A Beginner's Guide to Chicken-keeping
Keeping chickens is fantastically rewarding. You get eggs, obviously, but you also get the chance to sit and watch their antics. It's a great way to decompress; to sip your coffee on a cold but bright day and see them scratching about, stretching their wings and having a dust bath.
Chances are, if you're reading this, you're tempted to keep some chickens yourself. If, like me five years ago, you know nothing about keeping them, possibly never even held one (again, like me) this post is for you.
When I initially started researching keeping chickens I had no idea where to start.
Where do you get chickens from, after all? (Other than eggs. I knew that much.) What sort of house do you get for them? If you get a bigger one does that mean happier chickens because they have more space? (Short answer: no). Do we get one with a run attached? What about electric fencing? Or should I keep them in a large run? Or free-range? But then, there are foxes out there. What do I feed them? What if one gets poorly?
My head was filling up with unanswered questions. My biggest issue that I couldn't get my head around was what sort of 'set up' they should have. What would their home and habitat look like? Not just the coop but their space to spend the day. I would search the internet for pictures but, to be honest, couldn't find anything that answered all of my questions.
So, here are the very basics of what you need to think about before you start keeping chickens. In future posts I'll address these in a lot more detail.
Types of chickens
I don't mean what breed but rather do you want to keep ex-battery chickens, hybrids or pure breeds? Or maybe bantams? Hybrids have been specially 'created' to lay all year round. They're often friendly, make great beginner chickens, come in a variety of colours (and lay a variety of coloured eggs) and rarely go broody (which can be difficult to deal with if you don't want to hatch chicks).
Pure breeds come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They stop laying during the darker months (chickens need lots of light to lay eggs) and can get broody. Some have feathery feet, some have puffball, feathered heads.
Rescue chickens are a great addition to your flock. My own suggestion would be to get some experience under your belt before taking on a rescue chicken. Some are in a dreadful state, maybe rather alarming looking with missing feathers and will have specific needs. They might not even be able to walk very well. But then other rescue chickens can be fine. If you're really nervous but want to give a home to these lovely creatures then get some hybrids first.
Bantams are smaller versions of regular sized chickens and lay smaller eggs. I've never kept them myself because we have lots of birds of prey around here and I have visions of them disappearing in a buzzard's beak!
How many chickens should I have?
Any number from three. If you get two and one dies (it happens) then the remaining one will be on its own. A minimum of three gives you a back up. I started with six and got two more a few months later.
What about our neighbours? Are chickens noisy?
Not really. Yes, when they've laid an egg they'll shout off for a while. They like to announce the arrival of the egg. But it only lasts a short while.
What sort of house should I get?
This question needs a post all of its own. But, in broad terms there are two types of housing material. Wooden - the traditional, or plastic. (I think I may have even seen a rubber house).
I have had both wooden and plastic but, personally, I prefer the wooden. There is a myth that plastic houses do not get the dreaded red mite (a tiny parasitic bug that hides in the cracks of a house and comes out at night to feast on the chickens' blood). But this is a myth. I have had red mite in both the wooden and the plastic type of house. And it was much harder to get rid of in the plastic.
Wooden houses are harder to dry out in the winter months after cleaning. Plastic houses are quicker. But plastic houses still have cracks and crevices where tiny creatures and dirt can live.
In the house you need to put down a good layer of wood shavings - special shavings from an animal store. This enables you to 'poo-pick' or clean them out regularly.
You can use straw although this gets damp quickly. But if it's very cold, or if a chicken is broody and sitting on eggs, I like to add it then.
Do I need a run?
Again, in my opinion, I'd say yes. A good, sturdy run (not made with thin, flimsy chicken wire but with tough galvanised wire) will keep out predators. In the UK foxes are a menace to chicken keepers but they're not just limited to the countryside. They can visit gardens in cities, too. And foxes are clever. Once they know you have chickens they'll return.
The other useful thing with runs - even if you have electric fencing they're still useful to have - is that it allows you to separate a sick bird from the rest of the flock. Or, allows you to introduce new birds without too much of a blood bath!
What size house should I get?
There is a common misconception that chickens need as large a house as possible. People think they should give them plenty of room like humans. But chickens huddle together to keep warm. Many house makers and sellers will advise how many chickens is appropriate.
Where a chicken does need space is in the run.
If you're short on space in your garden you can get a house on 'stilts' which allows the chickens to have extra space and to go underneath - protecting them from sun or rain.
Give them as much space as you can. If your site will be in a permanent spot the grass will be destroyed in a short space of time. You will need bark chips (or equivalent) to put down.
Should I let them out of the run?
My chickens have a large walk-in run with two houses attached to it. I leave the chickens in the run early in the morning and lock them up before evening. The time obviously depends on the time of year and the time the sun sets.
Foxes tend to prowl early in the morning or around dusk. However, last year I had a lunch time visit from the fox. When they're feeding their young (April/May) they will take more risks to find their children food.
If you work and don't get home until after dark then I'd strongly urge you not to let them free range during the day. So you'd need a run with a nice amount of room.
Chickens will also decimate your garden. If you do allow your chickens to free range you may need to fence them away from your vegetable patch!
You can get non-electric and electric fence. Non-electric will just keep your chickens away from where you don't want them to go - or, again, it can help when introducing new members of the flock.
Electric fence is also a netted fence but with a small electric current. If a chicken touches it they'll squeal but it won't hurt them. And they won't do it more than once!
Electric fences are fairly low - easily jumpable, you think, by a fox. But, a fox won't just jump over, they'll sniff first - low down. And that's when they'll get a shock and run away.
We had an electric fence for a number of years and it was very successful. However, I didn't like to keep it on at night as it kills the hedgehogs. So I switched it off at night and the rabbits (pesky things!) nibbled at the fence - eventually allowing a fox to make its way inside.
Electric fencing is also no good for ducks. A chicken will jump away when shocked. A duck will try and push through the fence. It'll get stuck and the electric could eventually kill them.
What do I feed them?
Chickens are fed on layers pellets. In the afternoon you can give them a handful of corn as a treat. I also give them uncooked vegetables.
In the UK you are not allowed to give them kitchen scraps. And I really wouldn't advise you giving them meat.
Raw potato and rhubarb are a no-no as this is poisonous. But they love a cabbage and other vegetables and various fruits. Mine are mad on grapes.
Chickens always need fresh water. Occasionally I add a poultry drink to their water, or cider vinegar (a special one for poultry) or a bit of garlic. All especially good if they're a bit sneezy.
Chickens also need grit. Some layers pellets include grit in their ingredients and if they're free ranging they'll find it naturally. If they're not it's always good to give them grit daily. As they have no teeth they need it to grind their food and to make their egg shells strong.
What about Pests?
The most common ones are red mite, lice and worms.
Red mite and lice can both be treated by special powders. With red mite in particular it's better to prevent than cure.
Clean their houses regularly. I put powder in their wood shavings in the house and every now and again I'll also dust the chickens with powder - especially around their bottom feathers and under their wings.
Worms are treated/prevented by a special wormer that comes in a particular type of layers pellets. You basically only feed the chickens these special pellets for a certain number of days. Apple cider vinegar also helps in a more natural way.
Adding to the flock.
Be aware, the pecking order exists. A new flock will have squabbles to try and establish the top of the order. Occasionally their combs may be pecked which gives an alarming, but mainly not serious, amount of blood.
If a chicken leaves the flock due to illness or death there will be an adjustment in the flock - especially if the leaving one was at the top of the order.
Most of the time this is nothing to worry about. If there is a real bully though, there are methods you can use to try and calm her down.
If you add to your flock then try not to just get one bird. She might get picked on.
It is wise to introduce new birds gradually. During the day you could keep them separate from the main flock but within site of each other. Once it is dark you can pop them in the house with everyone else.
Anything else I should know?
Chickens love to sunbathe, to eat, to be nosy and curious, to have company, to drink, to stretch, to forage and to dust bathe. If you can allow your chickens to do all of this then they'll be very happy indeed and reward you with eggs that have beautiful golden yolks.
Dust bathing is essential to a chicken's wellbeing. They like to find a patch of dust, dried mud, even wood shavings or especially the cold ash from a fire, and lie in it covering themselves from head to foot. It's a great way for them to keep clean and keep the lice at bay. If you have a real fire then save the ash for them. They'll love it.
So that's a quick overview of the basics of chicken-keeping.
This post will be the first of many, I'm sure. In future posts I'll expand on particular areas.
If you have any chicken (or duck) related questions then email or tweet or message me on Instagram. Even if they sound daft or questions you wouldn't want to ask anyone else. Trust me, I've heard most of them before.
(Like, do you need a cockerel to have daily eggs? I get that question a lot. The answer is, no, not at all. The male chicken is only needed for reproduction not for your poached, fried, or scrambled eggs.)