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