So why would anyone want to keep chickens in their back garden, or on the land that they own? For most it will be the lure of ‘home grown’ fresh eggs, with a good diet and living space, the eggs you collect really will have that ‘never tasted so good’ flavour. The feeling and excitement for young and old alike on finding those first new laid eggs is a proper life experience. It’s not just the eggs, chickens can make great pets and indeed companions, most will become quite tame very quickly – but surely that’s just because we are the source of food? Well, there’s definitely an element of truth there, though during my time with these birds, I’ve seen and experienced far more than that. On a warm spring day or for a lazy summers rest, they are happy to sit with you in the sun, or even on your lap, being stroked to sleep, dozing in and out of chicken dreams (that’s them, not you!). I’ve even seen chickens lined up on the sofa with their owners watching TV (, though I would have to warn about the perils of poo on the furnishings!).
There's nothing like your own eggs
For the vegetable gardener they can be the perfect workmate, hoovering up the multitudes of unwanted plant eating creepy crawlies, the pests, particularly slugs, who often devour our veg as fast as we can grow it! They will also fertilise and turn over the ground along the way in their relentless hunt for anything that moves. Though, be warned, chickens are partial to the odd bit of veg or two themselves, particularly greens, so their access to the growing areas will need to be managed. For example, if you grow in a rotated bed system, they can be allowed onto harvested areas to ‘clean up’ anything that is left, and de-bug at the same time, ready for replanting later. Alternatively, with moveable fencing, they can be given areas of a larger veg bed to sort out, away from current growing areas. During winter gardeners often let them have the whole area, just protecting any overwintering veg.
Digging for gold
When considering accommodation for your birds, it is far better to have a fixed position enclosure, in a part of the garden that can be theirs. A fixed site set up is far easier to protect from predators than a moveable one. Then, their ‘free range’ area (this is not compulsory) can be fenced / managed accordingly. Otherwise, idyllic dreamy thoughts of your chickens permanently free ranging your garden could turn into nightmares once they’ve eaten all your bedding plants, and dug out what they haven’t eaten, in their search for insects! What about that rough area of your garden that has needed clearing for years? This may be perfect for your chickens and they’ll do the work for you!
A posh mobile chicken residence, with all the must haves, but those flowers look tasty!
The ideal site would be south facing in partial shade, however in reality a lot of keepers will struggle to achieve this on their plots. Although our chickens’ ancestors were woodland birds, I would err towards a sunny spot rather than total shade if choice is limited. Shade can still be provided, whereas the low light levels of total shade (particularly in winter) can have quite an effect on reducing egg laying numbers.
Allow free ranging where possible
It is the run where they spend their waking hours (except for egg laying), and it is there where many of the problems associated with overcrowding often occur. It is crucial that your birds are provided with as much daytime space as possible and plenty to keep them occupied. Consider jumbling up the pen now and again, say fortnightly or monthly, ie: move feeders and drinkers to new locations, even if only temporarily, add tree branches, sections of bushes, old cardboard boxes on their sides (dry weather only!), anything and everything to keep them on their toes. Chickens are a bird of routine, especially mornings and evenings, in particular where food is involved. However, that doesn’t mean that their routine should be exactly the same for their entire life!
There is always something to find, no matter how small
Provided your enclosure is solid in construction and predator proof, it can be basic or posh, provided it is enough space for its inhabitants and has everything they need for a comfortable life.
A predator and weather safe basic set up for a small back garden flock
Provision of good food and clean water is essential, it must be at the top of the list when the animal being kept gives us back a consumable product, in this case ‘eggs’.
On the market there is an array of designs for poultry feeders and drinkers, from basic to expensive. Beginners always think there’s a saving to be made by using old bowls or saucepans for feed and water (in fact, to be honest, that’s exactly how we started! and by all means, give it a whirl!), however, most quickly find that your birds will try using the edges as perches and either tip them up or poo in them!
Feeders and drinkers for all
I would always advise hanging your feeder and drinker where possible. This has many advantages, it can no longer be knocked over (minor spillages only), prevents dirt being scratched into it and can prevent unwanted visitors (vermin), getting any food or drink.
Hanging feeder and drinker
Never overcrowd, this causes numerous problems, with consequences all leading to one thing - a poor quality of life.
I am very critical of many chicken housing manufacturers ‘over stating’ the living capacity of their poultry housing. In-experienced keepers following what they assume to be expert guidance often results in overcrowding. Usually common sense prevails and most soon realise and increase the space or decrease the flock.
Regular cleaning out is essential, treat with a recommended poultry house disinfectant, do not leave the muck to build up or you’ll need a chisel to remove it, and you’ll have created a haven for poultry mites and pests!
Thorough cleanouts are essential - with all the gear
I cannot stress enough how important it is for us to ensure every possible measure is taken to ensure the safety of our birds. If your birds are allowed out to occasionally free range they must always be supervised, never leave sight of them, the wily old fox will be there when you do! Above all, remember you are the one in charge of shutting them in at night, even a fortress is useless if the door is left open!
The posh setup
I think the best advice would be, start when it suits you, when you can give it the time it needs, when you have time for reading, research and maybe time to attend a course to learn how to ‘set it up right’ – when you can afford the enclosure and equipment the birds deserve to keep them healthy and safe – the best time of year is when you are ready!.
‘Caring for your poultry’ can appear a vast subject, their accommodation, health and wellbeing, the equipment you use and how to best use it and not forgetting the huge subject of pests and diseases.
In order to begin with poultry, it is definitely not necessary to know everything (I don’t, even now – there’s always something new to learn), much can and will be learnt through experience along the way. Over the years I have definitely learnt many of the issues ‘the hard way’.