Hen Keeping: Foxed!

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It is something every hen keeper fears, that a fox will gain access to the coop. After fifteen years of keeping my feathered friends safe, we suffered the trauma of a dawn raid by Reynard. In just a few minutes of mayhem the wily predator cut my back garden flock from sixteen to nine. It was a devastating event for all concerned.

We were awoken by the noise of distressed hens at 4.30am on an otherwise sunny, Saturday morning. Husband quickly pulled on shorts and rushed outside. Our lovely neighbours also heard the commotion – their bedroom overlooks the run – and spotted the fox circling and then in there. They told me the noise was horrible, unlike anything they had heard before from our not always quiet girls.

Hurrying to help, they opened the door of the coop to release the terrified survivors just before husband arrived on the scene. The damage could then be assessed – there were loose feathers everywhere. Six hens had been killed and two injured. One of the latter had lost all her tail feathers but appeared otherwise unharmed. The second had a bite mark in her back and had lost the use of her legs. We considered whether it would be kinder to dispatch this poor girl quickly. Over the years we have had several hens recover from what appeared terminal issues. We therefore disinfected her wound and placed her in the broody cage – an easily separated section of the run – with food and water at ground level. We kept a close eye on her daily, moving her gently and ensuring she drank and ate. She has since managed to stand unaided and we hope for continued improvement. She still needs to be kept separate from the flock by day when they are most active as hens pick – literally – on their weaker peers.

We installed our large, walk-in run in 2018 – I wrote about this here. Precautions were taken in its construction to ensure our hens would be safe from predators. We live by a wood so there are obvious risks. What we had not factored in was that the plastic cable ties securing the chicken wire to the frame would become brittle over time, especially in sunlight. In recent years we have noticed that some break and had replaced them. Tragically, we had not deduced that before they break they are weakened. The fox had gained access by pushing against the wire in its attempt to dig in. Enough cable ties snapped to open up a gap and allow entry. When our neighbour arrived on the scene he watched as the fox escaped by pushing through at the opposite end of the run from where it had entered.

The fox left in its wake so many needlessly killed hens. I understand this is its nature but there would have been some small comfort had it taken a bird for food.

Having carried out a basic clean-up to remove the bodies and loose feathers, new cable ties were added to secure the run as best we could. We now recognised that a longer term solution was needed. Elder son went on line and suggested we order metal cable ties as replacements. This seemed as good a solution as any. Following the arrival of the parcel a day later he spent a couple of evenings putting them in place along the ground level frame. We can only hope they are strong enough to hold back Reynard.

Our hens have been allowed to free range in our multi-level back garden since we first started keeping them. We only allow this when someone is home to keep an eye on any situation that develops. On a sunny afternoon after the attack we released the remaining flock under the usual supervision. One girl strayed downhill and the fox must have been waiting. I feel I let this poor girl down in particular and am now reluctant to allow any such freedom. Due to the size of their secure run they retain the legal classification of free range but this is not the point really. I want them to enjoy the variety of scratching around hedges, trees and more open spaces. Currently I just can’t bring myself to risk it.

While the shine has been taken from the joy I derive from hen keeping I will continue to keep a small flock as they add so much character to my garden. I recognise there are dangers attached to many activities that make life better and more fun to live. Whether greater freedom for my girls is worth the risk of a further fox attack in the garden, I have yet to decide.

Fox in the run, image captured by my neighbours, and a more peaceful picture of some of the survivors

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.

 

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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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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Chickens in the garden, eggs in the kitchen: Part 3

One of the more obvious advantages of keeping a small flock of chickens in the garden is the constant supply of freshly laid eggs. I will never tire of the pleasure of going to the hen coops and opening the nest boxes to check for these treasures. We got our first egg from our first chicken within a few days of them moving into our garden. I haven’t had to buy an egg since. When our hens lay more eggs than we can use I have friends who will buy them from us which provides a welcome contribution towards feed costs. The number of eggs laid by the flock depends on many things:

  • the age of each hen;
  • her breed;
  • general health issues;
  • the number of hours of daylight in which she may feed;
  • the ambient temperature;
  • whether she was spooked by a scary aeroplane flying overhead or a sudden noise.

I learnt early never to go into the chicken garden with an umbrella. Better to get wet than to frighten my poor birds with this huge, flying object.

When a hen lays an egg she goes to a familiar place where she feels safe and comfortable. She will move the bedding around with her beak, throwing a little over her shoulder to the right and to the left as she squirms down into a comfy position in the nest that she has made. Having sorted herself out she will wait a little while before rising up slightly and laying the egg that she has been growing in her body for the last twenty-four to twenty-six hours. Some hens, when they lay the egg, will immediately leave the nest box. Others will settle down in an attempt to warm the chick that may be inside. They will check it from time to time, gently turning it with their beak. Once you observe a hen laying an egg you will never again take it for granted. Each egg is a little miracle, produced with such care by these affectionate, funny and loyal birds.

A hen will lay an egg whether or not she runs with a cockerel. Keeping a cockerel will help to maintain order in the flock, minimising the risk of bullying, and will also allow breeding. As I have no wish to raise chicks at this stage I keep only hens. My little flock is made up of different types of hybrid hens of different ages. This is not an ideal set-up. It is recommended that a flock should be of the same age and the same type of bird to minimise the risk of bullying. Pecking can be a serious issue as, if blood is drawn, the birds can become cannibalistic. Thankfully things have never got that bad amongst my birds.

A pullet will come into lay from around twenty to twenty-four weeks of age. It will take a few weeks for her to settle down into regular egg laying during which time eggs will vary in size and some may be soft shelled. A good egg layer will soon be providing an egg nearly every day. Laying hens have large, bright red combs and wattles and should be fully feathered, glossy and sleek. Almost all of their energy goes into producing that delicious, daily egg so they carry little fat. They should be alert and bright eyed, happily running with the flock in search of tasty treats to eat.

Hybrid hens should continue to lay eggs regularly until they are around three years old. As they come to the end of their laying lives the eggs may become larger with weaker shells. When they have laid their lifetime supply of eggs their combs and wattles will turn a pale pink and shrink back in size. These old ladies of the flock will continue to demand the respect of their juniors with a sharp peck if they are not allowed to feed when they wish. They will move more stiffly and face feathers will look paler. Hens do not grow grey and arthritic but that is what comes to mind when I watch my elderly hens as they move around the garden.

There are times in a laying hen’s life when she may take a short break from egg production. It is natural for a hen to moult periodically. This can appear quite dramatic with bald patches appearing and dropped feathers floating around the garden in large numbers. The hens can look worryingly ‘oven ready’ between dropping their old feathers and regrowing their sleek, new, personal duvet. The energy required to produce the replacement feathers can take all of a hens energy leaving none available to produce an egg.

Some types of chicken are also prone to broodiness. When this happens the hen will remain sitting in the nestbox with all the eggs she can find warming under her. She will turn them periodically and leave them only once a day to fill up on food and water, and to rid herself of one enormous, very smelly, broody poo. It takes around twenty-one days for a fertilized egg to develop a chick and hatch. A broody hen will sit on eggs for that length of time. As I do not wish to raise chicks I try to discourage broodiness by removing eggs regularly and lifting the hen out of the nestbox. She will always try to go straight back. If a determined broody is shut out of the nestbox then she will settle herself down as close as possible to where she thinks the eggs are. For the twenty-one days that she displays this behaviour she will lay no eggs.

I am always looking at where I am going next in my hen keeping adventure. When my current birds reach the end of their lives I am considering replacing them all at once with one type of bird. I will stick with hybrids as they lay more eggs per year than pure breeds. Pure breeds are now aimed more at keepers who wish to show birds or who wish to watch pretty little things run around their garden. I find my birds quite pretty enough, and I want them to keep laying me lots of yummy eggs.

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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.

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