A beginners guide to keeping chickens (part 1)

by sophie on October 27, 2009 · 44 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.

Leave a Comment

{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

kathryn October 29, 2009 at 20:52

I meant to ask the cat question as well – so thank you for answering that Sophie!

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Sophie October 29, 2009 at 21:15

Kathryn – I was thinking of you when I wrote the cat question! I thought you might like to have the photographic evidence to show to R.

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Arwen from Hoglet K October 29, 2009 at 23:09

This is an inspiring post. I need a yard! It’s great to hear that you can do the free ranging for a few hours a day. I’m glad the grass is surviving too!

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Sophie November 1, 2009 at 17:50

Arwen – our girls aren’t getting out to free range in the evening now that the clocks have changed but they seem happy enough with an hour in the morning and then all day at the weekends

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Emma Wallace November 2, 2009 at 04:47

What a fun post! I would love to keep chickens. I suppose the grass damage would be bad to leave for our landlords in a rental house. Definitely something we’ll want to do in the future. Thank you for posting this! I’m looking forward to reading the next parts in the series.
iamemmamusic.blogspot.com

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Gigi January 11, 2010 at 00:59

Planning to make a chicken run with clover – good green manure. What do you think?
Also like that reddish bedding you have for chooks. What is it?

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Sophie January 11, 2010 at 19:05

Hi Gigi,
I guess the suitability of clover would depend a little on your climate and a lot on the number of hens on the space.
The area that forms the actual floor of the chicken run will suffer a lot of pecking and scratching. We found our lawn going bald from chicken scratching when we were moving the run once a week and I’d imagine clover would stand up much the same as grass. If you live somewhere fairly dry it would probably be fine to keep them in the same place if you’re happy to have some bald patches and there is a reasonable amount of room for them to spread the damage. If it rains a lot like here in the UK then I think it would get very messy in Winter.
We had our chickens on grass over the summer but this was getting very muddy so we moved them onto the rubber chippings you can see on the photo for the Winter. The chippings are the sort that are sold for childrens playgrounds and as well as being mud free, can also be periodically hosed down (and if needed washed with dilute disinfectant).
Hope this answers your question.

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Karen W January 25, 2010 at 17:58

Would love to know if there is a place I can purchase one of those rounded top wire coops as shown in the picture in Part II. Please email me back. Thanks!
KarenW

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Sophie January 25, 2010 at 20:18

Hi Karen,
I’ve emailed you but in case anyone else wants the info:
The chicken coop is from a British company called Omlet – their Eglu coops are now available in the US via http://www.omlet.us/homepage/homepage.php

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kathryn September 30, 2010 at 23:23

Sophie, I have to thank you again for your calm, encouraging and useful guide to keeping chickens. I’ve found it hugely reassuring, during our recent chook escapades. I re-read the two parts before they arrived and checked in again a couple of times during our chicken minding.
Having the chooks has been a wonderful experience; they are such funny and inquisitive creatures. While we live in the inner city, only have a tiny back yard and minimal green space, they’ve been easy to look after and quite happy scratching around in the limited garden patches we have.
We need to change a few things round, before we get our own chooks, but as soon as R gets back from the UK we’ll start investigating chicken homes. And also whether there are any local organisations re-housing battery chickens.

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Reece Dawe January 23, 2011 at 22:15

how do you keep chickens happy?

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sophie January 24, 2011 at 20:27

Hi Reece – chickens are pretty easy going. Unlike cats and dogs they don’t really need entertaining so long as they’ve got food, water, other chickens and a bit of space

su March 9, 2011 at 10:25

Hi
I would love to have a couple of chickens but having read various posts on the net, it seems its quite important to have grassed areas, as i dont. I have a big garden with massive flower and shrubs beds and lots of fruit trees but its all gravel apart from the flower beds, is this going to be a problem

best regards Su x

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Sophie March 9, 2011 at 21:46

Hi Su,

I wouldn’t have thought that lack of grass would be a problem for the chickens. Chickens like something to scratch about in (gravel) and ideally some earth to dustbathe in (flower and shrub beds) so I’d have thought they would have plenty to occupy them in your garden – it sounds wonderful. They will scratch about and make a bit of a mess wherever you put them :-)

emma December 9, 2012 at 20:58

Chicken come to stay with us.

Made bed for her in compost bin.

Food and water. What else can we do?????

Seems very happy!

Emma

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Lloyd December 16, 2012 at 06:40

Are there anything else to know about them? I just got 2 chicks im wondering when they start coming down from the coop into the run?

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david gwilym January 7, 2013 at 18:45

we’ve got six chickens and had them about a month but only had one egg.how do we get them to lay?

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sophie January 22, 2013 at 17:25

Hi David, the lack of eggs can depend on many factors but if your chickens are fairly new it might be that they’re just not old enough to lay yet and will get going in a month or two

sharon burns REF the chickens January 26, 2013 at 10:33

hi i hope you dont mind me messaging you but we have just got three chickens for three of my children and i would like to have them fredd range they are young bantams at the moment in a coop but i want them to roam in garden (only when someone is home ) what is the best thing i coud do to make them free range shall i just let them out ,i dont want them to get away thankyou

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sophie January 26, 2013 at 14:12

Hi Sharon, we let our chickens free range during the day when we are at home. There is always the danger of foxes if they are free-ranging but we have decided it is worth the risk when we are at home and so a fox is less likely to come into the the garden. We always shut our girls in to their fox-proof run once it is dusk.

As you have bantams, because they are so small you’ll need to have a good look to make sure there aren’t any gaps around your garden perimeter where they might escape.

Irene Davis January 27, 2013 at 12:01

Hi

Can you give me advice on how long you can leave chickens to fend for themselves? For example, if we wanted to stay overnight with friends, would it be OK to leave the chickens with an extra supply of everything?

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sophie January 27, 2013 at 13:31

Hi all,

I’m loving all of these comments and questions from budding chicken-keepers, but I’m struggling to keep up with them!

A couple of suggestions if you’ve got a question:

- the folk over at the Omlet Forum are very friendly and will give you the best crowd-sourced advice rather than just my opinion http://club.omlet.co.uk/forum/

- do also have a look at see if your question is answered in this part 2 post http://www.mostlyeating.com/a-beginners-guide-to-keeping-chickens-part-2

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LINDA JONES February 27, 2013 at 21:20

we have four chickens and for nearly two years they have got along happily, today one small chicken has been pecked by a larger one and drawn blood we have separated them why has this happened and what else shall I do.

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Mark March 18, 2013 at 12:00

How long does it take for a egg to hatch? We live on a farm so I want to try and collect eggs to stop them from having to many children.

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Jasmine Davis March 30, 2013 at 13:20

They should take 21 days to hatch but only if they are incubated by either an artificial brooder or a hen. The hen will only start incubating though if there are 6+ eggs. It also depends if they are fertile – Do you have a cockerel?

donna March 28, 2013 at 11:03

hi i have just bought 5 pekin bantams one of them is a cockeral they are 4 week old and i have them indoors under heat when and how do i worm them flea them and should i get them vacinated ? thanks donna

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ella April 14, 2013 at 09:52

Hi , do chickens need grass or can you substitute ? See we live in the city and our garden is concrete slabs

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josh May 1, 2013 at 07:03

what breed are your chickens

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sandy May 21, 2013 at 15:22

Thanks this is very helpful as we have just got 3 west sussex hens of 7 months old. we got our first egg today.

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kelly August 10, 2013 at 06:38

Hi
We are wanting to get chickens and would like to rescue 2 or 3 girls .is there anything we should know about rescue chicks . Thanks

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caroline August 14, 2013 at 12:51

fabulous, thanks best concise info so far it doesn’t seem to be such a challenge now so thank you again

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thomas webb November 24, 2013 at 20:54

how much does it cost you to look after 3 hens

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Cory December 29, 2013 at 19:45

I’m thinking of getting chickens what would be your preferable breed that’s cheap and easy to keep for a beginner . I ask you because you seem to know your stuff.

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ryan March 3, 2014 at 07:18

can you give them food scraps

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brian March 9, 2014 at 13:57

i like to know more

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Tara April 24, 2014 at 23:09

Hi I just wondered if when you let the chickens out do they come back in and also you may have mentioned but I did not read thoroughly how do you get them back in? Many thanks as we are getting 2 to start of with tomorrow!

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Dilys Armstrong May 6, 2014 at 21:34

One of my chickens keep eating her eggs, What can I do to stop her doing it.

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michael May 22, 2014 at 21:47

how do i check if my chicken has mites or any disease and what kind of disease or infection can chickens have

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Donna May 29, 2014 at 02:15

Hi I’m a fire fighter and we were called to a barn fire, it was a chicken barn, they all died bar one which I said I’d take home, I couldnt believe it had survived! Its only a few days old and I’m after some advice on how I’m best looking after it.

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Toni July 20, 2014 at 17:33

Hi , I have rescue hens, but they have chicken mite, we are working to over come this. We have moved the hen house, but I want to know if anyone knows if we need to clear the ground to clean the ground were the hen house was if so how is this done please. Regards Toni

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