Keeping Poultry - A Beginners Guide
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Keeping Poultry - A Beginners Guide

Keeping your own poultry in your garden has always been a relatively popular pastime, but in recent years it has enjoyed something of a revival. It is a fun activity in itself as chickens, amongst other poultry, are animals which are full of character and personality.

Numerous factors have contributed to this resurgence. With current programmes on TV showing how easy it is to live 'the good life', the trend towards living a more sustainable lifestyle, the increasing cost of eggs and peoples general awareness of livestock and farm animal welfare, it is estimated that the number of so called 'backyard keepers' has surged from over 50,000 in 2007 to over 100,000 in recent years. In truth, there probably is little economic benefit to keeping your own poultry for eggs or meat (or just for the fun of it!), however, the pure and simple pleasure of eating eggs laid by your own hens in your back garden is second to none, especially in terms of freshness and quality of the eggs.

So whether you are a complete novice to the world of keeping your own poultry or coming back to it after a few years absence, read on for our beginners guide to keeping poultry. To start with ask yourself a few questions:

  • Under certain parts of current UK based legislation, chickens and poultry are classed as livestock, and therefore if you are considering keeping poultry certain guidance may be needed, (however, this will be covered later on in the article). Your first port of call is a quick telephone call to your local authority to check there are no restrictions with regards to keeping animals at that address.
  • Do your research. They are living, breathing animals which require your care. By law (under the Animal Welfare Act 2006), it is the responsibility of the keeper to ensure the welfare needs (both physical and behavioural) are met. Your Animal Health Team will be able to help you with this, and send you guidance and advice about keeping poultry and their welfare. Most of these leaflets and booklets are also available to download online from DEFRA (Department for Environment, food and Rural Affairs).
  • Consider what space you have available. Chickens and other birds are not solitary animals by nature and need to be kept in groups of two or more and to keep the average family supplied in eggs; you will need between 4-10 laying birds. The more space you have available the better, but it must be able to be secured against predators. You will need room in your garden to build a predator proof coop, a secure run with adequate height and space for them to stand, stretch, run and peck, plus space to keep food and equipment. If you choose to let your birds have 'free range', you need to make sure they have a safe coop that they can roost in at night to protect them. Also remember that poultry and chickens especially, can destroy a well tended garden so if you are a proud gardener, it may be sensible to limit the areas they have available to them.
  • Ask yourself if you have the time and devotion to care for their welfare and health? While they are quite self sustaining, like all animals, they will require a certain amount of input from you - yes even in the pouring rain!
  • Do you have the funds to cover day to day needs such as food, as well as unforeseen circumstances, such as emergency veterinary care and repairs to the coop/run?

OK - you've answered 'yes' to all the above, so what next? Now the hard work - and fun - begins!

Choosing the right poultry

For information on specific breeds which are good choices for beginners, follow this link to our article 'The best Poultry Beginners breeds - laying chickens'. There are hundreds of breeds or hybrids available to choose from and the breed you go for may affect the set up you choose at home. Ask yourself why are you keeping poultry? For eggs, meat or as pets? This will affect the choice you make. A good and cheap way to introduce yourself to keeping chickens for eggs, is to contact your local branch of the British Hen Welfare Trust who re-home thousands of ex battery hens per year. They won't win any prizes in a beauty contest, but they are often reasonable layers and deserve a good home after many years hard work!

Accommodation

A warm, safe and dry home is a must for any poultry, providing a place where they can rest, perch and lay in peace and quiet. Houses, coops and sheds all work well as accommodation for your poultry, and depending on the space available and number of birds you have, some will work better than others. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes and materials to and, unless you fancy testing your DIY skills, they can be purchased from garden centres, specialist pet shops and even some large supermarkets!

Plastic houses are usually at the smaller end of the range, suitable for between 2-6 birds, depending on their size. They are suitable for smaller or urban gardens where space is at a premium, and are easy to keep clean, as unlike wood, they do not deteriorate and there are fewer cracks in the material where mites and other parasites may hide!

Wooden houses, even converted sheds are better for larger flocks and provide height as well as space. Extra height is good for two reasons. Firstly, while you are cleaning it out, you can stand up and therefore it is less strain on your back and secondly, it gives you the chance to add extra perches at various heights, (see section below). It is worth bearing in mind that if you choose a wooden house, it will need treating with a suitable waterproof treatment each year to ensure it is kept in tip top condition.

The choice can be bewildering, but ultimately, you need to take the following into account:

  • The house must be of a size that suits the number of birds you plan to have, or be a little bigger so your brood can expand. As a guide, each bird will need between 30-50cm2 of floor space each depending on their breed. Ask the manufacturer for advice.
  • It must be easy to clean out with a proprietary cleansing and disinfectant agent which is safe to use around poultry. Ideally, removable panels will help if the house is of a smaller size so you can reach all areas, however in a larger shed you may be able to walk in and stand up.
  • It must be safe and predator/vermin proof. Check that any possible entrance to the house is able to be secured - the door, roof, removable panels and pop holes. Periodically, check the whole house for signs of wear and deterioration where possible invaders could enter. A fox in a hen house has a 'captive audience' so it is not worth overlooking this.
  • Perches and nest boxes. An adequate number of perches is essential as, in a larger flock especially, there may be some birds which are at the lower end of 'the pecking order' and extra or higher perches give them a chance to escape. Do not overlook the importance of perches as birds must have them to rest. The muscles and ligaments in a birds foot are at rest when they are curled around a perch, so are an essential part of any house, helping them the birds to relax. Most off the shelf houses will have integral nest boxes, which you can access from outside without opening the house up. If this is the case, make sure they are able to be well secured with regards to predators and vermin.
  • It must also have a solid roof which can be flat or pitched in metal, plastic or wood and be well ventilated but be draft free. Your coop should have some form of ventilation at a high level and some sort of inlet at a lower level to allow for a free flow of air without creating a draft. Perches should not be located next to an opening as it will be too drafty for them. Chicken droppings produce ammonia which can damage the birds eyes and respiratory tract, so good ventilation is vital. To check for this, pop your head into the coop in the morning before you let them out, and do a smell check. If you can smell it, so can they.

Buy the best quality house you can afford, or look for a well looked after and clean second hand one, as it probably will be the single biggest outlay at the start of your new poultry keeping adventures.

Runs and fences

This is a tricky thing to get right with regards to making it as predator proof as possible. Foxes, badgers, dogs and cats can be very clever in their pursuit of a free meal, so it is you job to make this as difficult as possible.

Many runs are provided with the house or coop you buy and may be integral to the house itself, especially with the smaller plastic houses aimed at people with smaller or urban gardens. Of course, you can also make you own or buy one suitable for your needs but essentially they must be:

  • Of a good quality - galvanised or plastic wire to minimise rusting or breakage which would cause a weak spots and of a size of wire which makes it difficult for predators to stretch or widen the holes in any way. If you are making your own, the general opinion is that small, galvanised rectangular shaped wire is the premium wire to use for building a run, but it is more costly than cheaper octagonal 'rabbit' wire which can be easily torn. If using 'rabbit' wire, it may be a good idea to double up a layer.
  • Of a suitable size to allow dust bathing, running, scratching and feeding for the number of birds you have. There are regulations covering this (mainly used within the battery industry), but the bigger the better - unless you decide to have truly free range chickens!
  • Securely attached to the ground and dug in by at least 6-9 inches. Foxes will sometimes dig to get at birds, so if this is an issue, you may have to lay a brick or concrete base so this is impossible. If this is the case, you will have to lay extra wood shavings or straw on the floor to protect their feet. The height of the wire is also an issue - at least 6 feet in height- and preferably have a roof on it, or have the top section of the fence turned out to provide a lip around the top of the fence (think along the line of prison fence and you won't go far wrong!).
  • Any fittings such as door bolts, locks and screws must be stainless steel or galvanised and replaced if there are any signs of rust of wear.
  • Any weak points such as joints in the wire, stapled.
  • Easily able to be relocated if it is not an in situ run. This also helps prevent damage to your garden grass, allowing one patch to rejuvenate.
  • Any wooden areas should be checked for signs of wear and proofed periodically to ensure the longevity of the wood.
  • Any gates in/out of the run should be able to be bolted and locked and preferably made from a single sheet of solid mesh, not mesh that can be twisted or reshaped in any way.

Food and grit

Your birds will need to be fed a diet that is correct for their species, breed, age, growth and metabolism (for example if they are layers or not). Commercial feeds should have manufacturer information on the packet about this and it is worth reading them to ensure you are feeding your birds the correct food for their situation. If in doubt, seek your vet's advice.

At one time, kitchen scraps were widely fed to livestock, including poultry (most notably to chickens) as it was a cheap way to feed them and an efficient way to get rid of waste. However, current legislation in the UK and Europe states that it has been illegal to feed catering waste to livestock, including poultry kept at home, since 2001 after the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease. The reason for this is that catering waste was proved to be a major source of this outbreak, and since then research has shown it to be a risk factor with regards to it being a possible source for other diseases.

The definition of catering waste includes all waste food, whether raw or cooked including used oils, from takeaways, commercial kitchens, cafes/restaurants and domestic kitchens. This includes your kitchen scraps such as vegetable peelings. Under some, very tightly controlled circumstances, some variety of catering waste can be fed. Speak to your local authority Animal Health Team for more information on this.

Grit is something which no poultry keeper can over look. Birds have a specialised stomach as part of their digestive tract called a gizzard, in which they grind up their food as they have no teeth to do this job. In the wild, birds pick up grit and stones to store in their gizzard to do this, but in captivity, the keeper - you - must provide grit for them. Grit can be bought in your local feed merchant or pet shop.

Fresh water should always be available.

The last word........ Rules and regulations

No-one likes rules and regulations, but if you are going to keep some, then you need to be aware of a few which may apply to you.

If you are going to keep your numbers of poultry (of any mix of breeds or species) below 50 in total, then you do not have to keep any records by law. However, if you do intend to keep a larger flock, then you are obliged to register your details on the Poultry Register, administered by DEFRA. This was set up in 2005 in response to the outbreak of Avian Influenza. Furthermore, if you choose to take your flock over 250 in total, then you must also keep records of the numbers of poultry you have, from where they were obtained, species and breed, dates they came onto the property and when they were sold/died. Any records you have to keep in accordance with this are kept under the Disease of Poultry (England) Order 2003, and must be kept for 12 months from the date of the last entry on the record book. Again, seek advice from your local Animal Health Team if you think this applies to you. Lastly, in the eyes of the law, your pet chickens are not classed as domestic animals so if one of your birds does die, then it is classed as an 'animal by product' and cannot be burned or buried. It must be disposed of via the correct route, and this usually means an authorised collection or incinerator. Seek clarification from your local authority, which will be able to advise you on the best course of action.

Poultry for sale on Pets4Homes.Chickens for sale on Pets4Homes.

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