Having grown up on a farm where chickens roamed freely, I always thought that they were easy to care for. That was until I bought my own little gaggle of girls to keep in my garden. As with keeping any animal there is more to it than meets the eye. However, the pleasures they bring are immeasurable and they bring gardeners plenty of benefits. They’ll devour your slugs and snails and their droppings are certainly a healthy addition to the compost heap. In return for your love and attention they will provide you with your daily boiled egg (I like my egg runny with toast soldiers).
The dream is to have your feathered friends wandering freely around the garden. This is possible if you can accept that your seedlings will be in danger of being scratched up and in a small garden your lawn and borders will soon become compacted and exhausted. I also quickly discovered that hens become very friendly and it’s a job to stop them jumping on your patio furniture as you try and enjoy lunch. You might not mind another guest at the table, but I was surprised how many of my friends are afraid of chickens!
It’s vital that you are home at dusk to put them away before bedtime, or they will be in grave danger of the fox. In a run with head height netting you’d think they’d be safe. However, I lost my hens to a fox that simply climbed over; so whether in a run or free-range you must commit to locking them in their hen house every night. This can impact somewhat on your social life. The only way around this is to build a run with a netting roof or use an electric fence. Another animal that hens attract are the rats – you have been warned!
If you’re new to the habits of hens then you’ll be amazed and shocked at how quickly they exhaust a run. It is for this reason that you ideally need two runs so one can rest and have a chance to regrow with weeds and grass. A bare run is no fun for chickens.
The right hen for you
If you’ve decided to join the fanatical army of hen keepers, then you’ll need to choose the right hen for you and your family. Don’t be swayed by exotic feathers and fancy markings as it is often the ordinary brown hen that makes the best companion. Different hen breeds have different temperaments. Invest in a good hen book and you’ll soon discover that some hens lay more than others, some are calmer and cope better with children and some produce lovely brown eggs. Consider rescuing some of the ex-battery hens that the egg farmers have retired. Once they recover from their moult, they will quickly come back into lay and reward you with lots of eggs. For more information visit www.bhwt.org.uk.
As for cockerels you don’t have to have one. So many first-time hen keepers assume that you need a cockerel to have eggs, but you only need a cockerel if you want chicks. My advice would be to avoid a cockerel if you have a young family or live in a built-up area. I would always advise buying at least three hens as they do need companionship. Keeping one hen is cruel.
There is a lot more to looking after hens than just building a run. You need to be able to clip their wings to stop them flying away and be prepared to clean the hen house and monitor the hen’s health. However, they are by far the best pet I have had – they are calming, fun to watch and repay you with baskets of delicious eggs.