Don’t be chicken

Keeping hens is easier than you think – just as long as you follow a few basic rules as laid out by Mister cock o’ the walk Diacono

Words & Pictures: Mark Diacono

Keeping chickens is fairly straight forward – even a clot like me can manage it so you should be able to.  Provide them with a house, enough space to be a real and expressive chicken, give them access to food, water and keep predators at bay and you’ll have happy chickens laying the finest eggs you can eat.  And the yolks will be as orange/yellow as that bad jacket Noddy Holder wore that time on Top of the Pops.

Spend an hour or two with chickens before you get some of your own.  Handle a bird, get used to it, develop a little confidence with chickens when you are still able to hand them back to their owners.  Friends who keep chickens may give you the opportunity and be willing to show you how – otherwise, ask potential suppliers.

How many?

Two is a minimum as they are social creatures, but remember: it’s better to build up from a small success than back from a large failure.  A hen from a good breed of layers, often a hybrid, will lay around 6 eggs a week during the summer but tend to have a relatively short laying life, while dual purpose or less prolific breeds, often pure breeds, will give you about half that number but may well lay though the winter and for more years.

Time

Allow 15 minutes at each end of the day to feed, let them out, lock them in, check for eggs and to see that everything’s ok.  On top of that, there’s weekly cleaning.

Space and location

Three chickens per metre2 of floor space in their shelter plus the same outside, seems pitifully small but it will do without being in any way cruel.  But give them more and they’ll appreciate it.  Add to that space for the feed and water container as well as to store feed.

Chickens and children

Generally speaking chickens and children go together very well.  Chickens rarely peck the hand that feeds them, although a little enthusiasm to get at their dinner can lead to a light knock on the hand that holds their feed once in a while. Hybrids tend to be naturally calmer than other breeds.

Chickens and household pets

Adult chickens and cats quickly form their own hierarchy – ie the chicken bosses the cat should it be dim enough to get too close.  Chicks and bantams need to be kept enclosed, with a roof too, to keep any neighborhood cats at bay.  Even a playful chase can cause serious harm or worse to your chicken, so be mindful and never let a dog alone with your chickens.

Consideration

Consider whether you really need a cockerel – daily dawn squawking is up there with the most effective of relationship sourers.  And remember, it is not your neighbours’ responsibility to keep your chickens out of their garden, it is your responsibility to keep them in yours.

Costs

A good layer may cost the same as 2 or 3 pints of beer and chicks considerably less than a pint, but if you choose rare breeds that are in demand this can quickly escalate.  The Battery Hen Welfare Trust may be able to provide you with ex-battery chickens for a nominal fee.

Housing can be costly but will last a long time.  If you have materials to hand and a creative, practical disposition you may be able to knock one together cheaply.

Feeders and drinkers are required and vary considerably in price – again, research thoroughly beforehand.

Feed is your primary ongoing cost.  The amount of feed your chickens need depends on how free ranging your animals are, if they are pure breeds or hybrids (hybrids often eat more,) and whether they’re being raised for eggs or meat.  As a guide, estimate 125g of feed per adult chicken a day you will be in the right ballpark.  If you are planning on keeping more than a few chickens, you may find that bulk buying keeps food costs down.

Look out for Mark Diacono’s new book Chicken & Eggs, 11th in the magnificent series of River Cottage Handbooks