At last we’ve moved from organic gardeners to smallholders here on the plot. Our four girls are now settling into their new home and laying well. So far, so good..
Keeping hens in our garden is a far cry from my own childhood experiences where our flock was entirely free range in a nearby field. This is the ideal and I have to admit to having struggled to see how a small garden flock might happily and safely share the space we use for growing, relaxation and play. We have come up with a semi-free-range solution, where the girls occupy their run in the daytime, keeping them safer when we are away from home but roam free around the garden for a few hours after school. We’re sticking to the same routine at the weekends as this will reduce the potential of stress for the hens……..and on me,. No chasing hens around the garden to get them back into the run whilst making packed lunches and checking homework .
Many families thinking about garden hens have the same issues over space as we do. If you’re thinking about it, here are a few tips to help you on your way.
- Get a chicken buddy. Books are a great starting point. I found this book one of the most helpful but first hand face to face advice from an experienced owner is best. Your buddy will be there in the future if you need help.deciding whether there is something to worry about or looking after your hens if you’re away. Advice is also available free from The Henkeepers’ Association or you may prefer to attend a course or workshop on keeping hens. Some are run by local colleges whilst others are of the Country Living variety with lunch thrown in. Whatever you decide, choose on personal recommendation.
- Location, location, location. I’m not suggesting you get Phil and Kirstie onto this one but do have a good look at the space you have available and how convenient and secure it is. It will help you decide on the kind of housing to go for. We can’t accommodate a static ark which is entirely fenced off for the hens in our garden so we opted for an ark with a run attached which we can move easily around the garden. This will allow us to reseed areas of grass where the chickens have been grazing – a boon for our ‘lawn’ which also doubles as rugby practice area.
- Home is where the heart is. You can adapt an old shed or buy a top of the range coop depending on your budget, ethics and aethetic taste but you’ll need to make sure that it is warm but well ventilated, and has sufficient nest boxes and perches. If nest boxes are inviting (warm and in the darkest part of the coop) you won’t have to hunt around to collect the eggs. Aim for about 30cm perch space per hen and about 30cm off the ground. Make sure it’s sanded down and smooth, making it comfortable for your hens and less easy for mites to hide in. The deciding factor for me was how easy it was to clean the ark. I can remove the floor and nest boxes entirely by sliding them out – a boon when trying to clean out every nook and cranny and dousing with Poultry Shield. on a Saturday.We use wood shavings for bedding. They’re warm, soak up a lot of moisture and available in bulk, tightly packed at a reasonable price from the local feed merchant.
- TV dinner or silver service – how and what to feed your flock. We’re feeding our girls on organic layer’s pellets once a day. I don’t have massive amounts of storage space and four hens are not going to get through the huge and therefore more economical bags quickly so I share a bulk bag with a couple of other hen keepers. We do the same for grit. We haven’t spent a fortune on feeders and drinkers but have ensured that they are the right size for a small flock, are weather proof and raised off the ground to avoid soiling and spillages. I find the bell drinkers difficult to fill and they do get soiled so I think I might switch to a tripod drinker in future.
- Taking a bath. Because our girls are not entirely free range we’ve made them a purpose built dust bath to have some fun. It has a roof to keep the dust dry and should avoid them scratching up my prize plants.
- Unwelcome guests. Any semi- free range hens are not going to be entirely safe from Mr Fox. We are adopting a range of deterrants including the proximity of next door’s dog. Male urine and human hair are apparently effective too. Having two small boys who are more than happy to oblige with the former and a daughter with plenty of hair to stuff into old tights and tie up around the perimeter means this might work. I’ll keep you posted. And on that note I’d have a chat with your neighbours and check the deeds of your property to ensure that you are allowed to keep hens before you take the plunge . Some people have real concerns about the proximity of hens feeling that they’ll attract rats to their own gardens. And I wouldn’t keep a cockeral if you live in a residential area in the town as we do or you really will be unpopular!
Starting with a few hens in your garden needn’t be too costly and I suspect you never get over the delight of collecting eggs from your own flock. What’s more they eat slugs and provide great additions to speed up the compost. A perfect solution for any kitchen gardener.