A beginners guide to keeping chickens (part 1)

by sophie on October 27, 2009 · 88 comments

Henrietta and Ernie

This post is a summary of everything we’ve learnt in our first four months of chicken-keeping, especially for those of you thinking about getting your own chooks one day.  Our three ex-battery chickens are completely charming chatterboxes and super-easy to look after, but there are also a few things I wish we’d known before we got them and which I wanted to share with you.

This is very much a beginners perspective on keeping hens – experienced poultry keepers would no doubt have other wisdom to add and similarly I’m sure we’ll keep learning as we go.  If you are seriously thinking about getting your own hens have a read of this post first and then I urge you to go and hang out over at the Omlet forums for a while where just about any question you might have will already have been answered (probably several times over).
Our regular chicken care routine
We both work full time but we haven’t found looking after the chickens a big task to fit into our routine.  Here’s what we do:

Once a day
1. Top up the water
2. Top up their food
Chickens eat steadily throughout the day, storing the food in their crop to digest it at night. We feed our three special food from Allen and Page that is designed for ex-battery hens.
3. Collect any eggs (yay!). We’re averaging two eggs a day between three hens.
4. Hand over the treats
Chard is top of the list with grapes and sunflower seeds close behind. Sunflower seeds are the non-perishable bribe of choice for getting the girls back into their run.

Once a week
1. Clean the chicken house out.
Ours is a plastic Eglu which is super easy to keep clean. All we do is empty the removable poo tray, hose down the inside of the house and waft about PoultryShield and louse powder, both easily available and designed to keep the bugs at bay.
2. Catch each chicken in turn and dust them down with sweet-smelling louse powder

Are your chickens free range and how much space do they need?
Kathryn asked how much space chickens need.  Assuming that you can let them out to free range round the garden occasionally then the run that your chickens spend most of their time doesn’t need to be very big. We’ve got a nice routine going where the girls get let out of their run for an hour or so in the morning before we head off to work and again for an hour in the evening.  At the weekends they free range all day if we’re at home.

A run of about 2m by 1m is fine for up to four birds (we’re a soft touch so we bought a run extension to give them an extra metre in length so ours have a 3 x 1m run).  Most guidelines seem to suggest 3-4 square feet per bird.  With regard to having garden space to free range in, it seems to be quality rather than quantity that counts here. Our girls spend their outdoor time making dust baths in the soil, rootling about in leaves, trashing my vegetable bed and digging for worms rather than covering any great distance.

Urban foxes have been known to snatch chickens in broad daylight so we never let ours out of their run unless we’re at home to supervise. 

How do chickens and gardens mix?
Arwen asked how our chickens are treating our grass.  There’s no way round it – chickens are a destructive force in the garden. Their mission in life is to peck, scratch and eat everything that they can.  When chickens are out free-ranging the damage to your grass is suitably wide-spread not to be a problem. If your chooks are in a confined run for much of the day (as ours are) then they are much harder on your grass and you have to move them onto a new patch every week or so (and put down some seed to refresh any bald patches). Anything delicate new growth (spinach, chard and other edibles included) is also best protected from the hens.

Don’t let this put you off – after some initial arguments most people seem to find a happy compromise, maybe letting their chooks free range in half of the garden while keeping the other half poo and destruction free.  At the moment we let ours free range anywhere they want to but with a gigantic net over the vegetable bed which seems to be working well. 

How are the cats and chickens getting on?
The cats have made it their business to studiously ignore the chickens. The chickens on the other hand have both a sense of humour and no concept of fear. Therefore they love nothing more than to chase an unsuspecting cat to the bottom of the garden or flying onto the nearest windowsill.  But for the most part our chooks are too busy pecking and scratching to care much what the cats are up to and so all is harmonious (see photographic evidence below!).

chickens and cats sleepingI’ve split this into two posts as it was getting rather long. The second part of A Beginners Guide to Keeping Chickens covers how much time you need to spend with chickens, noise, holidays and where to find out more information about looking after hens.

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