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.

 

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