Congratulations! You have decided to keep some hens, welcome to the club. You will get nothing but enjoyment from your new girls (and maybe boy).
To help with the preparations, we have had our chicken guru Keith Gibbons of Keith’s Orps put together a guide on hen keeping on a small scale.
Keith owns and operates what we think is one of the nicest small scale hen enterprises in the country. He specialises in the beautiful Orpington breed in both large size and bantam. The colours he produces are spectacular (as I am sure you have seen with our girls). Orpingtons are a perfect breed for the back garden hen keeper as they come in two sizes, are very docile and friendly, lay well and come in a myriad of colours.
Once you have decided to keep hens, there are a few questions that you need to ask yourself ...
Do you want large hens or bantams?
This depends on you, and the space you have available. Large hens obviously need more space, and if left to range over the garden may do more damage to your plants than bantams. If they are going to have a pen and you want them to have fresh grass regularly, a movable pen will be necessary. A moveable hen house (i.e. the Babington) can be moved to a new part of the garden regularly to avoid the area becoming over grazed.
Large hens lay large eggs, bantams eggs are about a third smaller.
How many hens are you considering?
Again this depends on the space you have available. One thing to remember, never keep a hen alone, they are sociable birds. Never have less than two.
Make sure the house is not too small for the size and amount of hens you are thinking of having. Equally important, the house should not be too big for the amount of hens. Too large a house means the hens will get cold in the winter months as there will be too much airflow.
Make sure the house is waterproof, draughtproof and sturdy enough to withstand an attack by a predator. It of course must also look beautiful as it and your hens are going to be a real feature in your garden.
To keep them clean, put a layer of newspaper on the bottom of the house and cover with shavings, in the nesting area I put in some hay to keep the girls cosy. This is removed and replaced with new once a week.
If you are going to allow your chickens free range of your garden, they will pretty much look after themselves. Just bear in mind some plants are poisonous. Chickens are quite smart though and tend to know themselves what plants to eat and what to leave alone. A few examples of poisonous plants are; Ivy, Foxgloves, Bluebells, Yew and Potatoes.
The garden must be secure as hens are curious, and are not above taking themselves on a field trip if the circumstances allow.
If the hens are to be kept in a pen, the number of hens will be the key to how it looks if you are not going to move them around. Too many hens in an area will quickly have the grass gone and you will be left with bare dirt. An alternative is to move the pen regularly on to fresh grass to allow the previous area the time to regenerate. This will also stop the build up of worms and bacteria in the ground. Shelter is another must to the pen. The chickens will need some shade from the sun as well as a bit of shelter from the rain (take a look at our Hen Barn).
A good quality layers pellet or mash is the basis of your chickens diet. It is available from your local feed merchant or in some instances, your local pet shop.
Grit is essential for your birds, they use it to grind and breakdown their food before swallowing.
Corn Maize, your hens will go mad for this, but feed sparingly as too much will make them fat.
Treats, the more variety to your hens diet, the healthier and happier they will be. If they are free range, they will be grazing throughout the day on a large variety plants and insects they find whilst moving around. You can also add to their diet, green leafy veg; spinach, kale, broccoli and lettuce, this also gives a good colour to the yolks of your eggs.
Sweetcorn is a real favourite. If still on the cob, use a barbeque skewer and push up through the base of the cob. Push the other end into the ground so that the cob sits upright, like a lollipop. The hens love this. Fruit. apples and grapes especially.
Live mealworms are irresistable to hens and will literally have them eating out of your hand almost immediately.
Fresh water must be available at all times. Keep an eye on the water as hens drink more than you think.
Let the hens out as early in the mornings as you can. This exposes them to the most daylight and helps keep egg production up. Briefly look over them as they come out of their house and check that they look bright eyed, tail up and begin strutting around or scratching away searching for food. Replace food and water.
Check the nest box in the morning and evening for the eggs. Get them used to being handled. There are a few different techniques but I tend to pick them up by going to stroke them. This often causes the hen to flatten to the ground which is a natural instinct as if in anticipation for a cockerel to come along and mate. At this point calmly close your hands over the birds body making sure you include the shoulder like part of the wing up by the neck to prevent them from flapping. It's important to have a relatively firm hold of the hen so that she feels secure but not too tight that you restrict her breathing or risk causing injury. Once you have hold of them you can position the hen practically under your arm. To prevent them from squirming around, particularly when trying to administer treatment you can slide one hand underneath the hens body and clasp the legs with your fingers.
You should avoid chasing your hen and grabbing at them as this will cause distress and you may harm the bird if pulling at the feathers.
Hens seem to have an uncanny sense that you're wanting to pick them up especially for treatment and the ones that usually like a cuddle will make it as difficult as possible to catch them!
The hens will normally take themselves to bed way before it gets dark, leaving you to just shut and secure the door. Make sure you always check that they are all in! If your hens are loving the outside too much make sure you put them in their house before dark, maybe use a treat to get them in, or some gentle rounding up may be in order. Just make sure they are in their house and secure.
You should worm your hens regularly as it is better to prevent this than having to cure it. However some say de-worming a healthy hen weakens their system and un-balances the natural amount of bacteria in the hen. In my opinion you should ideally worm hens every 4 to 6 months but keep an eye on the droppings incase you spot any signs of worms appearing.
I use a product called Verm-X and you can get it in different forms like pellets and liquid. You can get other worming products that come in a powder form which you add to the hens feed. I began using this but then turned to the liquid version as the hens tend to scatter the feed and I couldn't be sure whether they were getting the right amount of worming formula.
Hens suffering with worms will appear listless and have green diarrhoea and you may even spot a worm in the droppings. You may notice a drop in the hens weight and condition and their egg shells may be of poor quality.
Preventatives - Worming products like Verm-X and Flubenvet. Using these two products there's no need to remove the eggs for consumption.
Supply a regular dose of cider vinegar in your hens drink as it's a natural wormer and antibiotic.
One way of telling how healthy your hens are is by their droppings. They should be firm and dark but 1 in every 10 droppings will take on the appearance of chip shop curry sauce. This is called caecal poo and is just an indication that the hens gut is having a good clear out. Loose looking droppings like diarrhea can sometimes be caused by the hens eating plenty of slugs and worms but it's best to keep an eye on them to make sure they're not poorly. Their vent (bottom) should be clean and clear also.
Unless you have a young pullet your hens should have bright red combs which stand firm (unless they're of a particular breed). This indicates that the hen is in lay.
The chickens eyes should be clear and bright with no discharge. The same applies to the nostrils.
Jobs throughout the year?
There are various chores which need to be carried out either on your hens, their house and their pen.
Now that there's more daylight and the weather is getting warmer, it's a good idea to give the hen house a thorough clean and disinfect. Replace wooden perches and spray every inch of the house with a product like poultry shield (found on most poultry supply websites and livestock stores).
If you have a permanently situated pen, it may look like a mud bath due to the winter weather so it's good to cordon off areas to allow the grass to grow and recover. Check and repair any damage to the fences or perimeter.
The hens tend to take more dust baths at this time of year, probably to keep cool, but also parasites love the warm and dry months so make sure they have an area where they can bathe.
You should begin to prepare for the winter months so check the condition of the hen house to ensure it is weatherproof. With it becoming wetter during this period, check the condition of your hens feet to make sure there are no signs of bumblefoot occurring etc.
This can be an unsettling time for hens particularly if you live in a built up area where the setting off of fireworks doesn't just occur on one night. If you hear fireworks going off nearby it may be a good idea to lock your hens away in their coop if they haven't already scurried off to take cover! If you're neighbours or yourselves plan on setting fireworks off and the hens are within close range, it may be a good idea to put your hens in a spacious and sturdy cardboard box with some bedding and air holes and take them into the house where there is less noise.
With the risk of frost you need to ensure that the hens water supply never freezes. On frosty mornings fill the drinkers up with fresh water. Apparently garlic cloves chopped in half can help prevent the water from freezing.
Also hens with big combs are susceptible to frost-bite and a good application of vaseline to their red bits occasionally help to prevent this.
As the green lush grass will mostly be frosty, it's good practice to offer some tasty green treats for your hens by hanging up some leafy greens for them to peck at.
For periods where it's below freezing, a small bowl of warm porridge in the morning for the hens will help keep them warm and offer some slow releasing carbs to set them up for the day. You can also add some of their pellets or layers mash in too.
Chickens can withstand temperatures of up to -20 degrees. In the rare event that it does drop to that temperature, take a look at the condition of your hens and decide whether it's best to bring them into a warmer environment. Placing them in a box with bedding and plenty of ventilation and bringing them into say a garage (avoid rooms where strong fumes can accumulate) or conservatory will keep the worst of the cold away and protect your hens.