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 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.