I wrote this piece about 30 years ago as part of our then Forsham Cottage Arks brochure, it’s a wee bit dated (no www) and as regular Granddad Robbers would expect , very much tongue in check, but I reckon still relevant.
Over the years the same sets of questions keep getting asked. The potential new poultry keeper is at a loss to get the answer to the simplest of questions. Hopefully this little bit of information will help. It is not to say that our ideas and observation are the absolute way, but just our own approach to keeping a few hens for fun.
So, you want to keep a few birds. You have decided to satisfy a long-held ambition and keep a few hens. Simple thought can’t be difficult to find out what’s involved. Books, mags, internet, and old Harry who lives on the corner. Down to earth old boy is Harold, calls a spade a ‘whatsit’, “he’ll be a good source for information, after all, he’s got a few hens and has had for as long as we can remember, we’ll ask him what’s involved”.
On the first info trawl you’ll be flooded with advice books and info Keeping Poultry in the Garden, for garden read at least an acre with high security fencing. Books about producing meat for the table, birds for exhibition, for eggs, books on keeping large fowl, water fowl, rare breeds, bantams. In short there is no shortage of information some covering specialised aspects of fowl keeping, some generalising. At first you will need the answers to what you fear are ‘silly questions’, do you need a cockerel to produce eggs? what is a bantam? What are the best kiddie friendly birds? Which hens lay the most eggs? What house should I have for my set-up and my bird choice? Do I need a run or can the girls wander? How many birds does a normal family need to supply them with eggs? Am I normal to even want to keep chickens? Will the neighbours get ‘huffy’? What happens when we are home, or worst still go on holiday? How much does a hen eat, what does a hen eat.. how much will it cost to feed them?
There are books on the heavy stuff, on chick development in the egg – you never even thought about the inside of an egg, now you are a baby eater. A comprehensive section on genetics and colour sexing at day old, to distinguish boy chicks from girl chicks so you can kill the boys, now you’re into infanticide. Feel the panic rising when you see with the help of those useful line drawings showing the way to ‘dispatch’ (and no, that does not mean send them on holiday), the old birds that have served their purpose, does euthanasia mean anything to you? The pictures of up a chick’s bum, and the informative pic’s showing how an egg is formed inside the hen with her oviduct laid out on a slab, is a subtle mix of gynaecology and your local butcher.
There is that really interesting page on what to feed your birds and how to mill your own wheat and mix your own feed, not forgetting to add those vital minerals, whose absence will give your hens the chicken version of rickets. The different mixes read like a recipe for down market muesli but on a grand scale. Mix 2 buckets of this, 1 scoop of that, 1lb of this, 3 buckets of something else. They give handy addresses of obscure suppliers for milling equipment that are based in Cumbria, and judging by the lack of post code and the title ‘Messrs Bloggs and Bloggs, Iron-mongers to the Gentry’ there is a good chance they ceased trading about the same time somebody called Mr Wilson was telling my Mum and Dad it wouldn’t affect the pound in their pocket. The author suggests that a handy tip is to invest in a cement mixer. This saves time as hand mixing seven hundred weight of ‘mix’ is quite arduous and can take up valuable daylight hours when you could be digging the swedes or milking the goat, but suggest that milling and formulating your own feed ration can be both interesting and rewarding and make an ideal after work pursuit to while away those long winter evenings. You have got to have a serious problem if the highlight of your day is mixing chicken feed.
The things that can go wrong with a hen are mind blowing. There’s fowl pest, a notifiable disease, so you must inform the man from the Ministry. Vent pecking, an amusing little trait when birds start to peck an individual’s bum, that can turn to full blown cannibalism. Feather pecking, this time they peck out the feathers resulting in semi-naked birds. Crop binding, when the hen gets a blockage in her neck resulting in the food not passing through –so you get a hen with a fat neck, skinny body and dead. The birds get attacked by red mite that sucks their blood until it is anaemic and dies. The mite that lives on the birds and causes something called scaly leg, that looks like the legs are disintegrating, and so on and on. Now at this stage I’m quietly confident the Enid Blyton’s image of keeping a few hens to produce nice fresh brown eggs for breakfast has disappeared behind a wall of confusion, and an overwhelming thought that it’s not worth the trouble.
But before you finally give up on the idea perhaps you should wander down on a Sunday morning to have a word with Harold about keeping a few birds. At last Harold has got somebody interested in his hobby. You’ll be enthralled with stories of birds of old that ate nothing, produced 2 eggs a day all year round, would face and back off a fox and after 7 years of laying double yoke eggs was the main course for Christmas dinner in 1953 when it fed a family of five until twelfth night, and Harold built a climbing frame for the local kids with the carcass. In those days we had real chickens, not like the ‘mamby-pamby’ birds today.
As you approach the chicken run, make mental notes on how the imaginative use of disused fire guards and old iron bed frames can be implemented to not only block off the gaping holes in the perimeter wire, but to add a certain rural charm to the overall concept of the domestic poultry run. Then be guided through the maze of wire and nettles, note the selection of assorted feed utensils. old chipped enamel saucepans and rims of bowls of days gone by, sticking out of the earth, the sight of which would make an archaeologist’s heart flutter. Note also the pink baby bath that doubles as a drinker and a pond for a white, (at least it should be white), duck that splatters through the black grassless mud. This is a ‘real’ chicken run. That reminds me, do not go and see Harold if it’s raining, the black stenching mud would give Torvil and Dean trouble in maintaining the vertical, and would give their rendition of the ‘Bolero’ an essence of the Keystone Cops. If you do go base over apex, the smell will stick with you until at least your third bath. Rising from the mud is the Quasimodo of the chicken house world.
Before you stands Harold’s pride and joy, the chicken house that’s built to his own design, based on tried and tested theories of poultry keeping, on lessons taught to him by his Dad, (can you imagine Harold’s Dad), with its special features like the hanging-off doors, the clever way the house leans and twists one way to stop the pophole shutting and combined with the torn and part missing mineral felt, (Circa 1965), allows the rainwater to percolate through the roof, across the floor and forms a handy integral drinking place. Hinge strips cut from old wellingtons, hung with assorted nails and screws allowing the old bed head that is now the nest box roof to lift and reveal the designer tomato box nest with its carefully arranged selection of eggs and poo. The vision and smell are reincarnated at teatime just as you take the first mouthful of real egg.
Now I’ve probably put you off keeping hens for the rest of your natural life. Perhaps you could relent later in life if you become senile and your nearest and dearest acknowledges your insistence on keeping hens as positive proof you need locking away for your own protection.
Now start again. . .
Keeping hens need not be one of life’s major challenges. Firstly, books have their place and there are some very informative books, but in my opinion it’s confusing to read too much too soon. A poultry book will tell you in great and often graphic detail of the things that can go wrong with your birds. Unfortunately, not too much about the fun a few hens can be, or the taste of your own eggs. It’s my contention, to write a poultry book and make it big enough to bother publishing, you have to delve deep and write down every scrap of information, be it relevant or not. After all there’s a good size chapter to be written on diseases but what can you say about a healthy one-egg-a-day bird that would take more than a line or two? I have never seen fowl pest, feather pecking, vent pecking, yes and it would be irresponsible of me to tell you otherwise, but they are the exception, not the rule and caused by improper feeding, poor conditions, poor housing, poor husbandry and bored chickens. Like with the dog, cat and dare I say children, lice, mites, worms are present but easily held in check by good husbandry. If you do get a ‘problem’ get over it, handle the situation, they wont paint a red cross on the door or take your children into care (least ways I don’t think so).
As for the feeding, go and buy ready-milled feed from a local merchant, it’s a balanced diet that will keep your birds in good condition without the slightest hint of rickets. Here again what mileage can the would-be poultry book writer get out of different diets for different birds, different times of the year etc. The commercial egg producer that absolutely relies on an egg a day from each bird in his flock of thousands for his bread and butter would hardly be bothered with such rubbish so why should you? So, look up ‘feed merchant, and go and buy Layers Mash or Layers Pellets, (see thirteen words not thirteen pages).
Feed layers mash dry. Because it’s called mash, you do not add water to create that mashed potato look. Water soon turns the mash sour and the hens won’t eat it; besides they eat dry bits and pieces they find while scratching, it’s normal. When you go to your feed merchant you will have the option of mash or pelleted feed. It’s the same ration but the pelleted feed has gone through one further process to make handy bite size bits. Chickens are not the brightest of creatures, in fact, sometimes I feel God created chickens to prove he had a sense of humour. You only have to look at the available room for a brain to confirm my diagnosis. I mentioned earlier about bored chickens. The idea is to pander to the basic survival instincts of the birds and that is in the first instance, food. So, if you can keep a bird’s mind, (and I use the word sparingly), occupied for a good proportion of the day just feeding itself, it does not have time to practice its repertoire of nasty habits. It follows therefore, that if you feed mash and not pelleted feed the bird will have a greater proportion of its playtime occupied with the basics. Try eating sugar one grain at a time and then by eating sugar lumps!
Feed ad-lib, your book may well give you precise weights of feed consumed by a hen per day, per month, per year. But I have never met a bird yet that can read. They do not appreciate that they are only allowed to consume 4 ounces of feed per day and then retire from the trough to allow another bird to feed. The top birds will eat their fill and stuff the others, so if you have 4 birds and weigh out one pound of feed for them to share, by the time the strongest birds have finished eating there is a good chance that there is nothing left for the poor hen at the back end of the pecking order so in the fullness of time it dies.
. Use a proper feeder that keeps the feed dry and make sure there is always feed in it. Be sensible though, only fill your hopper to a level so that when you go and feed the next day there is still some left in the hopper, this shows every bird has had its fill. If you overfill the hopper the feed will get damp and go sour.
You will read and hear numerous times folks listing a whole lot of stuff you can feed chickens from pasta through to grapes I once heard a woman on R4 advocating choc ices. I am not saying they are wrong I am TELLING you they are wrong. Chicken will eat it all and come back for more, as I will with millionaire’s shortbread, but that does not make it good for me nor your birds. If you think your hens are going to be a good way of recycling table waste into eggs forget it. The hens need a balanced diet to produce eggs and to stay in good fettle. If you feed rubbish you will get rubbish. It is being penny wise and pound foolish, there’s no merit in having a low feed bill, unhealthy birds and no eggs. Think this through, your birds are producing eggs for you family’s table so why expect them to turn two-day old baked beans into eggs.
It needs saying birds do not have teeth, I know its obvious but what is not so obvious is how they chew their food. Small sharp stones which the bird pecks and holds in its crop, (that’s a pouch in its throat), grinds the feed as it passes through, but if your birds are confined to a run the access to grit is restricted so a grit hopper is required. There is a certain amount of grit in the feed but often the feed is formulated for commercial egg producers where the hens may have limited or no access to grass, so require less grit. There is often confusion at this stage that the birds need grit to make hard egg shells, this is not the case. It is extra calcium which is derived by feeding oyster shell, but there is plenty of that in the mixed feed so initially there is no need, however when your birds are about nine months to a year I suggest you give them access to oyster shell so they can ‘ top up’ as they feel the need . After two years start adding limestone flour to their feed.
There is an inbuilt need in most of us to want to scatter a corn feed and watch the birds scratch. If done too much and too early in the day it will upset their fed regime and effect not only their wellbeing but the egg count as well. Best to scatter a fist full of mixed corn per bird, about an hour before dusk. That will satisfy your hanking and give the hens a slow digesting energy source to help them overnight, it will not affect the egg count.
A RUN, ARK or FREE RANGE?
A dilemma for many new keepers is that they want the birds to have freedom but know they are going to have to secure a boundary of some size. If you give the birds complete access to your garden, then given time they will destroy it. They love the newly dug flowers borders to scratch in, they make dust baths in your lawn, and there’s the little matter of the droppings on the picnic table, path, lawn mower handle etc.
Free ranging works well in books. The likely hood is that your fowl will fall foul of the fox. They will eat stuff that will not necessarily be good for them, lay their eggs under the hedge where you’ll never find them, and raid next doors dog bowl.
A fixed run, is fine but keep in mind the section I wrote earlier about Harold, and before doing anything, cost it out, and what about the time it is going to take burying the wire, a trench is required. Electric fencing is an option but not if you have small children, and what happens the first time you forget to switch it on?
The size of the run is academic unless you are talking about six birds in a half-acre run. The bigger the run the longer it takes the birds to destroy the place, and instead of a small patch you have fenced off for the chicken you have a smelly eyesore that the neighbours complain about and you’re facing a divorce if you don’t get it sorted. The fox is a major problem. Foxes are patient; they will give you a regular visit because he has only got to be lucky once, you have to be lucky every time. With a fixed run he has time on his side to discover the weak point in the wire fixing, or to dig under, or to jump the wire using that handy wheelbarrow that you parked full of garden waste down by the run, and don’t think foxy won’t go over the fence if there is no way out because he will worry about an escape route after the kill
The movable ark ideally needs moving every day so birds to not poach the ground or make it fowl sick’. The grass does not suffer, in fact the scratching and the droppings do the grass good. And you can return the birds back to the same patch relatively quickly because the ‘damage’ is negligible.
A lot of new keepers using arks want to let the hens out at some time during the day, my advice is don’t. If you let the birds out they will fret to get out at your every approach. If you keep them confined they will have no concept that there is an outside, in fact you could, after a period, leave the door off and the hens would not even notice. The birds every need is catered for inside the ark, but you must give them constant changes of grass, and remember the fox because he remembers you. If you still want to give your birds an extra run there are two options, bearing in mind you won’t have to spend out on wire, posts and gate hinges. You could buy a bigger ark and put less birds in it, this also gives you expansion room, or you could add on the optional extension run.
You should take into account , what happens if you move house. With an ark they go too, so no panicking about building a new run. When you go away for a few days how much easier it is to ask a neighbour to look after your birds in exchange for the eggs, if there is no worry about all the birds having ‘come home to roost’ and they do not have to put their wellies on, you could even carry the ark round to them.
As said above the fox is a problem. they will give you a regular visit. In an enclosed ark and run the hens have all-round protection day and night. I have watched a fox walk along the ridge of our ark looking down at the birds with no idea of how to get at them, although the hens were scared they lived to tell the tale. The other advantage of an ark is that providing the house is stood on turf, and not the freshly dug vegetable garden, the fox is unlikely to excavate a hole to get into the run. When the next night he comes back for a second go because you have moved the ark, his original scratchings are four foot from the run.
As you have no doubt worked out I want to keep poultry keeping simple. This applies to the hens as well. The potential new chicken keeper has often got no idea what kind of hens they want, but when asked, rather than say I don’t know, they will often quote a breed that they have heard of like, a Rhode Island or if he really wants to impress, a Rhode Sussex cross, but when asked why and the blank expression says it all.
EASY KEPT LAYING HENS
It you want eggs and birds that are relatively easily to keep then there is no real choice other than the commercial hybrid . It’s a small brown laying hen that has been bred over thousands of generations to produce a commercially viable egg, practically daily. They thrive on a layer fed ration and are docile enough for the most novice of handlers. Do not compromise the birds by feeding table waste. They are not a recycling plant and need a PROPER feed. Remember their eggs are going into your feed chain so don’t think feeding few stale crusts and last night’s leftover lasagne won’t end up back on your plate!.
A Quick word here about Hybirds. My advice is always seek commercial lille brown birds an no other,what ever the breeder tells you. The market is swamped with Hybirds mainly produced to produce variation in colour They are not going to lay as many eggs as the tones sold to the egg farmers who needs an egg a day to pay the bills. I did at one time buy in these ‘play birds’ and can report that one lot had some strange behaviour traits which actually turned into cannibalism. And as new keeper you will think (or be told) it’s your fault
Again the commercially breeders have the answer, personally I buy a dozen or more day olds and an equal number of 20Kg bags of feed. Once they are off the chick crumbs and onto growers ration they had until the feeds finished before they headed to the freezer . If you think this is a good way and getting cheap easy meat, then forget it and go and see Mr Sainsbury
If you’re wanting something dramatic to look at. You will pay much more than you would for the laying hybirds and you can forget regular eggs. .Bantams can be fun, you won’t get vast numbers of eggs and those you get will be small, but the variations of breeds are enormous and more readily available than the large fowl..
Another assumption of the new keeper is that you have to have a cockerel or you won’t get eggs. Chickens lay eggs as part of a normal body function. The only time you need a cockerel, is if you require fertile eggs. Other than that they can be a real problem and indeed can actually be quite vicious. The breeders of traditional hens and bantams will often not sell you just hens, you have to buy the cockerel as well, usually in a trio, that’s one cock and two hens. If you do not want the cock you may still have to pay for him, but he stays with the breeder to await his fate. With hybrids you can’t buy a cockerel, so no problem. We once had a very large Maran cockerel that my daughter christened Gorebash. He was so tall he could walk through the potato helms and see the hens over in the next row. One afternoon I watched as he strode down the row, stopped, turned his head and gave an angled one-eyed glance over the mature helms, jumped the foliage and tried to give our ginger tom cat the benefit of his manhood. Needless to say, cat was less than impressed and legged it. Gorebash, not one to be upset by rejection, investigated the ‘nookie’ potential in the next row.
enjoy your birds –