Keeping egg-laying chickens is probably the ultimate in convenience food besides a vegetable plot – and ideal given the rising cost of grub. During World War II many people kept chickens for the eggs. And they make fantastic pets. There’s quite a bit to get through, so I’ve split this little guide into part one today and part two tomorrow. Otherwise your heads will be swimming with information overload!
Before you get some image of me as a wannabe country bumpkin, I can assure you that chickens were not always part of my life. In fact when DJ first hinted that he wanted hens I thought he’d gone mad.
One night when he got back from work I asked whether there was any gossip at the office. “Yes. Tom’s got chickens!” He gushed. “Can we get some?” I thought he was bonkers, especially as we lived in an urban flat at the time. The thought of it was totally alien to me. Eventually once we moved house DJ wore me down and I agreed. And now I can’t imagine being without them.
To keep a few chickens you’ll need at least a small garden or back yard that’s secure, so they can’t find their way into next door’s garden. Not that ours have ever really tried as there’s plenty of interesting things to eat at home. You’ll obviously need room for the hen house and run – probably about five or six feet by two or three feet – although it depends what time of house you get – and space for them to run around in when you let them out to stretch their legs and forage. Many breeds enjoy digging so make sure you protect your prized flower beds or vegetables!
We originally got Thelma & Louise (Louise sadly passed on last year) and their home from www.omlet.co.uk which sells a yuppie-style hen house – the egglu – which has become very popular and is fox proof. It doesn’t come cheap, but they deliver the housing, set it all up for you and explain how to look after your new pets. But you can get wooden housing from a number of providers or even make it yourself, as one of my neighbours is doing. When Louise died, sadly we had to get replacements immediately because you can’t have a lonely chicken. They are social animals and Thelma was very lonely. So we went to a local poultry specialist in Essex where they had a lovely selection of hens and the owner was very helpful. I’d suggest getting at least three because if you lose one, re-establishing the pecking order (as we discovered) can be very unpleasant and stressful for the girls, but more on that tomorrow.
As with all pets, be prepared to put in the time and effort to look after them, although hens are pretty low maintenance. We clean the hen house and run every one to two weeks – it probably depends on how many chickens you keep. Then you’ll need to top up their feed and water containers regularly, especially when it’s hot. Some people have got in touch worrying about whether they attract vermin. The food containers we have are off the ground and while Dougal the cat might catch the occasional mouse, we don’t get much more vermin that we did BC – Before Chickens…
Generally chickens make very little noise – unlike cockerels – although Lexi is a bit throaty (if she had a singing voice it would resemble Joe Cocker’s) when she wants to lay an egg. One of our distant neighbours has moaned about the noise to another neighbour, but I think she may be confused with another neighbour’s pet duck, which was surprisingly noisy before the fox got it, poor chap. Everyone else insists they’re really quiet. And let’s clear up a misconception now. You DON’T need a cockerel to get eggs. Hens lay unfertilised eggs on their own and don’t need a boyfriend to do so, which is why poor old cockerels tend to be surplus to requirements and end up in the pot.
Tomorrow – more on feeding chickens, their health, other pets, the wily Mr Fox and the all-important pecking order.
Do you have any questions about keeping chickens? If so, leave a comment and I’ll try to answer them if I can. Do you already keep hens? Then tell me all about your girls!