Chick c’est chic – part one

So many of you have been in touch with me about keeping chickens that I decided it was high time I blogged about it in detail. Go on, I bet you’re tempted!

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 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!


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11 Responses to Chick c’est chic – part one

  1. rik says:

    You\’re lucky, most people I\’ve known who had chickens also had rats. Then again most of them also shot rats! I suppose it depends on how their foods stored etc. I\’m told by an old game keeper that a rat will bite the back of a chicks head off if it gets chance, so be careful if you breed them!

  2. piper says:

    Hi Rik. That is truly horrible about the poor chicks if it\’s true. Yuck!  DJ would love some baby chicks but it\’s too dodgey with a pet cat really.  Guess we\’re lucky we don\’t get rats then. xxx

  3. karen says:

    Hi Piper,
                 my husband and i have had chickens for a while with no problems but recentley they have all become a bit…well alot…bald on there backs and bottoms…could this be a seasonal malt or could they be pulling each others out and eating them? They are growing new feathers but they are taking ages!
    We have also got a hen called Thelma she\’s a little beast at times! A few weeks ago we just bought some \’silkies\’ there so cute and started laying straight away there eggs are like ping pong balls 🙂 Were hoping to have some chicks this year…we had 2 last year both of them cockerels….surprisingly no one has complained…yet.
    Anyway looking forward to your next blog.

  4. piper says:

    Hello Karen – your girls sound lovely. Ah…I would love some silkies they are so cute!
    Mmm….bit personal and don\’t mean to embarrass the girls, but have you put any flea or lice powder on them or their bedding recently?  It\’s possible it\’s a flea or lice infestation causing the baldness.  We noticed Molly has a bald bit on her breast the other day and have stuck some lice powder in the nesting box.  It\’s very common esp in the summer. I think they tend to moult during the winter months – silly really as you\’d think that\’s when they\’d need their feathers most!
    Love to Thelma from Thelma.  Our Thelma is very bossy so must be in the name!

  5. piper says:

    Actually Karen – I just mentioned this to DJ and he wonders if…er…on another delicate note, if it might be that your cockerels have been doing what comes natural with the hens…because a cockerel\’s favourite hens tend to end up with bald patches in that particular area…!

  6. karen says:

    Hi Piper,
    Thanks for replying. I think it could be the cockerels being a bit \’ruff\’ we have give one of them away because it was too much for the hens. i\’ll try the lice powder too just in case.
    Just looking at your picture of Your Thelma and she is exactly the same as mine….apart from mine being a bit bald. we\’ve also got one like your Lexi she\’s called Rosy (not my choice of name). We have about 11 chickens but my husband deals with them more than me we keep them on our allotment. when we bought the silkies we also got another one i think its something called a \’pekin\’ its so tiny with a big puff ball on her bottom but there not keen on human contact unlike Thelma who will sit down on your knee and eat from our hands…..
    Anyway thanks for advice.

  7. piper says:

    Ah…does Rosy get as scruffy and dirty as our Lexi does?  Our neighbours said, \’ah what a lovely cream coloured chicken\’ when we got her. She\’s meant to be white but always find somewhere grubby to roll around in! 
    We haven\’t got Molly & Lexi really used to handling which is a pain. We couldn\’t really handle them too much when we got them as it made Thelma peck them all the more. And now they don\’t seem to like it at all.  But Thelma sounds exactly like your Thelma – she will sit on your knee and try and eat your sandwiches if you\’re eating alfresco!
    Hope the baldness thing clears up. xxx

  8. katie says:

    Hi everyone,
    I have a sweet and sad storey – bit of lunch hour reading!
    (this is remembered from my point of view as a little girl)
    I got my first chicken when i was 12, as a total surprise. I had nagged and nagged my parents for a cat previously to this and was a bit confused when they took me down the garden to see my new pet. But happily it was the cutest chick in the world ! to this say i do not know the breed, but she was pure black with beautiful shiny feathers.
    Anyway i thought she was a he for about a month so i named her Louis…which came as a shock when she layed a pure white egg!  I also discovered that chickens are incredibly fun to keep as pets.. she followed me everywhere and she became incredibly tame, i used to walk round with her in my arms or on the shoulder if she was adventurous! needless to say i eventually got 3 more hens ( daisy, doody & scarlet)  doodie used to sit on the handle bars of my bike! and i then got Speckle and Cocky the cross-breed cockrel. (with slightly homosexual tendancies, needless to say he escaped one day and my angry neighbour came round saying he had been ravaging his bantham cockrel!)
    After a few months I was given a brooder and i decided to try and hatch my own chicks. This was quite honestly the most amazing thing i have ever done! i could only fit in  3x eggs as it was a small one but 21 days later after turning them 3 times aday 2 beautiful tiny hatched at about 11pm at night. i was so excited i stayed up all night carefully looking after them till they were dry under the heat lamp. I had hatched one of Louis\’ eggs and one of speckles and the chicks were so cute! but unfortunately after a few days the smaller chick ( speckels) had developed a crooked beak which i think happened in the egg and she found it very hard to eat & drink… i devoted every hour of the day practically  ( appart from school when my mum did her bit) to helping her feed and gain weight but sadly she died as she was very weak. I was devestated but luckily Louis chick ( called Baby) was very healthy and had more  than doubled in size. It was so much fun raising my own chick(s) and all my neighbours loved the eggs we got ( be warned 6 hens really make alot of eggs!)
    We had a lovely large garden which backed onto a field which we were later allowed to use for the chucks, so everyday they were free range as it was completely enclosed. However oneday my sister had gone out for the day and forgotten to shut the side gate, and the chickens were out in the garden. I dont really remember too much as the next bit was very panicky and stressful but my neighbours Jack Russell escaped from their garden and made a b-line for the coup. I didnt know what was happening when i heard all the commotion so i shot outside to see what was going on. There were feathers everywhere as the hens ran literally for their lives. Louis flew straight up into the conservatory window and i later discovered she had broken her toe 😦 the others flew to the trees and were safe but little Baby didnt understand what was going on – an easy tageget for the dog. I ran across the garden to try and beat the dog to her but it just killed her in an instant. I was absolutelyspeechless, crying and actually aching with sadness as my little chicken lay dead in my lap.
    as a sorry present i got a Terrys chocolate orange!
    needless to say i didnt speak to them for a while!
    I dont want to put anyone off keeping hens though as I kept my other hens for a further 7 years…and the whole family loved keeping them. they were a real little gang and it was great keeping them pets (along with our elderly dog).
    So i will urge everyone to at least try keeping them  as pets as it is very rewarding and really fun! espically for children. Despite my sad experience i loved every minute and im glad i got my first chick instead of a cat!

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