Keeping chickens

Chickens are an ideal pet if you’re looking for something fairly low maintenance and have something back in return – eggs!

However there are a number of things you need to consider before taking them on.

These include:-

  • The site of the hen house and run in relation to the amount of chicken’s you’re thinking about getting;
  • Any regulations or restrictions in place in keeping livestock in your area which have been set by the local council;
  • Protecting your chickens against predators such as foxes;
  • Have a care package in place to look after them when you go away.

Equipment you’ll need for keeping chickens

Chicken CoopThere are items you’ll need to purchase and have to hand prior to getting your new hens. Here is a list of things you’ll need:-

  • Suitable housing;
  • An area for a run or pen;
  • 1 feeder (or more depending on how many hens you’re keeping);
  • 1 drinker (or more depending on how many hens you’re keeping);
  • Feed bin (safe from pests and vermin accessing it);
  • Feed scoop;
  • Bedding; and
  • Nest boxes.

A box with food supplements and medical supplies always comes in handy.

These can include:-
red mite powder

  • Poultry tonic/spice (vit and mineral supplement);
  • Citricidal (good for colds and coughs, etc);
  • Cider vinegar;
  • Anti-mite/lice/flea powder;
  • Flubenvet or Verm-X for regular worming treatment;
  • Vaseline;
  • Limestone flour or Davinova C (Calcium supplement); and
  • Garlic powder (helps keep hens in good health and also reduces the odour from the droppings).

Choosing your chickens

Local trading papers often have livestock and pet sections so have a browse through there to see if there are any hens for sale. Also your local newspaper may have some private ads for hens for sale. Ask neighbours and friends if they know of anyone who keeps hens or go online to see if there are local breeders for you to go and visit.

chicken antomy

When you are choosing your bird, check that they are alert, bright eyed, tail up, has a clean bottom and no discharge from its nose or beak. Check the legs and feet to make sure the scales are smooth and the legs are strong.

The type of breed you choose depends on what you want out of your hens, whether it’s a fresh supply of eggs, a pet or show bird, or for meat, different breeds are ideal for certain things.

If you are looking to keep hens for eggs, you’re best looking for hens advertised as POL (point of lay) which is usually 18-22 week old birds.

buff orpingtonIdeal breeds are:-

  • Warrens (250-300 eggs per year);
  • Rhode Island Reds (200 eggs per year);
  • Black Rocks (250 eggs per year);
  • Marans (200 eggs per year);
  • Bluebelles (200 eggs per year); and
  • Orpingtons (200 eggs per year).

If you’re looking for a table bird, the best breeds for this are:-

  • Sussex;
  • Wyandotte;
  • Dorking; and
  • Plymouth Rock.

silkiesIf you want show your birds, you should be looking for ones that are known for their docility or for their beauty or unusual appearance. Possibly the most ideal chickens for this criteria would be of the bantam variety (bantams are the miniature version of the larger breeds) such as:-

  • Araucana (lay beautiful blue eggs too);
  • Cochin;
  • Dutch Bantam;
  • Pekin;
  • Sebrights; and
  • Silkies.

Bringing them home

It’s preferable that the journey from the breeder/seller to home is as short as possible to minimise the hens stress levels.

To transport them home, you will more than likely need to take a boxes along with you to put your hens in. Suitable boxes, either a pet carrier (the expensive ones are plastic but the cheaper variety are made of strong cardboard) or a strong cardboard box should be large enough for the chickens to be comfortable without being too cramped. If you choose to use a cardboard box make sure you add some ventilation holes and put a layer of newspaper and soft bedding in the bottom as this will soak up any droppings during the journey.

igluBefore you leave to collect your hens ensure the coop is ready and the feeders and drinkers are out and full.

Once you arrive home, carefully and quietly open the box in a closed coop and remove your hens from the box. Ensure that there’s enough food and water and leave your hens to settle in the closed coop.

To get your hens to associate the coop as a place to roost at night and lay, it’s good practice to leave them locked up in the coop for anywhere between 4 hours to a day on the first day. After that you can open the coop and let them choose to explore their new pen/run in their own time.

Once your hens get used to their new home, they should put themselves to bed at night – normally just as the sun starts to go down which will change throughout the seasons. Make sure you close the coop’s door in order to keep them warm and protect them from any potential predators.

Housing your Chickens

In general housing for your hens must:

  • be waterproof;
  • be free of draughts but offer adequate ventilation;
  • have a dark area for hens to nest and lay;
  • have perches to allow hens to roost; and
  • offer protection from predators.

You can easily convert an existing shed into a chicken coop which will save you money. All you need to do is put up some perches (eg, curtain poles) around 60cm from the ground and add in some nest boxes (eg, draws). For the more adventurous and creative of you, have a look at this website, its got a few more ideas on day to day items that can be converted into a chicken house.

chicken coop no runEglu’s are great if you want to keep between 2 – 4 medium size chickens or up to 5 bantams, and only have a small garden. They are waterproof, look great, easy to maintain, fox-proof and come with an optional run (also fox-proof). You can even invest in the starter kit which comes complete with the Eglu, a run, hens, and all the sundries like feeders and feed.

Traditional purpose built hen coops come in a variety of sizes with optional runs attached with built in nest boxes and perches. These look great and tend to be well built, solid structures but can often be quite pricey.

Chicken feed

There are a variety of foods to give your chickens.

To provide your hens with the essential nutrients to keep them healthy, you can choose from either layers mash or pellets. Feed usually comes in 20kg – 25kg bags and can range from £6 – £13 a bag depending on quality and if you wish to go organic. Layers feed can be found in most livestock supply stores or at pet supermarkets like Pets At Home.

chicken fenceA good quality feed should have a list of ingredients and what percentage of protein, ash, fibre, oils and vitamins it contains. It’s also best to make sure it is GM-free.

Some feed comes with added grit or oyster shell (source of calcium). If not, this is something you might like to include but don’t worry too much if they don’t like it, they’ll get plenty of grit from scratching the ground. Hens require grit to help their digestive system. It is stored in the gizzard and helps grind and breakdown the food they consume.

Hens tend not to be greedy birds so you will be able to gauge how much feed they need as you go along. Feed should be stored in bins preferably galvanised and only be kept for stored for 3 months.

You can also get corn maize to add to your hens diet. However, if you buy a mash that provides a complete combination of nutrients, you need not bother with this. Just give it to them as a treat – hens go mad for it!

chickIf you’ve got chicks, you’ll need to feed them chick crumb initially as it’s a high protein feed essential for their growth and development. If hens are moulting or if finding worms and other protein rich creatures are proving difficult (especially when the ground is frosty for long periods) you can supplement your hens diet with some chick crumb. The protein improves the condition of the feathers and keeps the hens in tip-top health. It’s also beneficial to include a small amount of chick crumb in the winter months.

In general, hens welcome a variety to their diet and treats always tend to go down well. Treats should be offered occasionally and again depends of the time of year. In the summer when grubs and greens are in most abundance you can give reduce the treats as you don’t want to put them in risk of becoming overweight and therefore off lay and out of condition. You can give hens pretty much most things for treats which include:-

  • Green leafy veg such as spinach, kale, broccoli or lettuce – this gives the yolk a lovely deep orange colour;
  • Sweetcorn – on or off the cob;
  • Fruit – most fruits are ok but try to avoid the really citrusy types;
  • Pasta and rice – cooked;
  • Bread;
  • Potatoes and potato peeling but you must make sure that they are cooked first as uncooked potassium that is found in potatoes is poisonous to them;
  • Any root vegetable – cooked (cooked carrots act as a natural womer);
  • Cake;
  • Cheese;
  • Porridge (particularly good in winter on those bitterly cold days);
  • Peanuts – especially good when ground up; and
  • Live mealworm (can be obtained in pet shops or online).

Avoid giving them meat and fish scraps as this increases the risk of salmonella in the egg.

AustralorpAn average hen requires around 200ml of water a day but obviously this increases during hotter periods in the year. Hens should always have access to fresh clean water. Even if hens are deprived of water for just a couple of hours, dehydration can kick in and will effect lay.

Every now and then add a splash of poultry tonic to keep your hens in good condition. Other treatments can also be administered via their water.


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