IT WASN’T LONG BEFORE word got out and the eggs for sale on our porch disappeared as quickly as we could replace them. They were being snapped up by friendly dog-walkers who use the footpath by our house and had heard about their rich, orange yolks and thick whites. We value them just as highly; boil or poach one of these freshly laid beauties to enjoy with buttered toast for breakfast and it will leave you feeling thoroughly spoilt – after that, even the best shop-bought kind simply won’t do.
Hens were the first among our livestock to arrive – they’re generally considered to be entry-level animals for smallholders. For us, it all started in 2006, a year after moving to Walnuts Farm, with half a dozen standard brown birds that had, until recently, been free-ranging in the garden of a pub that was closing down. We then bought a second-hand coop, which we saw advertised in the window of a local pet shop, scrubbed it thoroughly with disinfectant, gave it a coat of non-toxic paint, staked out 150 square metres of our front meadow with some electric green poultry netting to keep out predators and introduced the girls to their new home. Soon, we found out just how easy it is to raise a few chickens and it fuelled our enthusiasm to increase the flock.
We’ve learned that hens produce the best-tasting eggs when they’ve access to plenty of grass, which they peck and scratch at to find insects – an activity that is, for some reason, deeply soothing to watch. We move them around the front meadow so they aren’t kept in the same area, which – due to chickens’ methodical grazing – soon becomes bare. Of course, not having a fixed run has its disadvantages in that the hens are more vulnerable to predation by foxes during daylight hours due to the fact the fence isn’t dug beneath the soil, allowing foxes to burrow under. It is also lower, so easily leapt over. Luckily, though, such raids are rare because the scent and continuous outdoor presence of our lurcher Bunny and whippet Blink tend to ward them off, but happen usually if we are away for a few days between Christmas and Easter when other food is scarce.
Or perhaps a covering of snow can earth the electric fence, meaning a few hungry hunters are able to bite through, jump over or even crawl under the net to take their prey. At dusk, however, a daylight-sensitive automatic door-closing mechanism means that, even if we are not around or forget, as soon as light fades – when chickens naturally head in to roost – they’re safe. Overall, we feel the flock’s quality of life outweighs the risks, plus being free to roam an expanse of fresh pasture seems to keep them in good health, as the hens are less prone to pests and diseases.
Hybrids – a type developed commercially to offer improved egg yields – such as our first batch of hens, are friendly and reliable in the laying department, and we continue to include some from Wendy Turner at nearby Wish End Farm (thecosycoop.co.uk) in our flock. However, once we’d begun keeping hens, we also became tempted by all the different pure breeds available such as the chestnut-feathered Welsummer, the large, fluffy Orpingtons and the Silver-laced Wyandotte with its elegant black-and-white plumage.
And it’s not only the appearance of the bird itself that counts, but the colour of the eggshells they produce – Cotswold Legbars are prized for their beautiful eau-de-nilor pale-blue shade, while the Marans’ are a dark brown. Poultry-club auctions and sales have proved to be an inexpensive way to acquire these special birds, but we also enjoy raising our own chicks. You can buy fertile eggs by post and, either with an incubator or a reliably broody hen, hatch them out.
Our Cuckoo Marans tend to become broody twice a year and make very good mothers. A tell-tale sign is when they start sitting in the nestbox all day and return to it as soon as you’ve thrown them out. Then you know it’s time to transfer them to a separate house, where they can warm and turn a clutch of up to a dozen fertile eggs in peace. In fact, they’ll even raise other types of fowl as long as the eggs aren’t too large or small – very sweetly, ducklings follow their hen ‘mother’ around, even when they’re old enough to tower over her.
All our birds graze together in a mixed flock and new ones are always introduced at night when the others are asleep. We also keep guinea fowl, quail, Aylesbury ducks, geese and a lone turkey who joins any group that will have him and roosts on the tin roof of the chicken coop – every evening we hear it clatter under his feet. It’s one ritual that marks the end of our smallholding day, but still nothing quite beats collecting warm eggs from the nesting box.
Before selecting your birds, buy or build your coop. There are some simple plans available (such as in the Haynes Chicken Manual) if you have the time and skills to make one. Secondhand houses are advertised on websites such as ebay.com, preloved.co.uk and uk.freecycle.org – but make sure you clean them thoroughly with a product such as Battles Poultry House Disinfectant and let them air before introducing your birds at dusk.
If buying a ready-made henhouse, consider designs with an easily removable roof or high-enough one to allow you to enter and clean with ease. It’s wise to begin with a small flock – just ensure your housing is generous and has space for a few more birds should you wish to expand the operation (use your judgment, as manufacturers’ guidelines can be inadequate). When adding new birds in the future, try to introduce an equal number or at least pairs of hens to reduce the chances of bullying and, for the same reason, do it at dusk; by morning they have usually accepted them.
There is a wide range of different birds to choose from. Pure breeds include the fancier, more eye-catching varieties of fowl displayed at agricultural shows around the country. These events (asao.org.uk) offer a good opportunity to meet breeders. Alternatively, the Poultry Club of Great Britain lists contacts (poultryclub.org/poultry/breed-clubs). Their egg yields are lower and many will stop laying between September or October and mid-February, but these birds are productive far longer than hybrids. Many breeds are also available in a bantam version, which are around half the size of their standard counterpart, tend to produce fewer, smaller eggs and are more flighty.
Hybrids are the result of crossing a cockerel and hen of different breeds. In their first year or two, they lay prolifically – up to 300 eggs a year. Many beginners choose to keep hybrids initially – a type developed for commercial laying – due to their docile nature and high egg yield. Mixed breeds are the offspring of hybrid parents. As such, they tend to be one-offs that combine several different characteristics, with no two siblings the same. Buying hens at point-of-lay (often abbreviated to POL) – when they are 16-21 weeks – means the young pullets have been sexed as hens and they are ready to produce eggs.
The price per bird varies according to whether you are selecting hybrids (from around £10) or pure-breeds (up to £40). It’s worth checking the deeds of your property or tenancy agreement (especially in urban areas) to ensure there aren’t covenants prohibiting hen-keeping. You needn’t register with Defra (gov.uk/poultry- registration) unless you plan to keep 50 birds or more.
Bright eyes, glossy feathers, smooth legs, a clean vent and a red wattle and comb are all indicators of good hen health. Visit a local breeder (look through the classified ads of your area’s newspaper or ask at an agricultural store) and go into the sheds with them to select your young birds or chicks to check they are being kept in clean and comfortable conditions. If you are taking on ex-commercial laying hens, they may appear to be out of condition and have bare patches of plumage.
However, their appearance will improve after a few weeks of free-ranging. In order to ensure you are re-homing genuine formerly caged birds, source them through The British Hen Welfare Trust (bhwt.org.uk), which has collection points across the country and asks for a small donation to fund its work.
Although chickens aren’t time-consuming to look after, you will need to check them every morning and evening. It takes just 20-30 minutes each day. In the morning, ideally when it’s light, open up the pop-hole to let them out, refresh their drinkers and top up feed, while checking they all look healthy and are moving about happily. As well as layers’ pellets and mixed corn, you should supply your hens with oyster shell and grit (with which they grind solid food).
Supplement your hens’ diet with vegetables or fruits from the garden (check a chicken-keeping guide as some, including rhubarb, are poisonous) – except those with a strong flavour such as onion as it can taint the eggs – and feed them mixed corn in the afternoon for a treat (once they’ve had a good portion of their more nutritious layers’ pellets). As soon after dusk as possible, shut up the pop-hole and put their food away securely so it doesn’t attract rodents, and collect eggs from the nesting box. There are other jobs that will require more commitment on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis.
Worming your hens will ensure a healthy digestive system – you can buy feed ready mixed with conventional treatment Flubenvet (marriagesmillers.co.uk). Alternatively, regular use of a herb-based kind, such as widely available Verm-X for Poultry, Ducks & Fowl in solid or liquid form, is effective in treating internal parasites. In spring and summer, the pest red mite can take up residence in poultry housing. There are a number of products that reduce or eliminate it, however. Diatom is an all-natural kind made from ground-up fossils and, dusted over the surfaces inside, will eradicate the parasite, while Barrier Red Mite Powder contains plant oils and is suitable for use on the birds as well. Scaly leg is also caused by a mite that burrows under the scales of a chicken’s leg and raises them so it has a rough surface.
When the hens are docile after dusk, immerse their legs in surgical spirit, then seal them with petroleum jelly. All these complaints can be kept to a minimum by good husbandry and, where possible, giving chickens access to fresh ground. Don’t be alarmed if your hens begin to lose their feathers and go off lay – it is likely that they are starting their annual moult, during which their entire plumage is replaced. It usually takes three to four weeks and requires a large amount of energy, so there is often a decline in general appearance. As well as keeping on top of pest control, check the perimeter fence on a regular basis for holes through which predators could enter. Keep housing well-maintained, as draughts and leaks can be detrimental to health, but ensure there is good ventilation in the house at roof level to prevent respiratory ailments.