Getting started with... chickens & eggs
PUBLISHED: 14:26 24 May 2013 | UPDATED: 14:26 24 May 2013
I have kept hens in our garden for the last 17 years and I can promise you that they make wonderful pets and, with the bonus of their lovely eggs, they will give you great pleasure and endless amusement. Each hen has her own individual character. Apart from making nests and laying eggs, hens love to exercise, flap their wings, preen, dust-bathe, sunbathe, scratch, peck and forage for food as well as perch off the ground during the day, especially if it is wet.
Hen keeping has grown in popularity enormously over the last few years and, with recent hikes in supermarket egg prices, more and more people are likely to opt for their own hens in the garden.
You don’t need a cockerel in order for your hens to lay eggs. Starting with three or four hybrid hens is a good idea and you should buy them at point of lay (POL) which is from 18 to 22 weeks and means they are ready to start laying. Hybrids have been specifically developed to lay lots of eggs and will be friendly and docile. Isa warrens, black rocks, amber stars, bluebelles and speckledys are some of the hybrids available. Alternatively you could go for some pure breeds such as Rhode Island reds, marans, welsummers or Sussex or for some bantams such as the cuddly, feather-legged pekins or wyandottes (which are attractive, need less space, eat less food and may do less damage in the garden). Always go to a reputable breeder and see your hens before you buy them. You should also ask to see the parent stock if you are going for pure breeds. Healthy hens will be alert with red combs, if they are already laying, and erect tails. Ask if they have been vaccinated and wormed.
If you decide on hybrids you can find various companies through a search on the internet, while magazines such as Your Chickens or Country Smallholding contain a useful breeders’ directory. It is best to avoid bidding at markets as you will have no idea where the hens have come from and whether they are healthy – you may also end up with young cockerels.
Back at home, you will need a secure hen house which must be ventilated and weatherproof with perches and nest boxes. You can use shavings or straw to line the nest boxes and as bedding on the floor. As a general rule, a minimum outside space for three chickens is 3.6m x 4.8m, but give your hens as large an area as possible, with shade from the sun and somewhere to shelter from the wind and rain, plus some grass to roam on and peck at. Your hens will also need a patch of bare earth or a shallow box filled with earth in which to dust-bathe.
Free range hens will give you the best deep yellow egg yolks, but you may opt to enclose your hens in a run. If so, you should make it fox-proof by burying 1.8m fences at least 30cm into the ground or use electric fencing. If you’re a city dweller you may have less space so arks which attach to hen houses are a good idea as they are on wheels and can be moved to fresh grass. Hens are always in danger from foxes and I hear many heartbreaking stories of fox attacks. A fox will kill all your hens in one go, so be sure to protect them well.
You’ll need a drinker filled with fresh, clean water, a feeder and layers pellets and/or mixed poultry corn. If your hens are enclosed, give them as much green stuff as you can but also mixed grit with oystershell. The grit goes into the gizzard and is used to grind up the corn and pellets (hens have no teeth) and the oystershell provides calcium for egg shells. Your hens will eat grass and weeds as well as worms and garden pests such as slugs, snails, woodlice, earwigs and ants. Remember, all hens moult in the late summer/autumn and they will stop laying at this time. If you are lucky, your hens could live for up to 10 years, although they can die for no apparent reason. Once a routine is established with your new hens, you’ll find maintenance easy – the least you need to do is to let them out in the morning, making sure they have food and water, collect the eggs and shut them up in the evening.