by Sophie Atherton
It’s easy to see why. We want to know where our food comes from, we care about how farm animals are treated and locally produced food has less impact on the environment. It doesn’t get much more local than your own garden.
As well as providing a supply of truly fresh eggs that will be much tastier than any you’ll buy from a shop, keeping hens is fun. The birds have bags of personality. Getting to know them and watching how they interact with each other is as rewarding as the eggs they lay.
It’s no exaggeration to say that they have improved the quality of my life
My four hens live on an allotment close to my house. It’s no exaggeration to say that they have improved the quality of my life. Caring for them means I get fresh air and physical activity and they make me laugh. Their antics, jostling for position in the pecking order and enthusiasm to get at the food or treats I take them is constantly entertaining.
To keep hens you need about twenty square feet in your garden (or allotment) plus space for a coop. This will provide enough room for up to four hens. There needs to be enough room for their food and water containers and for them to forage and exercise during the day. All of this must be surrounded by a secure, roofed and predator proof pen. In reality this means the wire of the fencing must extend at least a foot under the ground – because foxes and badgers can dig. The roof will keep determined cats at bay. Don’t be put off by the work involved, it’s worth it and you’ll sleep easier knowing your hens are as safe as they can be. If this sort of DIY isn’t your strong point though call a carpenter or gardening service for help.
Choosing a coop, or hen house, is also important. Inside the house your hens will need somewhere to perch at night and nest boxes in which to lay their eggs. You can get ready-made or self assembly houses from specialist suppliers and sometimes in garden centres or DIY shops. Base your choice not just on how much room hens need – one square foot of floor space per bird is a good rule of thumb – but also their health. Like any animal there are specific health risks attached to chickens, but they are preventable. One of the worst is the red spider mite, a blood-sucking parasite which can be fatal. You need to pick a coop that doesn’t offer this pest a place to hide. Food and water containers can be bought from pet shops, as can the food itself.
Base your choice not just on how much room hens need, but also their health
Hens need protein-rich crumb, mash or pellets, supplemented with a little grain. They also eat green leafy plants, including grass, and appreciate vegetable scraps such as discarded spinach and cabbage leaves.
The most labour-intensive part of hen keeping is the preparation. It gets much easier once everything is set up. Once you are ready you need to decide where to get your hens from. Many beautiful and unusual breeds of chicken are available but some come with a high price tag and complex needs. Depending on where you live, you may find a poultry section in the classified ads of the local paper, or there are specialist magazines you can consult for hen suppliers. ‘Point of lay’ birds will be old enough to start producing eggs straight away and can usually be bought for around £15 each. However, it is possible to get hens for free and do a good deed at the same time. The British Hen Welfare Trust (BHWT) re-homes ex-battery hens and provides information on how to look after them.
BHWT Regional Co-ordinators ask prospective chicken keepers a variety of questions to ensure new homes are appropriate and then arrangements are made for the birds to be collected. There is a suggested donation of £4 per bird.
Hen keeping doesn’t have a steep learning curve, but increasing your poultry knowledge is invaluable. Charlotte Popescu’s books are very useful and there is a mass of information on the internet, but going on a course will give you hands on experience to make your chicken-keeping life easier. Hens lay more eggs in the spring and summer, so now is the perfect time to get started.
British Hen Welfare Trust: http://www.bhwt.org.uk/cms/
Hen houses: http://www.chickencoopsdirect.com/index1a.htm
Advice and courses: