For a little over five years I have kept a small flock of hens in my back garden. Initially, these were introduced as pets for my children. In lieu of the requested cat, dog or horse, I provided a creature that I felt I would be able and willing to look after; all parents know how fickle young children can be in their willingness to take responsibility long term. Chicken keeping has grown in popularity since we acquired our first birds, but that initial decision to keep domestic poultry was greeted with some amazement by our friends and wider family.
I was brought up in the suburbs of a city and had no previous experience of keeping farm animals. I was aware that my husband’s parents had kept a few birds in their garden at some stage in their lives but did not consult them before I embarked on this adventure. Perhaps I did not want to be dissuaded from my fine idea. When I first mentioned my plan to my own little family they were encouraging but not overly interested. I suspect that they did not expect it to go further than many of my other vaguely thought through ideas. I am not sure who was more amazed – them or me – when I actually ordered a coop, run and three pullets.
Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing? Not only could I research how easy it was to keep a few hens in the garden, but with a few clicks I could order the whole set-up. From making that momentous decision to go ahead it was a short couple of weeks before a van arrived in our driveway bearing all that we needed to keep hens, including the birds themselves. The lovely gentlemen who brought these treasures quickly assessed the area of garden that I had earmarked for our hens, assembled the coop and run, placed bedding in the nestbox, attached the food and water containers and handed me my birds. As I cuddled a chicken for the very first time I was reminded of the day my baby daughter was placed in my arms following her birth; my initial reaction was panic. I knew nothing about how to care for this living being! As the van drove away leaving me alone with our new pets I wondered what I had let myself in for.
Luckily hens are a great deal more straightforward to care for than babies and I soon grew used to their funny little ways. That first night, when it grew dark and they could not seem to find their way into the coop, I used the recommended torch to shine a light to show them the way. When I started to let them out of their enclosed run to free range in the garden I ensured that they associated me with tasty treats so that they followed me back to the coop for safe enclosure. I talked to them gently, picked them up and cuddled them regularly, so that they saw me as a protector and would come to me when I needed them to. My children were enthralled with these three little brown bundles of warm feathers and claimed one each, naming them and learning to tell them apart. They too quickly learned to handle the birds and would stroke and feed them, helping with many of the day to day tasks required to ensure comfort and well being.
Throughout this initial learning period I relied on the internet to answer any questions I had on keeping domestic poultry. There were several, active, discussion forums where I could post queries and get swift advice. My family assumed that I would know what to do, that I was the expert. As it was I who had made the decision to get the birds I knew that it was my responsibility to keep them well and safe. This was my first experience of keeping a pet and I learnt quickly.
Hen keeping is a strangely addictive hobby. Those initial three birds were soon joined by another couple. We accepted a lost hen when one of my daughter’s friends needed to rehome a bird she found living in her garden. No owner could be traced and she had no wish to keep hens. It is not wise to introduce just one new bird to an existing flock so we acquired a friend for this stray and introduced them together. The addition of these new hens to our flock made it necessary for us to purchase a second, bigger coop. Having all that additional space then allowed us to purchase a further four hens, and then another four. We went from keeping three hens to fourteen. We currently have eleven.
The two coop set up works well. The small house is used to introduce new hens to the flock. It is important to keep them separate for a while to ensure no diseases are brought in and also to prevent bullying. The phrase hen pecked cannot be fully understood until one has witnessed how hens establish the pecking order within the flock. They can be quite brutal. Once all the hens are running together in the garden with no issues they can be moved to roost together in the big coop. I currently keep hens in both coops as, in bad weather, they are confined to their runs for longer periods. Boredom can cause bullying issues so avoiding overcrowding is important.
I cannot now imagine our garden without hens. The children show less interest in them than they did when they were younger, but I enjoy my daily interaction and gain a great deal of pleasure from just watching the birds feed and scratch and bathe. Each hen is a unique little character; trusting, inquisitive and hungry – always hungry for tasty treats and optimistic that I will provide. Following through on my initial bright idea to keep a few chickens in the garden was one of my better decisions.