caroline with hens

Why keep chickens? The obvious answer is for their eggs, but they have many more uses as far as gardeners are concerned. They enjoy eating meat and fish scraps, love chickweed and dandelion leaves, benefit from beet tops, sorrel and gone-to-seed spinach and can be fed lettuce thinnings. Of course, it’s a toss up between offering such delicacies to the chickens or adding them to your compost heap or wormery (the leaves, not the birds!) – it’s possible to do both. I am ‘between chickens’ right now, and missing them. The taste of a fresh egg is unsurpassed by anything you buy from even a farm shop; and I am convinced it is because I feed them a mixed diet, as well as their usual mixed corn and layers pellets.

hen house
years ago, we went in for hens in a big way (hatching and rearing our own rare breeds); so a large secure shed was essential – we built this one ourselves from reclaimed materials

How to start? First assess the available space, and whether you will keep just two or three in a coop to which a run is attached, or a chicken shed in which you can house more birds and, if it is sufficiently large, even keep them indoors if you are away for the weekend. Most breeds lay between 250 to 300 eggs per year – a good starting point when deciding how many will keep you and the family in eggs. Even with only four hens, and cake-making, I am able to sell the surplus – much in demand locally.

cockerel and hens
part of my flock in the early 1990s – and contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a cockerel for hens to lay well

Will you begin with point-of-lay pullets (literally almost ready to give you your first eggs), or venture into acquiring hatching eggs and an incubator? That’s a totally different ball game and not one for consideration at this time of year. You may like the idea of acquiring rare breeds (such as the Light Sussex or Rhode Island Red) but these tend to be more expensive and inclined to go broody. Instead, a hybrid cross is sensible, or even one of the modern commercial breeds. I buy my birds from Cyril Bason who offer a good selection of breeds – they will deliver countrywide, and in small quantities, too. For housing, take a look at the coops supplied by Heritage & Sons – very eco-friendly as their products are made from recycled plastic. Or build your own.

modern hybrids are fantastic egg-layers
modern hybrids and fantastic egg-layers – these taken last Autumn were enjoying brassicas that had run to seed (sadly this lovely quartet was killed a few weeks ago by our neighbour’s dog)

Hens love to scratch and weeds that are running to seed can be thrown into their run – they’ll peck grubs and insects as well as the seeds; and their manure is invaluable, too. Use any spare ground to grow vegetation that will augment the birds’ diet – particularly valuable in winter (protect under cloches). Favourites with my birds are leef beet (perpetual spinach) and swiss chard. Once my new housing and birds arrive, I’ll update you as to their progress and after-care. Meanwhile, I’ll be looking after my grandchildren’s hens – and ducks – whilst they are on holiday; so we’ve spent the morning cleaning out our big shed ready for their arrival.

hen enjoying a dustbath
hens love to dustbath and it is essential that they do so, to keep themselves in good condition and free from insect pests (this bird is one ‘rescued’ after the end of its commercial egg-laying life)

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