Thoughts on keeping your flock safe and healthy during Autumn and Winter
Autumn is upon us! I'm sure we say it every year, but soon the clocks will be changing and the nights will be drawing in, before we know it, pumpkins, bonfire night, log fires and, yep – Christmas again! (That reminds me, I still haven’t got around to chopping enough logs for the fire, and every year I'm convinced we’ll be ready, but there’s just too much to do!)
Chicken perching in our pear tree
So what does this seasonal change mean to the poultry keeper?
For many, poultry keeping is ‘all about the eggs’ - a drop in light levels can mean a drop in egg production. Although it is generally considered that a hen will need 14-16 hours of daylight to maintain maximum production, a good healthy flock of laying age will seldom produce no eggs at all. If you have just a small flock, it is at this time that you must remind any regular egg ‘customers’ that the poultry keepers requirements must come first!
Believe it or not, many a time here at Mantel Farm we've sold eggs to a few of our chicken keeping customers who have ‘over generously’ supplied their friends, family & neighbours with eggs, and managed to leave themselves with none! (I'm not just talking during the shorter days either!) Though I have to admit, there was one Christmas here when my wife sent me down to get some eggs for baking just after close on our last shop day before the festive period, indeed I had to return to the house empty handed, admitting we had in fact sold out to the last egg, and all baking had to wait until the next day’s laying!
Mantel Farm chicken eggs
Although many poultry keepers do introduce artificial light to extend and mimic daylight, in an attempt to maintain / increase egg production, it is a matter for consideration as to whether this is the right thing to do. Commercially it’s all about the money, so maintaining egg production is key. With domestic poultry keeping I would like to think that we have a little more care for our birds. Going with nature, this is the time of year that allows their bodies to have an easier time of it, a natural rest. Maybe just a little extra lighting at the beginning and end of each day (an hour or two,) just to give them a little longer ‘daytime’, in the depths of the winter a grey overcast day can reduce the daytime to around 7 hours!
Shortening days do bring the possibility of some early nights (for the keeper!), at last a respite from every night chasing round after that very annoying ‘last chicken’ who just doesn't want to go to bed, even though it is now virtually dark! Having to employ a torch to see what you are doing, which doesn't help with the task in hand as it will be scaring the bird! - all good fun!
As a general rule, all poultry has a natural instinct to ‘put themselves to bed’. Their instinct tells them that the night is fast upon them and a feeling of ‘must get safe’ takes them home to roost. I'm always reminding my shop customers & coarse attendees that if you free range your birds outside of their normal pen, (apart from all the normal measures to ensure their safety from predators before dark,) it is essential to make sure that the door back into their run or coup remains open for them at this crucial time. They will return at dusk, and often sometime before, to feel safe inside their home. If they find the door is closed, or has accidentally swung shut, for whatever reason, if they can’t get in, they will quickly look for the next safest place to be. Again, instinct will kick in and the first port of call will be ‘upwards’. They are a bird, and have an instinct to perch, hence outside of their normal home they will be looking for a suitable tree branch for the night. Even for the non-flyers, a flutter and a jump will take them to a low branch, and similar will take them higher into the tree. This is where you may have to look for them if you arrive too late for the normal routine – getting them down can be interesting (been there & got the T-shirt!). Although a fairly safe place to be, sadly, most birds not being that clever to the end, will often disembark the tree at first light, far too early to remain safe from Mr Fox!
Home to roost
A fairly modern invention is the ‘automatic pop hole’, these are electrically operated vertically sliding doors (mostly battery), which work on timers or light sensitive switches, some have both. A great invention yes, but one that needs to be properly managed to avoid what could be unfortunate situations. Above, we spoke of that last bird who just refuses to go in when all the others have long since called it a day. Well, she would be now permanently shut out by the auto pop hole! If your birds live in what would be considered a ‘predator proof’ set up, then this would not be a big deal, she might get wet if it rains, or cold in the winter, but the odd turn of this is survivable, they are quite hardy, she should hopefully get the idea after a few nights out alone! However, if your birds are in a more open run situation, being shut out for just one night will most likely lead to disaster! Equally, being let out by the auto pop hole into a similar set up too early in the morning could have the same result, where predators are concerned, depending on where you live, timings are everything! Lastly, don’t forget to regularly check & replace the batteries!
Automatic pop hole door
As I sit writing this article, wind and rain is lashing the window, we woke up with it, and now at 11.50am, it’s still persisting! It’s at times like this that you must consider the welfare of your birds, particularly as this weather becomes more frequent moving towards the winter. In the August issue we covered the importance of ‘dust bathing’. Worth mentioning again here – it’s still important! It gets harder this time of year to provide a dry area for their dust bath, but you must try, even if it is only put out for them on the better days and away during wet times, anything is better than nothing!
Consider covering all or part of their run with water proof sheeting, we generally use Onduline corrugated ridged bitumen felt, or clear / opaque sheeting. Make sure it has sufficient fixings to stand up to the often relentless Autumn / Winter winds. It must have a reasonable fall to adequately shed the water, with strong enough support timbers to prevent sagging. If the sheeting has no fall, and/or is allowed to sag, the resulting ‘puddling’ of water will get heavier and heavier, further sagging etc, eventually leading to the roof collapsing!
Installing Onduline roofing
Consider also some sort of wind break netting to the sides most affected by the prevailing winds & rain. Bamboo screening is also good for this if you prefer the more natural look. These measures are just enough to break the force of the wind and stop driving rain soaking a large part of the run & possibly ruining the feed. If you decide to provide full protection by sheeting the sides in, don’t forget this is best removed during the hotter times, Spring through to Summer.
So next time you are listening to the wind and rain lashing down, hopefully it won’t be ‘literally’ in your ears because you've left it all too late, and you are out there battling against the weather trying to secure down last minute protective measures! I’d like to think it would now be from the comfort of your armchair with a nice hot drink, knowing your birds are well protected and safe.
Covered roof with wind break netting