Chickens can be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding pets you can keep. And when I say rewarding I really mean it. Chickens will reward you with fresh eggs each morning, helping you to reduce your food bill and - because there are no food miles or packaging involved - your carbon footprint. Hopefully your eggs will be organic and free range too! If you're thinking about keeping chickens, read on to see if it's for you...
Taking the decision
First, decide if you have enough time. Chickens are easy to look after and are no more work than, say, a rabbit or a guinea pig. The chicken house will need to be cleaned out regularly, about once a week - but if you place old newspaper under the roosting bar, this should only take about ten minutes. Chickens will need fresh food and water daily. And you will need to collect the eggs! Also think about who will look after the chickens if you go away on holiday. Is there a friend or neighbour who could pop over once a day, in return for the collected eggs?
Home sweet home
Chickens need a safe and secure home - a purpose built chicken house or ark with an integral run is the best bet. Some companies such as Forsham Cottage Arks or Eglu sell starter packs, including house, chickens and feed, and will deliver too. Local breeders, such as Little Morton Farm in Derbyshire, also often sell chicken houses along with the birds.
The house needs to be fox-proof. A hen-house rested on a scratch mat (a sheet of fox-proof wire, which will often come with the starter pack) will keep your chickens safe at night. If you want to keep free-range chickens, you also need to know that they are safe from predators in your garden. And make sure that you shut chickens into their house just before dusk.
Choosing your chooks
The easiest way to buy chickens is to buy point-of-lay hens. This means they are just reaching the age when they are about to lay eggs - usually between 18-21 weeks old. There are many different breeds available, including rare older breeds and hybrids. Hybrids have been bred specifically for egg production and can each produce an egg every day. Three or four hens are plenty to provide a small family with enough eggs. Our hybrids - Amber Stars and Lohman Browns - are particularly friendly birds, and have been brilliant with the children.
Unless you want to breed chickens and hatch out your own chicks, you don't need a cockerel. If you do decide to get a cockerel, please consider your neighbours - cockerels make a lot of noise early in the morning! Also cockerels can become aggressive and territorial, so be wary of getting one if you have small children.
When your hens first arrive, keep them shut up within their run for a couple of weeks - this helps them to remember where their home is, so that when you let them out they know where to go to roost. During this time it is a good idea to talk to them regularly, so that they become familiar with you and recognise you as a source of food - especially if you feed them with little treats such as sweetcorn from time to time. This will help to make the chickens tame, and therefore easier to pick them up when you need to.
Go with the grain
As well as needing fresh drinking water, hens need layers pellets, available from farm supplies stores. Pellets provide all the nutrients the hens need, and you don't have to feed them with anything else, especially if they are free-ranging and scratching for grubs and worms. However, our hens do appreciate a couple of handfuls of whole grain, which we give them in the afternoon. Do not feed your hens with meat or with anything salty.
Chicken food can attract rats, so only put out what your chickens will eat. Or invest in a rat proof feeder - Grandpa’s Feeders are excellent as they prevent waste and hold enough food for several days, saving you time and money.
Your hens will also need some grit - usually provided, along with a grit container, as part of starter pack. Grit helps to break down food they eat. Free-range hens will get some grit from pecking around in your garden.
Hens love to make a dust bath - a big, earthy hole which they can roll around in to clean their feathers. If you don't want them to dig holes in your garden beds, provide them with a cat litter tray, or similar shallow container, filled with children's play sand. You can also add red mite or flea powder to the sand, which will stop these little pests from becoming a problem.
And finally ...
Hopefully your hens will be happy and healthy, but there are some things that can go wrong. A broody hen is the problem you are most likely to encounter - your hen sits on the nest box and won't budge, becoming belligerent if you try to move her. You can take this opportunity to hatch some chicks of your own, if you can get hold of some fertile eggs. Otherwise, remove the broody hen from the nesting box and place her away from the other birds in a temporary run, keeping her as cool as possible. After a couple of days she should have come to her senses!
Red mites are parasites which can hide in crevices in the henhouse then come out at night to feed on the hens as they roost. A tell-tale sign is hens which are reluctant to go into the roosting box at dusk. Sprays and powders are available to treat the hens - and the whole house will need to be cleaned out and sprayed, too.
Poultry fleas may lay eggs in the nesting box bedding, and can be seen on the hens, usually around the head. Again, flea powders and sprays are readily available.
This is just a short guide to give you a sense of what's required for the first time chicken keeper. For more information try one of the following books:
• Starting with Chickens by Katie Thear - short and to the point guide book that covers just about everything you'll need to know. May be included in the price of your starter pack
• Keeping Chickens: The essential guide to enjoying and getting the best from chickens by Jeremy Hobson and Celia Lewis - useful guide that's also packed with lovely photographs
• Hen and the Art of Chicken Maintenance by Martin Gurdon - amusing first-hand account of living with chickens
Little Green Space January 2016