Small scale chicken keeping in the back garden is becoming a popular hobby again, in fact there are an estimated half a million people in Britain alone! Chickens are probably the first ‘livestock’ that spring to mind for most people considering keeping animals for food. They are fairly small, productive and have relatively modest requirements. They are also adaptable animals and will fit in well in many locations, from the most rural of retreat to inner city living, as long as they are provided with appropriate shelter, food and protection from predators.
Charles Darwin thought the Domestic Chicken, that we are all familiar with, was a descendent of the Burmese Jungle Fowl (Gallus bankiva) but, thanks to recent DNA testing, we now know is it in fact descended from the Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus) of Asia. Although given Darwin’s other scientific achievements I probably won’t hold it against him! Research indicates that the domestication of chickens first occurred at least 8,000 years ago!
I think they make an interesting addition to a back garden and more than make up for any wanton vandalism of your flower beds with their production of a (hopefully) regular supply of fresh eggs, as well as garden pest control duties!
The ideal site for housing chickens is one that mimics the conditions their wild ancestors lived in, namely a sheltered spot where there is room for foraging and scratching about, but the security of trees or hedges to make the birds feel secure.
There is an enormous array of housing options available for keeping chickens, from the small traditional wooden houses or chicken coops for a trio of hens, to houses large enough for commercial flocks, to the ultra modern sleek designer houses. They can be static or movable, have an attached run or be free standing with an exterior fenced off area. Some chicken houses have the addition of automatic watering and feeding equipment, although handy these would require a power supply.
As a general guide, the flock density inside the chicken house should not exceed seven birds per 1 square metre (10 square feet), while outside as much room as possible for scratching about in and generally ‘being chickens’ should be provided. It is a good idea to research exactly what chicken house/coop design you will want, looking into cost, ease of use and cleaning etc before you set out. Obtaining the catalogues of numerous manufacturers and/or searching online will ensure you see as wide a range of examples for you to choose from. If you are a handy sort, plans for building your own house are also available, with the benefit of you being able to adapt the plans for your particular needs.
There are such a wide variety of chickens to choose from that it makes sense to look carefully at the options available before making a decision. The main factors to take into consideration are whether you want birds for showing, producing, or just enjoying! These can all be accomplished from pure breed chickens, first crosses, hybrids and bantam hens. The modern hybrids are the best layers. The larger breeds and crosses are generally kept for meat, while the smaller breeds are generally better layers. Bantams are smaller birds that to some respect have not been selectively bred as other hens, meaning they can be considered more useful in a small garden flock as they are more dual purpose. I think it’s a question of personal choice, what you want the chickens for, what breed or type you prefer, and also what animals are available locally.
Chickens like all other animals need a balanced diet. Check out my basic nutrition article for a bit more background on this. During times gone by, many people fed their chickens on the household scraps and let them forage for as much as they could to get the rest. There are a number of people who will tell you “I used to keep chickens and feed them on kitchen scraps alone, and they were alright” but the reality is that most of the time, chickens won’t be alright if fed only on scraps as they won’t get the correct balance of nutrients they need, and they won’t produce nearly as many eggs as well. Not to mention the fact feeding kitchen waste to livestock is now illegal.
Fortunately these days, there are feeds that have been created that contain the correct balance of nutrients, vitamins and minerals. If you want healthy birds and a good quantity of eggs, it is advisable to feed one of these all in one feeds. They are available as pellets or as powdered mash. The mash is slightly cheaper although the chickens will usually only pick the bits out that they want, leaving the rest to go bad so all in all it is usually better to feed layers pellets. Chicks or young growers will require chick crumbs and growers pellets. Mixed corn or mealworms can be given as treat, although don’t overdo it and get chubby chickens! Flint grit and oyster shell grit are also required in a chicken’s diet. The first helps them grind down the food and the second is full of calcium to help them make strong egg shells.
There are a number of different feed dispensers available. Personally I prefer the plastic hoppers like types. These can be hung up, off the floor to stop chickens fouling it and has little plastic bars around the feeding ring to stop them chucking out the bits they don’t fancy to eat, meaning there is very little waste food. Remember to allow enough feeders for all your hens. There is a pecking order in chickens and sometimes the birds at the bottom of the pecking order will find it hard to get to the feeder if the others can stop them.
Common plants or foods that are poisons for chickens are rhubarb, potato plant leaves and even avocado. Please let me know if you can think of any other common poisonous things thanks!
Let’s not forget water! There are again a number of containers available. Galvanised containers are strong, plastic can break easily but it is useful to be able to see how much water is left in a container and you can also add supplements like Apple Cider Vinegar to the water if you have plastic containers. The most important factor to remember though is that chickens, like all livestock, should always have fresh water available and there should again be enough drinkers available for the birds at the bottom of the pecking order.
Daily and Seasonal care
Of all livestock you can kept on a small scale chickens probably require the least mount of your time, but they do still require a commitment of time and resources over a long time scale and therefore mean careful thought before purchasing hens is required. The following routine tasks will give you an idea of what you will need to think about doing a if you keep chickens. These are some of my routine tasks:
Food and water needs to be provided daily. Pellet feeds can stay fresh for a week inside a hopper so that they are dispensed ad-lib as the chickens require food, however it will soon go moldy and cause disease if it is not kept dry. Clean water containers with a small hand brush before refilling them with fresh water. Check grit hoppers and top up as necessary. Provide fresh greens at least twice a week, more often if chickens don’t have reasonable free range or if grass is short or there is snow on the ground.
Close the coop pop hole at night and open it in the morning to protect chickens from predators (especially Foxes). Open the coop as soon as you are awake and it is light outside; close it at dusk as soon as your chickens have gone to roost for the night. Unless your chicken house has an automatic pop hole opener saving you a job.
A really quick one minute health check of your animals is usually a good idea – stop for a minute and observe – make sure everything appears normal. Collect your eggs (and enjoy them!) and keep an eye out for broody hens over the spring and summer months.
Chicken houses should be cleaned out at least weekly to prevent a buildup of organic matter, which puts your birds at more risk from respiratory problems and disease. Between May and October, check perch ends and cracks for Red Mite. They are very common and the sooner you find them, the easier it is to treat them and get rid of them.
Chickens provide fresh eggs, plant pest control and entertainment in our back gardens. Perhaps you don’t have the time or inclination to keep your own free range hens but even the simple act of buying your eggs from a neighbour who does is of enormous benefit. If more of us did this consider the number of battery hens, kept in their thousands in inhumane conditions that would be spared a lifetime of misery and suffering.
When you think of these simple reasons and a few others besides, it’s not difficult to see why you should consider keeping your own flock of free range hens.
Let me know about your experiences with our feathered friends below!