatch them humanely when the time for the table comes.
Chickens are great scavengers and will happily eat weeds, slugs, snails and much of your kitchen waste (fruit peelings, old salad leaves etc), but for their optimal health and well-being, the majority of their diet should be good quality commercial layers pellets and grain. Layers will also need grit. “Poultry Spice” is a useful addition to their larder too.
Chickens don’t differentiate between plants and weeds, and will decimate a well-established vegetable garden or lawn in a matter of days given half a chance! If you only have a small garden or plot of land and value your flowers and crops, then either keep your chickens in a run or securely enclose your plants. Many breeds of chicken are adept fliers, so a high fence or strong wire roof may be necessary. Some plants are poisonous to chickens (for example rhubarb leaves and privet), so check your reference book to identify any harmful species and make sure they’re removed before your chickens arrive. Be watchful as to what plants your neighbours have too, as some trees (such as Laburnum) can overhang your garden and drop toxic petals, leaves or seedpods within reach of the chickens.
A sturdy fox-proof hen-house and enclosure are essential, but these can be expensive. Chicken keeping is growing in popularity at the moment, and high prices are the norm for purpose-built housing. If you are handy with a hammer, building your own run and house will save you a fortune. Plans can be downloaded for free on-line. A small shed or outdoor Wendy house can make excellent accommodation for chickens with some small adaptations (they’ll need roosting perches and laying areas) and can cost half the price of a hen-house. Two to four chickens can be kept happily in a small garden, but if they live in a run, there must be room to move it to a fallow spot when the ground becomes soiled and bare, and they need sufficient space to run, climb, stretch their wings and maintain a good level of activity. Bantam breeds are ideal for the compact garden. Environmental enrichment is especially important for hens kept in smaller areas, and if grass is limited they will appreciate cauliflower or broccoli heads hung up to peck on.
If your hens are purchased from a reputable source or have been rescued from commercial poultry farming establishments they should already have been vaccinated. If you are unsure as to the inoculation status of your birds (especially if you have children or a low immunity) it is better to be safe and get them immunised against Marek’s and Newcastle disease. A breeding flock should be tested for Salmonella.
Chickens do require regular treatment against intestinal worms (especially if they eat snails). “Flubenvet” is a very effective wormer and the eggs are still safe to eat when this medication has been given.
Chickens can harbour mites, and “Super Red Mite Powder” is a safe product that can be dusted in and around the chickens’ living area. Hens roost rather than nest; and they keep warm by fluffing out their feathers and huddling up close to one another, so the bedding is really there to absorb their droppings rather than keep them warm. Wood shavings are the ideal choice since hay is very much more likely to harbour mites.
‘Starting with Chickens’ by Katie Thear (Broad Leys Publishing) is excellent.
Most vets (even urban vets) will now treat poultry due to their increasing popularity, but do make sure your practice is happy to treat chickens, and that you have a secure carrier to transport a poorly hen safely and comfortably.
The 1950s was an important era for the chicken. During the early part of the decade there was greatly increased commercial demand for both eggs and meat. To achieve this, chickens were crossed in such a way that their egg laying ability was optimised. With improved commercial feeds coming onto the market, egg production could reach 300 per year per chicken.
Sadly for the chicken, this was also the time when battery farming was developed. Fortunately, over recent years there have been many campaigns to improve commercial chicken welfare. Organisations such as The British Hen Welfare Trust (formerly the Battery Hen Welfare Trust) which is a national charity that re-homes commercial laying hens, educates the public about how they can make a difference to hen welfare, and encourages support for the British egg industry. Its ultimate aim is to see consumers and food manufacturers buying only UK produced free range eggs, resulting in a strong British egg industry where all commercial laying hens enjoy a good quality life. The group has helped tens of thousands of hens to enjoy a second chance in life. There are still over 16 million hens kept in cages in the UK, so if you are planning on sharing your garden with some of our feathered friends, then please do consider rescuing. These hens will require extra TLC at first whilst they adapt from a life of confinement, but they will soon blossom into endearing and friendly companions.