Keeping Chickens: The Truth

I’ve been keeping chickens for about 18 months now, I don’t consider my chickens to be ‘pets’, but I enjoy seeing them potter about in the garden, enjoy the (occasional) benefit of fresh eggs and feel a sense of satisfaction knowing that they receive a higher level of welfare than many chickens kept for mass egg production. As a ‘newbie’ to chicken keeping did ample research before getting our first birds. During this time I read lots of forum posts, joined several Facebook groups and quizzed friends that already kept chickens. It’s safe to say that what I read or was told was only half the story, so I thought I’d put together a brief FAQ post based on our experience for anyone looking to start keeping chickens for the first time:

Q: I like the idea of fresh eggs, rather than getting shop bought, shall I keep chickens?

A: In short, my answer to this question would be no! If you like the idea of keeping chickens for egg production, there are several things you should know first. As a general rule, the cost of keeping chickens is far greater than that of buying eggs (depending of course on how many eggs you buy in a week). So first, the overall outlay, depending on your garden size, you’ll need a chicken run and coop, secure and water tight (ours is the traditional static wooden type), and you’ll need to decide on whether this will be static or whether you will move it regularly around the garden for a fresher ‘floor’ for your chickens. We went for a static type because we have a small garden with minimal lawn space. You’ll need somewhere secure, water tight and if possible mouse/rat proof for the chickens food and bedding – we invested in a second shed at the bottom of our garden to house these bits, (as well as our gardening bits). You’ll also need a feeder and water drinker (size will depend on how many hens you plan to keep), and my advice would be to raise the water drinker at least off the floor, from my experience, chickens like to scratch around, and depending on what is on the floor of your run, much of this may end up in their water!

You also need to consider running costs, we have 6 hens, a mixture of larger and smaller breeds, and they work their way through a 20kg bag of food in approx. 1 month, they also need regular access to grit, and you may want to treat them to corn. They’ll also need bedding in the coop and nesting box, which will need changing regularly (every few days at least). You may also want to buy specialised disinfectants, mite/lice powder (because they do get them!), and a decent wormer (we use Flubenvet).

Keeping chickens, much like any other animal is a commitment and a responsibility – it might sound like I am stating the obvious, but it’s important to consider that you are not just buying egg laying machines! They will access to fresh food and water daily, and clean environment to live in – 365 days a year, so when it’s freezing outside you’ll need to be out defrosting their water, and when it’s blowing a gale they still need cleaning out – just remember this is no different from buying a rabbit or Guinea pig in that sense!

Q: What shall I put on the floor of my chicken run

This is one question that I really struggled with an answer for when doing my own research, and I’m still not sure we have the right solution now. If you plan to have a static run (chickens are incredibly messy!!), then you will read various suggestions about what to put on the base of the run, if like us your run doesn’t have a roof then consider that whatever you put in the base during the winter isn’t going to look pretty. Natural woodchip looks great – for about 2 weeks, but once the hens have bedded it down and done their business in it, as well as it getting rained on it will start to smell and look messy, it will need raking regularly, disinfecting and topping up every few months – we’ve just gone down this route, and admittedly I’m not convinced it’s the best way forward. Before that our chickens were on decorative gravel/stones (not too small like pea gravel because they’d eat it), and this worked really well initially, we could hose it down and keep it clean, but in time it will bed down, bedding from the coop spills in and you end up with a bit of a mess – admittedly it did drain well. We’ve since put woodchip on the top of the stone, but it’s already looking tired and due for a top up. An element of trial and error here, and I would probably recommend a roof on your run if possible!

Q: What bedding shall I use?

This is essentially down to you, cost and what works for you – you may want to use the chicken manure for your garden. We use a combination of Dengie Fresh Bed which is fab, smells really fresh and keeps them clean and dry and hay – the hay is for the nesting box only and works better thsan straw for cleaning out because it lifts out as one clump.

Q: Should I free-range my hens?

This is again entirely up to you – we don’t tend to free-range our hens for several reasons; they scratch up the gravel and bark in the raised beds, if we have veg planted in the raised beds they pull it up and eat it, they poo everywhere and the dog chases them! If you have a smallish garden, and one you’re proud of, I would suggest that you ‘free-range’ your hens occasionally (as we do), whilst keeping an eye on them. If you’re lucky enough to have a big garden and you’re not concerned about their slightly destructive nature then it is a nice sight to see them pecking about in the garden, just ensure they are shut away at night for their own safety. For all of you out there that say ‘chickens are great they keep the weeds down’ – yes they do, but they do also eat the green bits in the garden you perhaps don’t want them to eat, and they do dig and kick the ground about – you’ve been warned! Also be aware that although they don’t fly, chickens do have wings and they are capable of making a bid for freedom, so when you buy your hens do ask about how to clip their wings!

Q: What shall I feed my chickens?

Based on my own recommendations, we give our chickens adlib access to Spillers Layers Pellets (they are the cheapest brand at our local shop), as well as access to grit and fresh water all day, they do have a treat of mixed corn several days a week – I usually throw this down to encourage the natural behaviour of pecking, although some advice to keep their food off the floor for hygiene reasons. They can also eat much of your fruit and veg off cuts – just ensure you do some research on the bits that aren’t so good for them!

Q: Are they noisy?

Yes! I do wish I had read more about this before buying our hens – it’s not just cockerels that make noise. Our hens tend to be quieter in the winter and when they have stopped or significantly reduced the amount they are laying, but come Spring and Summer from 5am in the morning they let all the neighbours know they are there – as yet we have been fortunate that no one has complained, but they’re not quiet birds! They make noise when they’ve laid, they make noise if under threat (local cats in the garden), and when they are hungry!

There are many more questions surrounding chicken keeping, involving their general health, and I would advise doing plenty of reading about all of this before committing, however, it’s not all doom and gloom, chickens are good fun and it never gets old finding eggs in the nesting box!

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