Chickens in the garden, eggs in the kitchen: Part 2

The hands on experience gained from keeping a small flock of hens in my back garden has taught me much about what is required of the domestic poultry keeper. It is not for those who wish to keep a well manicured garden. Hens scratch the ground for food, and clean themselves of parasites by rolling around vigorously in loose soil (dustbathing). Neither of these activities is conducive to a tidy garden. They like to eat; grass, flowers, shrubs, fruit, vegetables; if it grows they are likely to find it tasty. If a hen finds a tasty plant then that is the end of the plant. Garden netting is a wonderful thing but hens are impressive in their ability to get through it when the reward on the other side looks edible.

In the five years that I have kept hens my ambitions to grow my own vegetables have necessarily diminished. When we first got our birds I allowed them to free range wherever they wanted to go in our garden. I loved the idea of hens pottering around; I had not anticipated that they would find the house as interesting as the garden. The first hot, summers day when I came downstairs to find hen poo on the floor of our family room and hens making their way through the front hall was the last time that I left doors open without suitable barricades. Having allowed the square of lawn nearest to our house to become pot holed with dustbaths in the early years I have now fenced it off as a no hen zone. I still grow beans in buckets along the house walls in the hen free area but have given up trying to harvest the raspberries that grow beyond. The hens are drawn to those tasty red fruits long before I can get to them. Our apples grow beyond their reach but they enjoy the windfalls.

I have mentioned hen poo. Of the many things that I had not expected when I first decided to keep hens, the most significant is probably the amount of poo that they produce. The volume of droppings is impressive for such small creatures. To start with I tried to lift and dispose of it all on a daily basis. As the number of birds we kept increased this became quite a chore. The decision to keep them off the square of lawn nearest to the house helped as this was an area much used by my young children and their friends so needed to be kept poo free. The chickens now have a dedicated patch of garden where their coops and runs sit. They free range on the wilder, sloped areas of garden beyond the house. I brush off the paths and decks but the rest of their poo is left as fertilizer. By making chicken care less of a chore I can ensure that they remain welcome in our garden.

Adapting the garden to suit the chickens and adapting our own behaviour to accommodate their habits has helped to keep chicken keeping a pleasure. Each family member has a pair of garden shoes by the back door. This ensures that stepping in something nasty is not an issue. The chicken garden has been relaid to allow the runs to be moved periodically, thus resting the ground that takes the most wear. Paving slabs laid around the run edges ensure that nothing can dig into the run so our birds are safe from predators when enclosed. The borders of our garden are secured with chicken wire that overlaps the ground to keep the birds from straying into our neighbouring woodland. They do still escape periodically. Our neighbours know that we are the chicken keepers and will alert us when they spot feathered visitors sampling their plants. Thankfully this is a rare occurrence.

The benefits of keeping hens more than make up for the damage they cause. I cannot imagine a garden bereft of these fabulous little bundles of feathered character. They are so funny and charming. I walk out of my back door and they flock to greet me. I go around the garden and they follow me hopefully. They flap and argue and sunbathe; get under my feet and cluck loudly for food. They are wonderful creatures.

When our garden looks less than pristine I have this valid excuse for it’s wildness. The chopped wood left in piles; the leaf mulch that is never quite cleared; the hedge borders that could always do with a trim; the playhouse that is rotting but under which the hens love to dustbathe; all provide ideal areas for bugs to breed and chickens to scratch. If our garden is untidy but a haven for our feathered friends then I see no reason to change the way we keep it. Anyway, that is my excuse and I am sticking to it!

A free range hen in a garden.

Chickens in the garden, eggs in the kitchen: Part 1

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.


Pets and other animals

My youngest child has always wanted a dog. He is a caring and affectionate boy and probably wants a living creature to love. However, when I have looked at the costs and work involved, I have not had the courage to take a dog on; I know that it would be me who would have to look after it. I could see myself enjoying the daily walks but not the hairs, the training and the damage. A badly behaved dog is a nuisance for everyone and I am not convinced that I would be able to train one to behave as it should. When I am out and about I can be quite frightened when a dog I do not know jumps up at me. I would not wish to inflict this on anyone else.

Growing up I never had a desire for a pet. My sister was the animal lover and, over the years, our parents provided her with a rabbit, a cat and then a dog (she had to manage without the horse that she was so keen to own). I paid little attention to any of these creatures. I liked them well enough but had little interest in them. My sister seemed happy with her pets, but it was our parents who looked after them. Owning a living creature is a big responsibility. Knowing how fickle children can be in their willingness to help out I would only have a pet that I personally would be comfortable looking after.

As other parents acquiesced to their children’s desires for cats, dogs, rabbits and guinea pigs, I did start to consider the stance that I was taking. This resulted in us acquiring three chickens – one for each of my children. Although a somewhat unusual pet, our chickens have proved to be a popular addition to our household. Should I say household? One of the advantages of keeping chickens as pets is that they live in the garden, not the house. Another is that they provide us with eggs.

My children show a lot of interest in our little flock, but have become less willing to help with the required maintenance as they get older. As expected, most of the work falls to me. I enjoy my daily interactions with our birds; they are full of character and can act in such daft and funny ways. From our initial three, our flock has now grown to eleven hens of various ages and breeds. We have learnt to keep them off the lawn nearest the house which we wish to remain tidy, but let them free range elsewhere. They are generally easy to keep and I enjoy watching them bathe and scratch around in the garden.

When we have had issues with any of our birds – they do sometimes show signs of illness – I have found the internet to be a great source of information. Chicken keeping has grown in popularity in recent years and this has proved very helpful. Questions can be asked in specialist discussion forums and books recommended to improve knowledge. I am keen to know as much as I can about the best way to care for my birds as I am very aware that they must not be allowed to suffer. In taking on their care, I am responsible for their comfort and well being.

When I read of people who have neglected or deliberately harmed animals I feel so angry; I desire retribution for the poor creatures. I believe that how we treat our animals can say a great deal about what we are like as people. Those who do not have the resources and willingness to care for animals should not keep them. It is my view that those who deliberately cause suffering to animals should be severely punished.

My son still wants a dog and I still wonder if I am being unfair not letting him have one. There is, of course, the issue of how my husband may react to this idea. I think that he is more of a cat person.