Starting your Poultry Keeping:
There is that old saying 'Ne'er cast a clout till May be out', and not forgetting those ‘April showers’, but all that aside, we can generally be expecting some better and hopefully warmer weather as we come into April. From early to mid March we notice a steadier trickle of customers flowing into our shop, then into April, most are out of hibernation and we can start using the word ‘busy’ again!
This time of year brings many new customers through our doors, many looking to begin their poultry keeping experiences. We are more than able and willing to advise and instruct from complete novice level, in fact we offer training courses for those that want to be well informed. Of course many will opt for just seeking advice from myself or one of our staff in the shop, and we will do our best to give a brief and concise summary in whatever time we are able to give depending on how busy the shop is at that time. I am always impressed when it is clear that people have been doing home research and study prior to coming in, or indeed signing up for a course before setting up and purchasing the birds.
Not so many years ago, home study would mean books and magazine articles such as this, now, in addition there is a huge amount of information to be found online. It is hard for me to give exact advice on how to ‘surf poultry online’! though it’s fair to say ‘read with caution’, in particular when dealing with online forums. The idea of such forums is a good one, with many people from far and a field being able to share thoughts, ideas and experiences. However, please remember that more often than not, much of what you will read will be just someone else’s thoughts, idea or experience, not necessarily the right answer, indeed are they qualified or have enough experience to be giving such advice. I would advise reading up on your chosen subject on at least three websites, and try to find similar answers, or at least take an average!
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), it is a vast subject, and 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’, and perhaps what I am trying to do here through these articles is help you avoid some of those same pitfalls.
Being that there is so much to tell to ‘set it up right’, I will split it up over the rest of this month’s article and continue in the next, mainly in a checklist format, a short summary of each essential part – many of which have been covered in detail in previous articles (I will refer back to those), or will be covered in more detail in future articles – so watch this space!
The accommodation: Overcrowded poultry housing can be a serious problem, causing for example; boredom, feather pecking, increased risk of fleas, lice and mites, fighting over food & water, soiled or broken eggs, egg eating, dirty under foot – requiring far more cleaning out, to name but a few, and in general just a poor quality of life.
Regular readers will have heard me say this before, but it’s definitely worth saying again: I am very critical of many chicken housing manufacturers ‘over stating’ the living capacity of their poultry housing. Inexperienced 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. As a general rule, if a house / run is stated for 8 birds (very few seem to take in to account size / breed of bird), then I would normally say it would be fine for 8 bantams, reduce to 5 or 6 for standard chickens, and say 4, for larger fowl, though ensuring a double check on ‘fit’ for doors, pop holes & nest boxes!
If the house and run are to be separate purchases or building projects, then make sure to provide the more generous space as the outdoor accommodation. 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!
Space for your birds is one thing, but access and space for yourselves can be just as important as run sizes increase. I’ve seen runs of all shapes and sizes, many of which have been constructed with only the birds in mind, thoughtful, but also thoughtless – it is us that has to get in there to keep them clean and tidy! For example, a long thin low down run would need several access points along its length to allow proper cleaning or to catch or round up the birds when necessary. Otherwise it’s the old ‘hands and knees job’ crawling through mud and ‘other stuff’! A classic run say 6ft (1.8) square by 3ft (0.9m) high would be quite difficult to access without a door on every face. However the same run at 6ft (1.8m) high needs just one door, and is a comfortable walk-in experience. Most ‘off-the-shelf’ start-up packages are usually well designed for access and do what it says on the label, they get you going on the poultry keeping road, what follows is often bought or built from your first experiences.
Whether building yourself, or buying in, always make sure the construction is of a good quality strong gauge wire. (The gauge is the size of the individual strands that make up the mesh). Just as important, is that the wire is well fixed to the timber framing. If the wire gauge is a bit on the thinner side, then make sure the mesh hole size is smaller, making it harder for any predator to get their teeth into it. (See predator protection below for pen security)
A solid top to the pen will provide shade and shed the rain keeping them dry. Make sure there is adequate fall and support to prevent ponding and possible collapse under the weight. (Ref: HF article Dec’17)
There are many chicken house designs on the market, but before buying (or building) please consider the following list of ‘must haves’, no matter how ‘posh’ it looks!:
…weatherproofing, the house should be of good weather proof construction, if timber, featheredged or shiplap boarding or a quality ply board. Of course there are now many designs on the market in plastic construction also. Whatever you choose, have a look at the overall quality of finishes, check the joints, the corners, the roof pitch and overhang, fit of doors and any windows. If you are unsure, maybe find a friend who knows about construction to have a look for you. Though, don’t go overboard on the finest of detail, it is after all a chicken house, and can’t be expected to keep out a force 10 with horizontal rain! Avoid layered materials such as roofing felt on ply board or other twin skin materials, both for the roof and walls, these provide hiding places for pests, and prove hard to eradicate if you can’t get to them. (Ref: HF article Sep’17)
…roosting rail (perch), this is your birds bed, it’s where they spend the night, it’s their ancestral instinct kicking in, that would see them clinging to the branch of a tree for the night. A removable rail is best to aid cleaning and control of mites. (Ref: HF article Sept’17). Rail size should be around 6”(150mm) length per bird, and between 0.5”(12mm) – 2”(50mm) wide, dependant on size of bird, ie: bantam-chicken. A good all round size would be 1”-1.25”(25-32mm).
…nesting area, a place where they feel safe, cosy and secure, dark or semi-dark to lay their eggs. This can be a tray inside of the house, in a corner or nesting compartment, or a special nesting box hanging off the side of the house – far more convenient for us to collect the eggs! One reasonable sized nesting space per 4-6 birds is generally considered ok. Most people like to provide more, though, experience has shown that they will all generally pile in and lay in just one box! It’s just another of those built in ‘do it all together’ instincts that they have!
…raised floor, A raised floor is preferable even if the house is raised up 4”-6”(100-150mm) on a brick or two in each corner. This will prolong the life of a timber floor and greatly reduce the possibilities of vermin (in particular rats) nesting underneath. If you are able to raise the house up to waist height or just below, cleaning out will be a much easier experience, no more kneeling in the mud!
…easy clean, we spoke above of the importance of outside run access, well, even more so the house! It does seem to fill up with mess rather quickly, and will need regular cleanouts, both to provide a fresh clean environment and to control possible pest infestations, ie: fleas, lice and red spider mite. (please Ref: HF article Aug’17, and in particular HF article Sep’17). This really does mean easy access for yourselves, either a nice large hinged door or a removable panel (or preferably two!). Definitely not just the pop hole where the birds go in and out, which believe it or not I have seen on some designs!
…security, ensure that all openings, pop holes, doors, windows and removable panels have adequate locks and catches, and that they remain serviceable and fit for purpose. We are mainly talking about protection from predators here, and indeed within this, mainly foxes. Although chickens are always inquisitive to a door not shutting properly, or squeezing through a gap, ultimately escape usually adds up to the same thing - predator disaster! (Ref: HF article Dec’17)
Siting the accommodation: 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 (Ref: HF article Aug’17), whereas the low light levels of total shade (particularly in Winter) can have quite an effect on reducing egg laying numbers. (Ref: HF article Oct’17). It is probably better to pick a position on your plot for permanent siting of the chicken pen, somewhere that can be given over to them, perhaps an area that is not being used for anything else or without plans for the future. A fixed site set up is far easier to protect from predators than a moveable one. (see below)
Predator protection: I cannot stress enough how important it is for us to ensure every possible measure is taken to ensure the safety of our birds. I have mentioned various aspects of that protection in several of the paragraphs above, and indeed have dedicated an entire months’ article to the subject in the December 2017 magazine which I strongly urge you all to take the time to reference and read.
In summary, provide a well built house and run with adequate locks and catches to openings, constantly checking state and serviceability of fixings to wood, wire and plastic. Regular checks of wire mesh for signs of rust or predator attacks. Ground level anti-dig wire to the perimeter of the run is essential (read my article for full details). If your birds are allowed out to occasionally free range, if not into a larger fenced compound area, then 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!
Although the above is aimed essentially at those of you considering a new career in chicken keeping, I do hope all you existing keepers can make use of the above as an ongoing check list, and indeed, have the majority of it ticked off!
We will continue next month with deciding how many birds you might like or need, a checklist for choosing birds, provision of food and water, the equipment for such, bedding and flooring, cleaning the pen (and the birds!) and biosecurity considerations.