The beginner’s guide to keeping chickens
Fancy keeping chickens? Muddy has joined the brigade of backyard chicken keepers - here's what we've learned.
I saw comedian recently who told a joke about chickens. No, not the usual, why did the chicken cross the road routine – the butt of his jokes were chicken keepers. “Those types who’ve moved out to Surrey from Balham and now keep hens in their garden.”
Oh, he means me, then?
I laughed, of course. Then I realised, that as a fairly new chicken mummy, that the yoke (sorry, had to be done!) was actually on me. Oh wait, am I actually calling myself a ‘chicken mummy’ now too? Yup, seems so!
But hey, I’ve got my six feathered girls – Daphne, Mabel, Tilly, Raspberry, Margot and Luna – and I’m rather smitten. They cluck around me when I visit each morning to feed, clean up and collect the eggs, as though I’m a rock star. I’m being serious! Friends have nicknamed me Mother of Chickens (Game Of Thrones fans will understand the reference.)
I’ve wanted to keep chickens for years. I had them as a little girl growing up in country Australia, though of course, that was a different time and – practically – a different planet.
It was towards the end of the last lockdown that I – with essential nagging assistance from my animal-loving teenage daughter – finally convinced Mr Muds that life would be incomplete without chickens.
Key persuasive points included the fact they give you more than just humorous animal antics – they provide eggs, people. So they’re earning their keep.
But another nice thing was the time we spent with the teenagers debating names (Margot’s name comes courtesy of Ms Robbie, the Hollywood hottie – that’s teenage boys for you), and then the time we spent together planning how we’d build their chicken run to make sure it was 100% fox proof. (We live next door to a wooded area that’s a haven for foxes.) And then of course, the actual time spent together building it.
I also spent a LOT of time researching chickens, and I’m now the proud (or nutty, you decide) member of several chicken-keeping Facebook groups.
My research led me to several important discoveries…
Number 1 – The dreaded red mites. Old hands at chickens will probably scoff at this. But, people, it’s important to know, these things are nasty little blood sucking ectoparasites that infest and feed on chickens. And I was determined to do everything I could to make sure my precious feathered flock didn’t become infested.
So, the first thing was to install my chooks in a plastic chicken coop. Cue further research, and hello Green Frog Designs – makers of cool looking coops from recycled plastic. Boom! They tick all the boxes. Aesthetically pleasing (because, y’know, these things are important!), easy to clean and maintain (no red mites are welcome here) and eco-friendly (they’re made entirely from recycled plastic right here in England). There’s also a 25 year warranty, which is rather nice to know, although I’m pretty sure we won’t need it.
You can also get an automatic door opener for the coop – it lets the girls out in the morning and shuts them in at night, so you don’t have to. But we didn’t bother since our chicken run is safe from predators.
How did we do that you ask? I’m so glad you did because I’m feeling a bit smug about my family’s handiwork on this. It’s an aviary-style enclosure, with thick wire mesh, that even the most determined of foxes couldn’t get through. We also dug down 8 inches or so and laid a wire mesh skirt, so the foxes (and other potential chicken eaters) can’t dig under, replacing the soil and adding a thick layer of wood chips.
Chickens need a minimum of one square metre of space each if they’re not going to free range, but preferably two square metres. And since we’ve got a reasonably big garden, and I wasn’t confident of letting them free range with families of foxes living so near (plus three dogs of my own, who though I know won’t eat the chickens, may find it entertaining to chase them) – we made their run quite big.
We took a trip to a chicken farm in Sussex to buy our girls – and I was massively impressed with the set up. These were most certainly happy well-looked after hens. It was quite fun to wander among the ‘candidates’ and literally choose which hens would be ours. They’re just bog-standard hybrids, which were at point-of-lay when they came to us – meaning they were aged 17-20 weeks and about to start laying eggs.
They also come in a gorgeous range of colour combinations – Mabel is a gorgeous black with a tinge of turquoise, Daphne is a speckled black and white, Luna a smokey grey and raspberry a deep reddy-brown colour. As a newbie, I wasn’t confident about rehoming battery hens which can need more specialist help. But next time.
The girls have been in their new home for a couple of months now, and they took to it like a duck to water. We even got one egg on the first day – literally one of my proudest moments as, according to my research, they can take a few weeks to settle and become happy and content enough to start laying. The chicken mothering falls mostly to me and my daughter, and we both love it! Especially that part where you collect their eggs each day.
As a keen gardener, I’m also rather chuffed to have a steady supply of chicken poop. And believe me, it IS a steady supply. Who knew such small animals could produce so much muck!
I know I’ve still got a lot to learn, but I’m starting to feel more expert each day. Interesting fact, it’s illegal to feed chickens the scraps from your kitchen. Yes, actually illegal – according to DEFRA guidelines – which forbid food passing from a non-vegetarian household to the chicken coop. It’s to do with preventing the spread of nasties like salmonella. Scraps straight from the garden are fine though, although avocado, potatoes and rhubarb are poisonous to hens.