How to keep chickens - part three

Getting started.
A lot of townies are now interested in Chickens. The reasons will be obvious, and it is just as easy to keep them at the back of a semi-detached, as on your own large country estate. Worth checking out, if you are a townie, is the Eglu, made by a company called Omlet. They are tried and tested and the company that makes them has a very responsible attitude to selling them. There is also a very lively forum. Omlet is a one-stop shop for getting started. The only word of caution is that you must remember that chickens will grow. If you buy pullets (a female less than one year old) you may find they double in size and in less than six months down the line you will need more coop space.
In the countryside, your biggest problem will be predators and boundaries and applying some kind of control on the whereabouts of your fluffy little charges. A word here to keen and doting Gardeners. Chickens and cute ornamental gardens do not mix. Whilst it is possible to have a nice garden and keep chickens, you have to become a defensive gardener; either you must keep the chickens out of the nice bits or protect your prize winning specimens under netting. Even then, netting does not present much of an obstacle to a curious and intelligent hen. A chicken will, in the course of an ordinary day, scratch up borders, bedding, begonias and butternut squash.. well you get the idea. They also know the difference between Purple Sprouting Broccoli and nettles, and will see your attempts at growing your own vegetables as an “all you can eat salad bar”.
First things first. You will need:

A chicken house with nest space
A rodent proof feed bin
Food
A feeder
A drinker
Bedding for the hen house nest
Secure run or area

Chicken House
You can buy all the shapes in all the sizes. As a rule, if you are going to buy a readymade, get one that is bigger than your initial needs. For a start, the sizes are guidelines only, and like anybody, chickens like a bit of choice. Cramped conditions lead to disputes and disease. Our chicken houses were all made by me, because we were too poor to buy a posh new one. They did, however have one very clever device, an automatic pop-hole opener. This is your ticket to freedom, nights out and the occasional week-end away. If you buy a ready made chicken house, it is worth asking yourself and the dealer if it will accommodate an automatic opener. There is only one on the market as far as I know, and everyone sells it. Also, get one with an external nest box. It saves an awful lot of hassle. Chicken House Man is very helpful on pop-hole openers. He sends a good set of instructions with them and he even has an animated gif of one on his home page. As far as I am concerned, it was the best buy I have ever made, equipment wise, but you don’t need it to start with – just bear in mind that you might want to retro-fit one.

The easiest and cheapest DIY house can be made from an 8’X4’ sheet of half-inch marine ply and a bit of T&G for the roof. I made one years ago and it is still going strong and used as a holding pen for broody chickens, new chickens, sick chickens (and at one point a baby seagull) and an alternative nest. Roofing felt is generally frowned upon because it is home to Red Mite, though a thorough dusting of Diatom can keep the problem at bay. Best to avoid places that harbor mites in the first place.

My first hen house was a massive wooden box that had been used to ship a scientific instrument from the USA. It was perfect, and cost us nothing. All I did was to make some holes in it, add a perch, and build a run. The run was a luxury, in that I could stand up and walk around in it. It was over-engineered and would have kept a bison from escaping, let alone a few feathered friends. Ah, the pleasures of DIY. (Not)

So, you have your hen house. You have either gone to Harrods and asked them to send it to your country estate, or you have made one with your own bare hands. Next, you need to accessorize.

Rodent Proof Feed bin. Again, we were poor (but honest. And happy) and bought plastic dustbins. This was a mistake ultimately because, although they were kept in a stone outhouse with two foot thick walls, the rats chewed through the wooden door, or got in through the roof eaves. Either, keep all feed indoors in a dry place, or get a zinc feed bin and cut out wine, fags and holidays for a year. (They are eye-wateringly expensive)

Food. Individual Chickens have different tastes. I have had some who would actually resort to prolonged, powered flight if bananas were on offer, and others who would look at you as if you had offered them a rat poo. This was of course, a treat. The staples that have served us well over eight years are mixed corn or mixed grain (it’s the same, depending on where you live) and layer’s pellets. Layer’s pellets are the Brussels Sprouts of the Chicken world. Like children, they eat layer’s pellets on sufferance. Having said that, they may have been brought up on them, and turn to this as comfort food. You need to find a local source. Horsey people usually sell it. Spillers and Dobson and Horrell seem to be the market leaders, for both layer’s and grain. Our usual routine is to fill the feeder with a bit of both, and then the chickens while away the hours picking out the mixed corn and leaving the layer’s pellets.

As for “Leftovers”. Be very careful. Commercial producers are banned from feeding poultry on leftovers and too right. Believing that chickens will eat any old crap is fallacious and dangerous. Don’t give a chicken anything you would not eat yourself, and never give them meat, anything salty, anything like grapes (they can choke on the skins) or food that is difficult to digest. Hens have unique digestive organs and you need to be aware of how they work.

Over the years, this is what I have fed them: Bananas, peeled apple, cooked rice, cooked pasta, sunflower hearts, and cheese. I have never owned a chicken that refused cheese. A chicken that refuses cheese is a dead chicken. Bread is ok, but I always soak it in water to make it a little more digestible. With all of the above, these are occasional treats, served in small quantities. The best diet for them is layer’s pellets, mixed corn and whatever they can get themselves. We have a lot of clover in the garden. They love clover, and it contributes to making the egg yolks a wonderful deep golden colour.

And finally, free range chickens eat what they can find. A healthy, well fed chicken will not poison itself by eating poisoned plants. They really are not that stupid. A lot of suppliers offer “poultry grit”, usually a mixture of grit and eggshells etc. Layer’s pellets have grit in them, so you don’t need to bother with extra grit. At any rate, if they are allowed to scratch and free range, they will naturally collect it. And worms! Not all chickens fancy worms, but some are mad keen on them.

Drinkers and Feeders. You need one of each and they need to be kept fresh and clean. Pop a little cider vinegar in the drinker. It will keep the water fresh and help keep the hen healthy. We started with plastic feeders and drinkers. They are fine, but eventually they wear out, and are unstable. We now have galvanized feeders and drinkers and they are wonderful.

Bedding. Again, horsey types sell bedding that is eminently suited to chickens. We mostly use wood shavings, but there are a lot of alternatives, many of which we have tried . Whatever you do, you need bedding for the nest and possibly some for the rest of the house. This will absorb the mess. Hemcore is recommended. It is not cheap, but it is very efficient at absorbing moisture. Moisture is not good.

Secure Run
I could write a saga on this. You must have some kind of enclosure for your chickens, at least, to start with. When we got our first four girls, we kept them in, as all the books tell you, safe and secure in a chicken wire enclosure. After a day or two they looked bored and chilled and we wanted to see them free as a bird so we let them out. They ended up in the farmer’s field, across a busy road. We got them back, but it is not something I would want to do again. All new flocks, and all new additions to flocks must be enclosed. With a new flock, the books recommend you keep them in for several days. When you get your new girls, they will be traumatized by the journey and disoriented. There first reaction will be to escape. So you have to keep them in a secure area. Once they are acclimatized, you can let them out, and provided they have been fed, watered and generally made a fuss of, that is where they will return. Once in a while, we get one disappear for a day or two, only to return as if nothing was wrong. If it goes on for longer than that, they are either dead or have gone broody at a secret location.

Choose a run where you can see them and they can see you. Make sure they realize that you are the Man or the Lady who brings food. Make sure they see you bringing food and treats. Talk to them and generally act casual. Be casual. After a few days, wait until they are almost ready for bed, and then let them out. Chances are, they will not go far. You are then more than half way to free-ranging them. On day two of their freedom, extent the hours of freedom to maybe, two hours before bed time. If you have had no problems then you can be confident they no longer need to be in a secure run. You can of course, build a run that is big enough for them to live in permanently, as we did when the Bird Flu scare happened, but we prefer to let them wander. Training your first flock to come home safe at night is the hardest part. An established flock will be an example to newbies, thought you still have to segregate newbies for a day or two. The other sure way to keep everybody together and where you want them is to get a cockerel. A good cockerel will welcome new chickens and protect them from disaffected old girls.

And Finally

A lot of people think you get chickens from eggs. I don’t know where this myth came from, but you will not get chicks unless you have a cockerel. Ask your mum or dad why.

Also, hens will not cooperate on breeding. They go broody when they want to, and, more frustratingly, where they want to. I saw a travesty of a programme on the BBC that seemed to suggest that you just stick a chicken on some eggs and, hey presto, you get chicks.

Find out all you can. Read the literature. (If you only buy one book on the subject, get Starting with Chickens by Katie Thear. Read the chatter in the forums, but, remember, it is easy if you follow the rules above. Treat your chickens well and they will reward you with eggs and lots of very funny and individual behaviour. If you get different looking ones, they are easy to name, but over time, they will exhibit individual behaviour.

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Below are articles by Dr Weasel about the two main health problems.

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