Keeping chickens is relatively trouble-free once you have a routine going, but it’s surprising how much there is to learn about keeping a small back garden or allotment flock. We decided to pour our knowledge and experience of chicken keeping into handy guides. If you’ve thought about keeping chickens or just recently acquired some, hopefully our guides will help your new venture into chicken keeping feel less daunting.
TOP TIP! It’s a good idea to check with your landlord if you’re renting to make sure poultry is permitted on the property, homeowners should check their title deeds. If all is well, a polite mention to neighbours if you have them. If you plan on keeping chickens on your allotment read the site rules or ask the committee if you’re unsure.
Guide to Keeping Chickens – Housing Your Chickens:
With the necessary permissions in place you should be asking yourself the following:
- What type of housing should I get?
- Will they need to be kept in a run for periods of time or completely free range?
Getting the right housing is very important to the well-being and long-term commitment to your flock. Chickens need somewhere safe to return at dusk, often putting themselves ‘to bed’ without any interaction from you, it’s a natural instinct but newly acquired chickens may need a little encouragement for the first couple of evenings until they get used to their new surroundings, especially rescued ex battery hens who have never seen a coop before!
The choice of housing should always be water tight, roomy, well ventilated without drafts and of solid construction. Purpose built nest boxes are optional and as a general rule hens prefer a private semi dark area lined with lots of straw or other suitable bedding to lay their eggs, nest boxes are perfect for this and often come attached to a coop already. If you’ve decided to house your hens somewhere other than a traditional coop, such as a shed or other suitable outbuilding, provide an area designated for egg laying well away from perches to prevent eggs and nesting material becoming soiled. You can use items such as washing up bowls or cardboard boxes filled with straw as nest boxes, somewhere semi dark. Cardboard will become dirty quite quickly and should be replaced frequently, they can be added to the compost heap.
Buying a ready-made coop can be expensive but try to avoid cheaper alternatives if you can – you’ll want your chicken coop to last a long time! We highly recommend spending that bit more for quality timber that can withstand the elements, rather than a cheaper wood/ply alternative that won’t last more than a couple of winters at best. If you’re planning on building your own coop the same rule applies, always opt for better quality materials to build a good solid structure. There are some good plastic coops on the market but they are very pricey and not to everyone’s taste visually.
Avoid small chicken coop and run combos that do not allow much run floor space (which we find is more often the case with this type of housing), by the time feeders and a drinker are added there’s little room left for birds to move around. We do have a couple of this type of housing (for emergency or quarantine use) but the run size is generous. Converting a shed is another alternative but avoid cheap and flimsy overlap types, foxes can rip these panels off or chew through them (especially when weathered) without any problem. Provide good ventilation (this should be above head height to avoid drafts), a pop hole, remove roof felting to avoid red mite infestations and replace with corrugated onduline roof sheets choosing a dark colour, not clear.
If your chickens are not able to free range all day you will need a chicken run, the more space you can give the better. Walk-in runs or aviaries are static structures of ample proportions, they make the daily routine of cleaning and feeding very easy – no awkward bending that comes with smaller runs that are hard to access therefore no backache! Site static chicken runs somewhere relatively shady to avoid excessive heat in summer.They can be pricey so if you’re not afraid of a bit of DIY then have a go at building your own, just as we did. Take a look at a previous blog post Chicken Run DIY In Photos for information on building your own walk-in chicken run https://thegardensmallholder.wordpress.com/2009/06/15/chicken-run-diy-in-photos/
Please keep in mind that chicken wire is not fox proof, they can chew straight through it. Galvanised wire mesh is far stronger. We buy our wire from http://www.hillsofdevon.co.uk/ and use the following for our walk-in chicken runs:
- 1/2″ x 1″ mesh size (hole size)
- 48in roll width to easily make 8 foot panels, joining the wire centrally on the support struts as seen below. Panels can then be secured together to create large enclosures. Use a smaller roll width size for smaller panels.
- 19 gauge wire thickness which is strong enough to keep predators out but still easy enough to manipulate for stapling to a frame/panel
Chickens will scratch the grass inside a static run until it turns to mud, after time this will smell and be very hard to keep clean, especially during wet weather. They cannot resist drinking from standing pools of muddy water which will become polluted with droppings and make them ill. To avoid these problems we lay paving slabs inside the run and cover with a thick layer of chopped straw bedding such as Dengie Fresh Bed for Chickens or BedDown and cover the top of the run with corrugated sheets for roofing. This way our hens still enjoy scratching around and stay safe from digging foxes, the bedding absorbs droppings making it easier to keep clean and the roof sheets keep the run dry. Run floor bedding is replaced as needed and added to the compost bins. Avoid using ornamental bark mulch as a floor covering in the run, it can grow mould spores which can cause respiratory problems. Hardwood woodchip is fine although it takes forever to compost!
Other types of chicken runs are moveable which are generally smaller but fine for keeping a few chickens or smaller breeds such as Bantams. Moving the run to fresh grass weekly avoids the area in the run becoming ‘sick’ from constant droppings which is nasty for chickens to keep grazing on.
If you intend on giving your chickens free range of the garden ie never shut in a run, it should be said it is with risk! Contrary to popular belief a fox will attack a flock of hens during the day if the opportunity arises and can carry out an attack swiftly, with devastating results. Therefore we strongly advise including some level of fox proofing to your garden if you cannot be within sight of your chickens 100% of the time. Electric fencing/netting is one option, high garden fencing over 6ft is another but not completely fox proof – they’re very agile!
Don’t forget about predators in the sky, Buzzards, Red Kite and other large birds of prey will see your chickens as a tasty meal. If you value your flower beds net them off, lawns however will be scratched up. Free ranging birds need an area for cover and shade; trees, hedging and large shrubs are ideal otherwise provide somewhere for them to take cover from aerial predators and strong wind/rain/sun. Use covered feeders to avoid food becoming damp and mouldy in wet weather. Keep in mind bird flu restrictions and lock-downs are becoming a regular occurrence, you may need to house your free range flock from time to time in a covered run/outbuilding while restrictions are in force.
Look out for our next chicken keeping guide, coming soon!