How to look after chickens
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Keeping chickens is an increasingly popular hobby. If there are no problems with foxes, it is fairly easy. Chickens are docile creatures and good pets. If your main purpose is to produce your own eggs, Rhode Island Reds or hybrids like Warren Brown or Black Rock are best.
They reliably produce an egg each almost daily throughout spring and summer. Many hobbyists prefer more decorative birds, coloured eggs or rare breeds. You will pay a premium for rare breeds, which may not be the best egg layers.
Preparation and Housing
- Buy or construct a chicken house.
- Provide a shallow container of grit if the chickens do not have free range: hard grit to help grind food; oyster shell to build eggshells.
- Take advice on the breeds best for your purpose – whether that is egg-laying, showing or family pet.
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Buy or construct a chicken house. Choose either a shed or a smaller “ark” – arks are popular, mobile and easy to construct. Adapt the shed if it not purpose-built. Include perches (approximately 30 cm above the floor), nesting boxes and a “pop-hole” and access ramp. Raise the shed above ground to discourage vermin and provide extra shelter beneath.
Line the nesting boxes with straw. Provide artificial lighting if you wish to extend the laying season.
Fence an enclosed area around the hen house. Even if intending chickens to have free range, a pen is safer for chicks, or when you go on holiday. Make this pen proof against dogs and foxes. Ensure the hen house can be closed at night and is proof against predators, including mink, stoats, rats and weasels, which can enter through small gaps.
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Provide separate feeders for food and water. Enclosed hoppers are best. Purchase an appropriate feed: layers pellets for adult hens; chick crumbs or growers pellets for juveniles. Provide a shallow container of grit if the chickens do not have free range: hard grit to help grind food; oyster shell to build eggshells.
Purchase chickens from a reputable dealer. Take advice on the breeds best for your purpose – whether that is egg-laying, showing or family pet. Buy only as many as your shed will comfortably house; chickens in confined spaces will peck one another. Allow at least 250 square cm of indoor floor area per chicken. Choose chickens of similar size. Purchase a cock only if you intend to raise chicks and have no neighbours to object to the crowing.
Release new birds into the shed, not outside or into a large pen. Leave them enclosed initially to become familiar with their new home. Let birds out into the pen or garden after three days. By then they should know where to return to sleep or to lay eggs.
- Ensure drinkable water is available in icy weather.
- Table scraps add variety for pet chickens, but it is illegal to feed scraps to commercial, laying hens.
Refresh water daily. Ensure drinkable water is available in icy weather. Make layers' mash with hot water in cold weather.
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Replenish feed and grit as needed. Check daily Provide greens occasionally if the birds are not free range. Give grain as a supplement but never as the main feed. Table scraps add variety for pet chickens, but it is illegal to feed scraps to commercial, laying hens.
Check for eggs daily. Do not leave eggs around unless under broody hens for hatching. The eggs attract vermin and risk damage, and you may not know how fresh eggs are.
- Poultry Allotment UK: Poultry Houses, Chicken Coops and Arks
- "Starting With Chickens -- A Beginner's Guide"; Katie Thear; 1999
- The Poultry Club of Great Britain
- Poultry Allotment UK: UK Poultry Suppliers by County and Region
- Poultry Keeper: Chicken Breeds: Pictures and Information
- Poultry Keeper: Rehoming and Caring for Ex-battery Hens
Based in the Isle of Man, Tamasin Wedgwood has been writing on historical topics since 2007. Her articles have appeared in "The International Journal of Heritage Studies," "Museum and Society" and "Bobbin and Shuttle" magazine. She has a Master of Arts (Distinction) in museum studies from Leicester University.