Hen Keeping: Constructing the perfect walk-in run

It has been a while since I added to my posts on hen keeping but this is a topic I thought other back garden hen keepers may find of interest.

For many years now my birds have been kept in two brightly coloured plastic coops, both originally sourced from Omlet. The main coop, pictured below on the left, is a classic cube that can house up to ten medium sized hens. I doubled the size of the run from when this photo was taken and added raised roosting bars to decrease the risk of boredom in the flock, along with the resultant feather pecking. The coop on the right, a classic eglu, can accommodate up to four medium sized hens. In this I would house new additions to my flock until I could integrate them with my existing birds. I would also shut the coop and put broody hens on the roosting bars in the run to encourage them to forget about their desire to hatch chicks from the eggs laid, which we regularly removed. As we do not have a rooster, chicks were never going to appear however long a broody hen kept vigil.

This setup worked well until my aging body started to complain about the need to access the low runs to maintain food and water supplies each day, and to reach any hen who needed attention. In winter months an occasional bird would inexplicably decide to sleep outside in subzero temperatures and I would need to crawl into the run to lift her into the coop after dark. Poorly hens also tended to crouch in the far corners of the run, under the coop, and would require rescue for treatment.

Thus I decided that, if I wished to continue to keep hens, a walk in run would be a welcome investment. Using the experience gained over my years as a keeper I designed the following new setup.

First and foremost the enclosure had to be high enough to allow access without bending – a walk-in run. I wished to continue to use the two coops I owned as I remain happy with their performance and maintenance requirements. Having a smaller run for introductions, and a temporary home for broody hens, was also desirable. Finally, I wished the new run to be roomy enough that the hens would have plenty of space to scratch and perch on days when I was not around to allow them to free range in the larger garden.

As with the old runs, I wished the edges of the new enclosure to sit on paving slabs to prevent predators from digging underneath. Thus some groundwork was needed before construction could begin – such an enterprise always attracts hens eager to help.

The new enclosure was purchased from Cozy Pet and built over the course of a week by my husband and two sons. I decided on two adjacent and attached enclosures – 3x2m and 3x6m – to allow for flock separation, such as when new hens are introduced.

The frame slotted and bolted together easily, in the same way as a marquee would be constructed.

Attaching the sheets of wire mesh, which needed to be trimmed to size using wire cutters, was more fiddly. Many supplied cable ties were deployed to ensure no gaps could open to allow hens out or predators in. Half of the run was then covered with supplied tarpaulins, attached to the frame with bungees. Once the enclosure was made secure the old runs were removed from the existing coops and the hens moved in.

   

We could now purchase new hens, placing four pullets in the small enclosure, or nursery run as I am calling it, to settle in under the watchful eye of their big sisters.

The door between the nursery run and the main enclosure allows for access and will be left open once the flocks are integrated.

   

With the basic setup complete, further additions could now be added to make this a more comfortable and interesting environment for the residents. Straw bales were purchased, some opened for scratching and others left tied for interest and to provide seating for visitors.

I used sections of the Omlet cube run to construct perching areas for each enclosure. By attaching the original run door to the cage in the nursery run, which will normally be left open as pictured here, I have a broody cage for when it is needed.

Within the main enclosure the perching area is left open. I covered both of these cages with camping groundsheets, cable tied in position. I also attached camping groundsheets to the outside of the enclosure, behind each cage, that the perching areas may have protection from the elements.

The two coops fit easily into the spaces provided and open into the covered areas of their respective enclosures.

   

This leaves almost half of the main enclosure open to the elements but available for hens to scratch and peck. The birds therefore have weather protected spaces as well as areas where they may sunbathe.

   

An added bonus to this new setup is that I may sit with my girls and enjoy their company when there isn’t quite time to allow them to roam free in the wider garden. Shutting them in feels much more friendly when they still have ample space whilst remaining secure.

 

Happy hens, tasty eggs

When I decided to keep a few hens in my back garden I envisaged them free ranging wherever and whenever they wanted. The reality has been a little different. Their scratching and dust bathing damages grass and plants, their poop gets everywhere, and unless fenced in they will not always stay within the confines of the garden. Over the years I have worked out how to keep both humans and birds happy by restricting their access to certain parts of the garden. By and large this works well for all.

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The hen garden offers free ranging space whatever the weather, but the girls are always happier when let loose on grass

After many months of rain, the ground has finally dried out, the grass is growing, and I am allowing my little flock to free range more widely. Yesterday, with the doors to the house flung open, we had an unexpected visitor.

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Much as I love my hens, they are not allowed indoors. Daenerys is one of four new birds that we purchased about a month ago and who can now run with the rest of the flock. They are very friendly and curious, perhaps a little too happy to explore. Despite having run chicken wire around our entire garden, one of these new girls has managed to make her way into our neighbouring woodland on several occasions recently. I only realised that this was happening when a lovely lady knocked on my door one evening last week to return a feathered friend she had come across on a nearby public footpath.

A mixture of fencing and garden netting should prevent them getting this close to the house, but it appears that this little lady has found a way to circumvent such obstacles. I will need to be a little more alert to their activities as I do not wish this to become a habit.

I currently have twelve hens in my little flock. One of my speckledys is broody so I am having to lift her out of the nest box several times a day to ensure that she eats and drinks. In this warm weather she could quickly become dehydrated, but she does not appreciate my efforts and clucks angrily when I remove her from her non existent eggs. This particular bird goes broody most years and I have asked my son to make me a broody cage in an effort to return her to the flock more quickly.

With the long days and the dry weather the birds can scratch, preen, dustbathe and stretch out in the sun from mid morning, when I collect their eggs, to early evening when I shut them back into their caged runs to ensure that they eat their supper of pellets and thereby lay well the next day. This is an ideal life for a hen and they appear happy and alert, with clean vents, glossy feathers and bright red combs.

We did have one sad day last week when one of my white sussex prolapsed and had to be dispatched. Upsetting though it is to have to do this, I still believe it is kinder to deal quickly with a bird who is obviously distressed and in pain. This was her chatting to a friend just a few weeks ago.

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We are getting a fair number of eggs so I am able to supply a few local friends as well as feeding them to my family. I do enjoy an egg for breakfast and I managed to make a near perfect quiche last week, no mean feat for a generally incompetent cook such as myself.

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Today I took delivery of a new shed so I need to go out and dismantle the old one, which has rotted through in the damp weather we suffered through the winter. I use it to store all my feed and other chicken paraphernalia, so damp is an issue. Like my chicken coops, the new shed is plastic so I am hoping it will prove to be more durable than the wooden one it replaces. Unfortunately it was not available in funky styles or colours. I call my coops the Purple Palace and the Pink Penthouse. The new shed is unlikely to be given a name.

 

Hens do not enjoy paddling

Mother Nature is asserting her power, reminding us that we are not in control. Last night’s storms brought down trees and an elderly gentleman lost his life attempting to deal with one just up the road from where I live. Homes and farmland are flooded, roads closed, transport networks disrupted. To the west we have the Somerset Levels Floods, to the east the swollen River Thames keeps rising. Trains can no longer run into Cornwall since a section of railway line was damaged by high tides.

The rush to blame others is gathering pace. The government, the previous government, economic cutbacks, irresponsible planners, short term environmental decisions limiting river maintenance, climate scientists, climate change deniers, people in general are all being blamed. Until the rain stops, and this is not forecast to happen in the short term, little can be done to prevent further hardship and heartache for those affected.

I live on a hill so have escaped the worst effects of the weather. On the soggy walks that I have taken over the past few weeks I have seen the flooded fields, swollen rivers and closed roads. Trees have come down in the woodland beside my house but, as yet, we have not suffered direct damage. My heart goes out to those who have not been so lucky.

To date, the greatest challenge that I have faced has been how to keep my hens healthy and happy. The ground is completely saturated so each heavy downpour temporarily floods their run. The shed where I keep their feed has become damp and waterlogged as the constant rain has warped the wood and permeated the gaps. Come spring it will have to be replaced.

For now though I do what I can. I have moved all my hens into the bigger run which offers a little more protection from the elements. The larger coop is raised off the ground so suffers less from water ingress and general damp. Having all the hens together helps to keep them warm overnight. I am grateful that our coops are plastic so, unlike our mouldy shed, have not been damaged by the incessant rain.

During the day there is little more that I can do. If the rain holds off then I can allow my girls to free range. They scratch around in the gravelled areas and dustbathe under bushes. The rest of the garden is a puddled mudbath, including about half of their run. I have put up perches to allow them to escape the ground but they must come down to feed and drink. I am grateful that hens do not suffer trench foot.

I am giving them lots of treats. Corn to help keep them warm, leafy greens from the kitchen to supplement their pellets as there are no plants for them to forage for in the desolate garden. Egg production is down but this is a small price to pay if I can keep them happy until the better weather arrives.

When I see the pictures of the Somerset farmers moving their livestock to higher ground, appealing for feed as theirs is underwater, I realise that I do not have problems. My hens will neither starve nor drown. They may not enjoy paddling but they do have some dry ground to rest on.

The news is full of politicians and so called experts eager to espouse the lessons to be learned. When we have got through this crisis I hope that they listen to those who know, those who have lived and worked the land and understand how to manage these conditions long term.

My fear is that too many will see the cries for action as an opportunity to gain funding for pet projects, as a chance to make a quick buck. My worry is that there will be too many seeing this as a financial opportunity rather than a wake up call that the way we are developing and managing the natural resources on which we rely leaves us unnecessarily vulnerable.

Those who are suffering need help, but this has happened before and will happen again. We need to look at how we can all live with nature, how we can mitigate the damage of these naturally occurring events.

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Preparing hens for winter

Hens are naturally hardy creatures. Each wears her own personal duvet and will cuddle up in the coop with friends on cold, winter nights to keep warm. The shorter days do, however, mean that there is less time for eating. It is important that the birds are plump and in good health at the start of the winter if the cold months are not to take their toll.

I start to prepare my hens for winter from mid to late October, depending on the weather. As we have recently been experiencing a noticeable drop in temperatures here in England, I have begun my preparations.

The hens will spend more time roosting in their coops through the longer nights, so I like to ensure that these are thoroughly cleaned. As I use plastic hen houses this is easily done in a couple of hours by dismantling and power washing each section. Once cleaned and dried I move the coops to fresh ground and put down a good, thick layer of straw in each run. We have had a lot of rain recently and the straw helps to keep the hens feet off the muddy ground. The birds also like to scratch around looking for treats, thus relieving any boredom issues that may develop when the weather affects the amount of time that they can free range in the wider garden.

Before I start fattening them up for the winter (to provide them with more personal insulation) I worm them. I do this twice a year, in autumn and spring. It is possible to buy a powdered product called Flubenvet that can be mixed with their normal feed. I did this for several years but, although I followed the instructions carefully, I was never convinced that I had applied the medicated powder evenly throughout the feed sack. Each bird needs to ingest an amount suitable for their weight; by adding it to the feed, each will eat as much as is required. It is therefore important that all food offered has been suitably medicated so that each bird takes in the correct dose.

For the past couple of years I have been using Marriage’s Farmyard Layers Pellets with Flubenvet® and have been much happier with this method of worming than when I medicated my own feed. I buy one large sack and feed it exclusively for the recommended seven days. The results are gross but impressive!

When being wormed, the birds must eat nothing but the medicated feed. This means no free ranging (where they find their own tasty treats), no vegetable scraps from the kitchen and no handful of corn just before bed. They do not appreciate this change in routine and are very vocal in their complaints when I go out to check on them. They associate me with freedom and food and cannot understand why I am not providing as expected.

Because they are shut in their runs for a full seven days it is important that these are well maintained. Water must be changed each day, straw raked over and poop cleared from the coops. This is the gross bit. After a few days, any worms that the birds may have been harbouring will start being flushed out. Yesterday I was confronted with quantities of poop laced through with thread like worms, some as long as four inches in length. Better out than in though; hopefully my ladies will be feeling much better having gotten these beasties out of their systems.

During worming week I will dig over the ground that the runs have occupied through the summer. I will then leave this open to the elements for the rain and sun to air and wash through. On a dry day I will sprinkle animal friendly ground sanitiser (I use Stalosan F) and allow this to be absorbed and scratched in once the hens are free ranging again. The cleaned ground is then ready for the coops to be returned when I judge that another move is required. In wetter weather I can decide how long the runs should stay in one place based on smell. As soon as the chickeny aroma becomes noticeable, I know that it is time for a clean up.

Hens do not like the rain. To help keep their runs dry I cover them with plastic. I use whatever I have to hand at the time – a mix of cheap shower curtains, camping ground mats and plastic wrap from new furniture. Although this protects the birds, it can still be hard to stop the ground becoming boggy in periods of prolonged rain. When this happens I add a fresh layer of straw. I also ensure that there are plenty of perches inside the run for the birds to hop around on.

Once worming week is complete I turn my attention to increasing the birds general well being and weight. Treats will include vegetable greenery and an increased allocation of corn in the late afternoon. If they go to bed with full tummys then they will have an easier time keeping warm. Layers pellets are nutritionally complete and contain everything a laying hen needs. However, as my birds are used to free ranging, I like to offer them the extras on days when they must be shut in their runs due to the weather.

Throughout the winter months I will ensure that my hens are let loose in the garden whenever the sun makes an appearance. Sunshine is important for all creatures, and hens do love to stretch out their wings and sunbathe. When confined to their runs they have a constant supply of pellets, fresh water and a small tub of mixed Poultry Grit. In the coldest months the water may need to be changed several times a day to prevent it freezing over.

Egg production is likely to drop as the days shorten. As I keep mainly hybrids I should still get enough eggs for my own family but will struggle to supply as many friends as I can over the summer. My birds also have a habit of moulting at this time of year, which puts a strain on their calcium reserves. If any hen does start to look poorly then I will add a little Poultry Spice to the feed (a spoonful of cod liver oil helps to bind the powder to the pellets) and squirt some Apple Cider Vinegar in their water.

I have yet to lose a bird due to the cold weather but I do keep a close eye on their condition to ensure that any problems are dealt with quickly. Picking up a bird on a cold day to check that she is as plump and clean as she should be is a good excuse to enjoy hugging a truly excellent hand warmer.

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Dealing with poorly chickens

Warning to those who may be easily distressed: this post deals with death and dispatch.

Hen keeping is a fun and rewarding hobby but, as with most things that are worth doing, it has it’s challenges. On a day to day basis there is the poop and the general untidiness that is inevitable if a flock of hens are allowed to free range in a back garden. There is also, from time to time, the issue of what to do with a poorly chicken.

I have bought a total of twenty-two pullets over the five and a half years that I have been keeping hens. I have also been given one hen of indeterminate age. My two coops currently house ten girlies so, from the maths, you can work out that I have had to deal with a fair few fatalities. Some of these birds have died of natural causes, others we have dispatched to end their suffering.

I spend time with my flock every day, observing their behaviour to ensure that all is well. When a chicken is ill the signs can be fairly obvious: their stance is hunched and their manner lethargic; they will not run with the flock with their normal enthusiasm; poop may be runny or blood streaked; feathers may not be as clean and glossy as normal.

Internal injuries can be caused by egg laying. This may manifest itself with blood on the egg or the vent; it can also cause a painful looking gait. In the worst case the chicken may prolapse which is very hard to put right. Treatment is painful for the suffering hen and the risk of repeat high.

Any sign of blood on a hen will draw the rest of the flock to attack. A minor cut from a nasty peck can be disguised with gentian violet antiseptic spray, but a major injury such as a prolapse can turn a friendly flock of happy hens cannibalistic. In the worst cases that I have had to deal with I considered it kinder to dispatch the suffering bird rather than treat and then risk a possible repeat followed by likely attack if I were not on hand to remove the afflicted fowl.

Our hens are more than just egg producers but probably less than many family pets in our family ‘pecking order’. I am not a particularly sentimental sort of person but cannot bear to see any living creature suffer; deliberate cruelty, particularly to trusting animals,  makes me intensely angry. However, I am fairly stoic when it comes to allowing nature to take it’s course. With my flock of chickens I will assess each situation as it arises and decide on what I think is best for the individual hen.

Unless I am convinced that the chicken is in such pain that she is suffering badly and is unlikely to recover, I will try to treat illnesses. Simple remedies such as adding poultry spice, cod liver oil and apple cider vinegar to the food and water will often be enough to aid natural recovery. Minor injuries may require that a hen be temporarily removed from the flock for her own safety but, in many cases, recovery is possible.

Sometimes I get it wrong and will come down in the morning to find that the poorly looking hen has not survived the night. It is a very unpleasant task climbing into the coop to retrieve and dispose of what had recently been a funny and feisty little character. I always wonder if it would have been kinder to dispatch. However, when a hen recovers from an illness, I am so grateful that I gave her a chance.

Hens require a warm, dry house in which to roost, plenty of open space in which to scratch and a plentiful supply of food and clean water. They thrive on routine. I would not take a hen to a vet as I feel it is kinder if I can work out for myself how to deal with each bird. The stress of travel and treatment can negate any benefit from medicine; many ailments can sort themselves out in time with minimal intervention.

After a particularly harsh winter I had three hens in my flock looking poorly and not laying. They were amongst my older girls and had each had previous issues with sniffles and deteriorating condition that I seemed to have successfully treated. During one week in the spring I lost all three of them; it was a distressing time. It seems likely that the flock picked up some bug and the weaker birds succumbed. I treated the remaining girls and put off buying the Easter pullets that I add each year until I was happy that all existing girls were well. Happily I now have a healthy flock, all of whom lay.

Commercial hen keepers recognise that a flock of hens of varying ages will be more susceptible to illness and cull all birds at a certain age, replacing the flock entirely. As a back garden hen keeper I allow my hens to run free until I feel it is not in the individual bird’s best interests to keep going. As I have said, they are more than just egg producers for my family.

The key to keeping hens in this way is the ability to dispatch a bird quickly and humanely; it is not a pleasant thing to have to do. For those keepers who regard their hens as much loved pets it would be too distressing an option so will not suit everyone. Others will not feel confident enough to do the deed themselves.

So long as my birds have been treated kindly and given a happy life then I see a quick death at the hands of a keeper who has regularly handled them as the kindest way to end suffering. I still see it as a last resort though. I much prefer to allow my birds to reach the end of their natural laying life and then enjoy a retirement spent eating, pooping and demanding respect from the younger members of the flock. Even when they are not providing us with eggs, they are still a joy to have in the garden.

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Allowing our new chickens to free range

After ten days of living with us, our four new chickens are well settled into their new home. The little coop and run in which they have been staying are within sight of the our other hens so they can all get used to each other’s presence. I have been spending time with them each day so that they also get used to me. Although they are still wary, they will now take tasty treats from my hand.

One of the main reasons for keeping new birds segregated from an established flock for a period of time is to ensure that they do not bring any diseases with them that could be detrimental to the health of all the hens. Thankfully, my new chooks continue to look and act exactly as I would wish. Typically for young birds that are not yet in lay, they are flighty and active. They are also inquisitive and respond well to gentle attention.

Before I can let them free range in the main garden though, I need to be sure that they will return to their enclosed run when I need to round them up. As with my other birds, I am training them to respond to the promise of a tasty treat.

I keep a plastic pot filled with mixed corn that I shake to attract my hens attention when they are running free. Hens regard mixed corn as I would regard chocolate! They will follow me to ensure that they get their share of what they have learnt I will scatter for their delectation. Sometimes they will jump at the pot to try to get to it first; all of them will get under my feet as I try to proceed towards the run. I find their excitement and anticipation adorable.

When I have all of the birds around me by the run I will throw a few handfuls of corn inside and shut the gate when they have all rushed in to  scratch for their share. This procedure has proven effective in rounding up my flock quickly at any time of the day when I need them to be safely enclosed.

With my new girls I have been shaking the corn pot to get their attention each day and then scattering a handful of corn in their run. They now get very excited when they see me. They associate me with the prospect of a favourite food, which is exactly what I need to happen.

We have just enjoyed a lovely, sunny weekend here in Wiltshire so I decided that late yesterday afternoon would be a good time to allow the new girls to enjoy their first free range. The old girls had to be put away first to ensure that there were no arguments. The two flocks will not be allowed out together until I am happy that I can control any disputes, probably in another couple of weeks. Until then they will have to free range at separate times of the day.

Having secured the old girls in their run, I opened the gate of the new girls run and stood back to watch. Three of them emerged slowly and warily before spotting what looked to be a tasty bush and starting to snack on the leaves. The fourth chook was watching from the run, wandering up and down in an agitated way, but unable to work out how to join her friends. Eventually we opened the egg hatch in the coop and she hopped out of that.

Freedom gained, all the girls explored their new territory while our old girls watched in disbelief that these previously caged interlopers had been granted the freedom of their garden while they remained shut in. We fed the new girls some leaves and even managed to pick a couple of them up for a cuddle. They need to get used to being handled as this will enable me to regularly check that they are maintaining a healthy weight and are free of parasites. At this stage though, it is best to proceed cautiously. I do not wish them to develop fear of human contact from being forced to comply with something that they still find frightening.

I gave the new girls about an hour of freedom during which time they spread their wings, jumping and flapping as chickens do. They pecked and scratched and said hello to the established flock through their bars. When I shook the corn pot they came running but couldn’t all work out where I had thrown their treat. A little shepherding was required before they were safely enclosed. They will soon learn; it was a very successful first free range.

I will go through the same procedure every few days until all the chooks will reliably return to their run. They will then be granted their freedom for an hour or so each day, depending on the time I have to supervise. Yesterdays taster session allowed them only to explore our small chicken garden. They cannot be allowed the pleasure of the main garden until they have shown that they know how to behave.

I love to see my hens scratch and peck freely but have learnt from experience that it is best to take small steps; to proceed gradually. Stressful situations are not good for chickens and not good for me. If I need to go out then I like to leave my hens safe in their fully enclosed runs. Flighty chickens can jump high fences and I do not want any of my girls to find their way into our neighbouring woodland where predators are more likely to find them. If they are to be granted the freedom of our garden then they need to reliably and quickly return to base when I require them to do so.

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Adding new chickens to an established flock

Chicken keeping can be an addictive hobby. When I got my first three birds I did not consider the possibility of adding to the flock. The steep learning curve that I went through on dealing with these feisty and adorable feathered friends made me realise how much pleasure could be derived from having a small flock of chickens running around the garden. By the time we suffered our first fatality I was feeling more knowledgeable and confident about many aspects of chicken keeping and wanted more.

I had learnt that chickens thrive in a flock and that a lone bird could suffer from a lack of friends. Introducing new birds to an established flock can be tricky, but bullying can be minimised if more than one bird is added at a time. The established birds do not then have a focus for their anger at having their territory invaded by interlopers. I decided that the best course of action would be to add two new birds to my remaining two to ensure that I would never have to deal with a lone and lonely hen.

That first attempt at introducing new birds taught me a great deal. As I had one coop and run they all had to sleep together, but this lead to what looked like vicious attacks. Adding new birds also risks passing on diseases as new and old will not have the same resistances. After a failed attempt at putting all the chickens in together at night and hoping they would simply wake up and accept each other, I divided the run with a bamboo criss cross fence and gave the new girls a pet carrier with improvised roosting bars to sleep in at the far end of the run. This arrangement was far from ideal but meant that the birds were safe and could see each other without being able to attack.

Chickens may appear daft but they are capable of breaking through fences when they are determined enough to get to the other side. Why did the chicken cross the road? Because she wanted to. During my regular checks I would find the old girls in the new girls area of the run and the new girls cowering in the old girls area. How these birds squeezed through the small gaps in the barrier I had created perplexed me and I would add more and more bamboo canes to the improvised divide. My attempts to keep them apart were constantly foiled.

After a few days I decided that this wasn’t working but, as no bird had been injured, I removed the barrier and let them run together. The severity of the pecking had subsided and, although the new girls still acted unhappy, they seemed to be coping. Over time they were accepted and their life became peaceful. I had learned that introductions need to be better managed.

Four chickens still didn’t seem like enough so when we were offered a stray hen that one of my daughter’s friends had discovered roosting in the trees in her garden we looked into buying a second coop. Finding just the sort I wanted available second hand in our area made me think that this was all meant to be. Once again I was wary of adding a single bird to the flock so I purchased one more hen. We moved the existing flock to the new, bigger coop and our two new additions went in the old coop. Stray hen didn’t take too kindly to the friend I had provided for her but things settled down quickly enough with no injuries sustained in establishing the pecking order.

We now had enough housing and big enough runs for fourteen hens. As we only had six I was itching to get more birds. We gave the flock a few months of sleeping apart but running together in the garden before we put stray hen and her friend in the big coop and purchased four pullets to put in the small coop. With two separate houses and runs available, introductions became easy and something we could now do annually with ease.

Hens start laying eggs at around five months old. Those bred to be commercial egg layers, the little brown hybrid hens, should then lay well for around a year. Although they can continue to lay for a further two years after this, their eggs may not be as strong shelled and their laying can be less predictable. Commercial establishments replace their entire flock after eighteen months as they do not wish to feed any hens that are not laying good eggs.

Pure bred hens are not kept for commercial egg production. These birds have a longer life expectancy and will lay well for longer, but go off lay through the winter months and have a tendency to go broody in the spring. In order to keep the lines pure, breeders will keep a close eye on the flock and cull any birds with defects. They will also ensure that birds are kept in separate enclosures so that matings can be managed. If new birds are to be added then they will be introduced as chicks.

Small, domestic flocks are therefore the only ones where birds of varying breeds and ages run together. I have been told that the varying ages and colours are a factor in bullying issues. If I wish to maintain harmony then I should entirely replace all my birds rather than adding just a few at a time and allowing the established birds to remain when they stop laying. I should also keep just one breed so that all birds in the flock look the same.

My experience has shown me that this is good advice but still I do not follow it. I like having lots of hens and we are very fond of our birds. I will only dispatch one if she gets ill and I cannot make her better. I currently have several hens eating my expensive feed and producing no eggs; they can be recognised by their shrunken comb. A laying head has a large, bright red comb. This turns pinkish and becomes just a little ridge on the head when a hen goes off lay.

I like little brown hybrid hens as I have found them the easiest to deal with. If I had my way then that is all we would keep but the rest of my family prefer variety. Thus we have brown, grey, black and speckled birds running around our garden. The variety does look very pretty but each acts differently and we do have occasional issues with broodiness and bullying. Giving the birds enough space minimises most issues as boredom and overcrowding can exacerbate problems.

Having put all our existing birds together in the big coop recently, we purchased four new pullets yesterday. At around seventeen weeks old they look very sweet and seemed to settle in well to their new home. I will be spending a lot of time with the flock over the coming weeks, ensuring that all remains well. As we drove to the farm that supplies us I reminded my husband and children that I wanted four little brown hens this time. We came home with two light sussex and two partridge leghorns. My daughter has named them after the angels from Supernatural and they are beautiful.

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Gabriel, Castiel, Balthazar and Lucifer settle into their new home

War!

My neighbour and I are waging war. Not on each other I am glad to say, but on a most unwelcome invader of our peaceful and private outdoor spaces. Our gardens have become a favoured hunting ground for rats.

Their presence is not a surprise, but their current proximity to our houses needs to be discouraged. I live next to a wood, maintain numerous compost bins at the bottom of the garden, feed wild birds from a well stocked table and have several areas of decking which I have been told offer attractive nesting places for such beasts who may safely hide in the debris that gathers underneath. All of these features though are in the part of the garden furthest from the house. I can live side by side with nature but prefer to keep a respectful distance. I have no wish for the rodents to become so prolific that there is a risk of them entering my home.

I first spotted our current infestation a few days ago. On previous occasions, visits have only been noticeable at dusk. This recent sighting was in broad daylight and the protagonist allowed me to get within a few yards before scurrying away. This lack of fear suggested a youngster; parents and siblings were likely nearby. Today, as I was watching my chickens scratch and peck in the garden, I spotted three of the rodents in the chicken run. This was unacceptable. My expensive chicken pellets will not become easy pickings for disease carrying creatures that I have no wish to welcome.

Despite it being their free range time, I rounded up my little flock and confined them to their run. The hens were not impressed with this turn of events, but the rats will not dare try to steal food from under the beaks of these descendants of the dinosaurs. With the chickens safely enclosed I set up traps in the rat runs that I had observed and hope for a quick kill. I am generally a peace loving person but these interlopers must be vanquished before they become a serious problem.

Both my neighbour and I have placed baited boxes in an attempt to poison the unwelcome visitors. In the long run this is the most effective way of dealing with an infestation, but it does take time. As I have observed so many apparently fearless creatures it is likely that there are many more around. It is likely that a few established pairs have bred and that the increased numbers are now seeking out new territory. They must be culled or those numbers, and the issues that go with them, will only increase.

Nature will normally maintain the hunters and the hunted at supportable levels but man’s intervention has upset the balance. Numbers of rats, squirrels and foxes have been artificially increased due to the extra food that has been made available around housing. Thus I will accept a few mice living in the log pile at the bottom of the garden where they may be picked off by the circling buzzards, but not a family of rats in my chicken coops by the house. I have heard ghastly tales of rats eating live chicken’s legs as they roost.

The cold spring has delayed the natural breeding season meaning that numbers have increased at a time when the daylight hours are long. This is an issue as it makes it more difficult to remove my chicken’s food overnight, something that would not normally be necessary. I do not wish to leave my warm bed at 4.30am in order to put out the breakfast that the hens will expect when they leave their roost just before dawn. Until this current rat issue is successfully resolved though, my feathered friends will have to go hungry until their sleepy protector has had her rest.

I wonder what it is about rats that makes them so unpleasant to so many people. Is it the speed at which they scurry around, the pointy nose and tail or the stories we are brought up with in which the rat is to be feared and driven out? There are many who will find the fearsome fox (an insatiable chicken killer) or the grey squirrel (rats with bushy tails) cute, but few will wish to save the life of a wild rat. Personally, I have little love to offer any of these creatures.

I do not wish any wild animal to become too prolific around my home. I fully support maintaining unmanaged areas with linking corridors to allow our native wildlife to breed and thrive in natural surroundings. I do not, however, wish to encourage unnatural proliferation, and I do not wish to share my home with any wild animals. This is my little patch of garden and I wish to be able to enjoy it safely with my children and my chickens. The rats must go.

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Chickens in the garden, eggs in the kitchen: Part 5

The little flock of hybrid hens that I keep in my back garden are hardy enough to cope with whatever conditions the British weather throws at them. With their personal duvets fluffed up they will sleep cuddled together for warmth on the cold, winter nights. In the warmth of summer they will spread out on their perches and raise their wings slightly to allow air to flow and cool their bodies. However, as with any pets (or people of course), hens can and do get sick.

Hens are stoic creatures and will often hide their illnesses well. As part of the daily routine required to take care of them I will watch each bird as she goes about her business to make sure that all seems well. Hens are active and inquisitive creatures so should be bright and alert. They should have sleek feathers, upright heads and tails, clear eyes and smooth legs. Any change in their demeanour signals a potential problem that requires further investigation.

Minor issues that are easily dealt with can become major problems if left untreated so it is important to take action as soon as anything untoward is spotted. We accept a duty of care when we choose to keep living creatures and their well being, safety and comfort are in our hands. My aim is for my birds to thrive in a pleasant and stress free environment. Hens do not like change so I will try to treat any illnesses that they develop myself in their familiar surroundings. Sometimes a bird will need to be isolated from the flock but I try to minimise this as reintroductions can result in injuries. An established flock is liable to attack an unfamiliar bird.

I am going to go through a number of illnesses and issues that I have had to deal with in this post. If you are of a squeamish disposition then please read no further.

1) Sniffles

Just like humans, hens can catch a cold. I have no idea if that is the correct term for it, but symptoms present in much the same way. The hen will sniffle and sneeze, become more lethargic than usual and show less interest in scratching with the flock. She may look hunched with her head and tail down or rest in the coop during the day. Her eyes may not look as clear as they should. When I spot this sort of behaviour I will add a couple of spoonfuls of poultry spice to their feed and a squirt of apple cider vinegar to their water. These are like vitamin supplements for hens and offer a general pick me up. The entire flock will benefit and therefore be able to fight off any infection that could be passed around. The hen should look better within a few days.

2) Worms

A hen can suffer from a number of internal issues which can be spotted by keeping an eye on their poo. A keeper soon becomes familiar with what is normal and can take steps to treat problems quickly when anything unusual appears in the droppings. As I allow my flock to free range but have kept their runs in the same part of the garden for years (each run can sit on one of two areas available) I need to be vigilant about the risk of intestinal worms. I have had to deal with this once.

The best course of treatment is to mix a powder called flubenvet in with the feed and ensure that the birds eat nothing else for seven to ten days. After this period of time I move the runs to their alternative position, dig over the ground and sprinkle it with a disinfectant called Stalosan F. Even if I do not notice any problems I will move the runs and clean the ground several times a year as a precaution. If left untreated worms will kill a hen.

The worms that I have spotted in the birds poo have been small but noticeable. Other types of worms can afflict hens but can be harder to spot. If my birds look ill, show no other signs of a particular illness and do not recover in a few days then I will consider worming as a precautionary measure. I would not do this more than twice a year.

3) Scaly Leg Mite

A number of my birds have developed scaly leg mite which presents itself as raised scales on the legs when the scales should be close and smooth. The problem is caused by a mite which burrows into the leg, under the scales, causing discomfort and pain. If left untreated this can lame the bird and could thus, ultimately, result in death.

There are many proprietary products available to treat this condition but I use nappy rash cream and petroleum jelly. Applied weekly for around four weeks this quickly soothes the discomfort and kills the mites. The legs are unlikely to look fully recovered until the scales are replaced, normally when the bird moults, but the suffering hen’s gait should improve quickly. Mites can move from bird to bird so the whole flock needs to be carefully checked and all affected birds treated.

4) Blocked Crop

If a hen eats too much long grass or other solid matter then she can suffer a blocked crop. This presents itself as a swollen chest that, in the worst cases, can swing from side to side. A suffering hen will appear to struggle to swallow and may open and close their beak a lot as if gasping for air. If the blocked crop becomes infected then a smelly, greenish brown liquid may come out of their mouth when she leans forward to drink. As all food and water needs to pass through the crop this blockage can be a serious issue and measures need to be taken to try to clear it.

Hens are lactose intolerant so it is not usually a good idea to feed them dairy products. However, live yoghurt can help with digestive issues and this is what I have fed a hen to try to clear a crop. Prior to feeding I have gently massaged the blockage and tilted the hen forward to pour out the accumulated liquid (this is yukky!). The yoghurt is then fed and nature left to take it’s course. I have lost one hen to this problem and successfully treated another. The surviving hen has laid me no further eggs.

5) Calcium Deficiency

Producing eggs and regrowing feathers requires a lot of calcium and I have had two birds who have suffered from severe deficiencies. This has caused them to lose the use of their legs and I have found them collapsed on their sides in the run. Treatment was to isolate them to ensure no bullying and to provide food with added limestone flour and cod liver oil. The food and water offered had to be placed on the ground within reach as the bird could not move. Poo was cleaned away regularly and after about twelve hours the bird could be placed on their feet and hold their body weight. They were then returned to the flock and the general feed treated with limestone flour and cod liver oil for a couple of days. Both birds made full recoveries.

6) Prolapse

Laying all those delicious eggs puts a lot of strain on the hens insides and I have had several birds suffer prolapses. I always try to treat this but have only had one survivor. A prolapse results in blood, which is irresistible to hens, so the suffering bird must be isolated quickly. An attempt can be made to gently push the ejected mass back into the bird (wear disposable gloves to guard against infection). However, if too much damage has been caused or if it all comes out again then the kindest treatment is to dispatch the bird. This should only be done by someone who is confident and capable with the procedure as no bird should be made to suffer.

7) Avoiding Infestations

The plastic chicken coops that I use are not as prone to harbour red mite as wooden houses, but both these little pests and the white lice that can live on a bird must still be watched out for. As well as causing discomfort a major infestation can kill. If I spot anything on a bird or in the coop that I believe may be a risk (e.g. black or white powder like material that is not shed skin) then I will clean out and disinfect the coops. I will then sprinkle a proprietary powder in the nesting material, under my birds wings and around their necks and vents. I have done this as a precaution a couple of times and have, so far, avoided infestations.

8) The Unknown Killer

Sometimes, however vigilant we have been, a bird just dies. It is rare for there to have been no sign of illness, but a hen that has been looking under the weather will generally recover more often than succumb. This week one of my elderly hens started to look a little less alert than is normal. Being an old lady in my flock she was less active than the youngsters already but she had been noticeably stiffer in her movements and less interested in her friends in recent days. Yesterday she went into the nest box (she has not been laying eggs for some time) and tucked her head under her wing. She did not appear to be in pain and had other no visible problems. She showed no interest in food which is never a good sign in a hen. When I closed the coop last night she was in the same position. This morning she was dead.

Losing a pet is always sad. I comfort myself with knowing that my hens live a good life with plenty of food, shelter and space. Their presence in our garden enriches our lives with a great deal more than just eggs. Dealing with their deaths is a necessary part of hen keeping but it is still hard. Today is a sad day as we remember the little chicken that we named Cracker. I wonder if the rest of the flock are aware that she has gone.

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Chickens in the garden, eggs in the kitchen: Part 4

I keep my little flock of back garden hens in funky coloured, plastic coops. For the first, smaller hen house I consulted my children and we agreed on the colour purple. It has a very pleasing, rounded shape that reminded me of an egg. We called it The Purple Palace. Our second, larger coop is pink which we thought sat well alongside purple. It was picked up second hand so we didn’t really choose the colour. It is raised off the ground allowing the hens to forage and shelter underneath. We call it The Pink Penthouse. I opted for plastic over the more traditional wood for ease of cleaning. Both coops can be quickly taken to bits, power hosed and reassembled when required. Cleaning the coops is never going to be a job to look forward to so making it as easy as possible helps.

Both coops are cleverly designed with integral perches, nest boxes, hatches, removable poop trays and externally operated doors. Our hens have always seemed very content in them, although from time to time we will find a bird determined to sleep in the nest box rather than perch. As this is not good for their feet, legs and feather condition it is to be discouraged. We bought the coops with attached wire runs which provide safe enclosures when we are not around to allow the birds to free range. We have plastic food and water containers that match the coop colours and these attach to the sides of the runs. I have cut and stripped suitable branches and run these above chicken head height in the runs to give the hens somewhere to perch in the day. The roofs of the wire runs have a rather untidy looking collection of shower curtains, camping ground mats and sun shades attached to help protect the hens from the elements.

There are many hen keepers who dislike these plastic hen houses, prefering the look and build of a traditional, wooden coop. I have been very pleased with plastic. One of the issues that chicken keepers must be aware of is the possibility of parasites infesting the hen house. These tiny creatures can make a bird’s life miserable, causing itchiness and discomfort whilst feeding on their blood. If left untreated these tiny creatures can eventually kill a hen. The most common parasite is the red mite which will burrow into the wood of a coop and be extremely hard to eradicate. Mites cannot burrow into the solid structure of a plastic house and power hosing then disinfecting the crevices that do exist will take care of any that try.

I learnt a great deal about keeping chickens from reading widely on the subject; on the internet, from my growing collection of books and from a specialist magazine I subscribed to. I also become quite active on a couple of on line discussion forums and after a couple of years of keeping chickens myself felt confident enough to start giving advice to the many new domestic poultry keepers who were joining the hobby. My enthusiasm for our plastic hen houses resulted in me volunteering to work at home and garden shows for the company that sold them. Although I only managed to do this for a few months before family commitments precluded me from continuing I did enjoy the experience,

Working the shows introduced me to a wide variety of people. There were many who already kept chickens and all had their own firmly held beliefs about how best to treat their birds. The company that I represented was more interested in the new, urban chicken keeper looking to keep just a few hens in a small garden. These people welcomed my advice and experience and I made many sales. Days spent at the shows were long and tiring but I enjoyed the expenses paid travel and the non stop chicken talk. I also learnt about keeping rabbits, guinea pigs and bees as the company sold housing for these creatures. The sort of chicken keepers we signed up wanted pets to cherish. Those who were critical of our set up were generally more interested in keeping utility birds – good egg layers that can be fattened up for meat at the end of their laying lives.

I am not a vegetarian and will eat chicken so have looked into raising birds for meat. Given the way broiler chickens are raised commercially I know that I could give a meat bird a much better quality of life prior to dispatch. It is perhaps a project for the future though. While we continue to choose our cute little pullets in small numbers, give them names and cuddle them daily it is hard to consider ending their lives in order to eat them. The old ladies of our flock can continue to look forward to a peaceful retirement for now. It may not make sense financially, but what pet does?

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