Back garden poultry keeping in Britain has seen a huge increase during the past 5 years. I’ve kept chickens since I was 6 ,as soon as I could talk I wanted them!
The first ones I kept were a pair of traditional Heinz 99 hybrid brown hens they go under various names such as warrens, hy-lines or are mistakenly called Rhode Island Reds. These hard working girls I kept at my nans who has a large vegetable garden. My dad built me a hen ark out of oak where the hens resided safe from foxes. Since then I’ve moved onto pure breed hens especially the bantams and have also kept ducks, pheasants, quails and even peacocks!
While hybrid hens are popular due to the amount of eggs they lay it is a mistake to buy such popular breeds if you are intending to allow them out from the hen coop into the garden. They sadly just don’t mix with plants – all but the most established and tough ones in the border will be pecked and scratched to death!
If you want hens to enjoy having in the garden then choose smaller pure breed bantams. These little feather dusters are smaller in size so cost less to feed,most have shorter or feathery legs so their scratching is minimised and most in this group of breeds become very friendly and are docile in their nature. The best friendly Bantams include – Pekins (above), Booted and Japanese. Miniature bantams such as Silkies, Polands, Wyandottes (below), Webrights and Orpingtons are good choices for gardens too.
At Chatsworth House hens have been kept in the gardens since they were introduced by her Grace Deborah Devonshire. She felt the large gardens needed movement so she added trios of stately plodding Buff Cochins despite being large these along with another similar breed called Brahmas are gentle and placid in nature are a good choice if you have a large garden and want hens that look less delicate and give more presence than little bantams.
You won’t get tons of eggs off the fancy breeds so sometimes keeping a pen of layers and a pen of ornamentals if space and time allows is the best idea.
The best pure breed hens for laying but ones that must be kept behind chicken wire or in an orchard for the sake of the garden include – Leghorns, Welsummers, Rhode Island reds, Hampshire reds, Lightsussex, Fresians, Wyandottes, cream legbars and Marans. Hybrids like Burford browns and black rocks are very good too.
Buy pure breed pullets for laying purposes from utility rather than show breeders as show strains have been bred with looks rather than eggs in mind so birds from such breeding often prove poor layers.Country Smallholding magazine has a very good breeders directory of chicken fanciers advertised in it each month. My bible on pure breed poultry has to be Poultry for Anyone by Victoria Roberts which I recommend for new and old keepers alike.
Chicken droppings are one of the best additions for the compost heap, regular turning will help it rot down quickly and once rotted it will makes the best fertilizer for sweet peas, soft fruit, vegetables and hungry dahlias!
You do however have to know what you are doing with hens. They need feeding and checking on everyday of the year although it is not rocket science to keep them. Foxes are at large more than ever before so a secure hen run is a absolute must, strong, high wire fences are a worthy investment!
Here are my best tips for happy hen keeping!
- Cover the base of hen runs with wood chippings as these will help keep the mud down. If your hen run is big enough consider planting a selection of shrubby plants or small fruit trees within it as hens like to have vegetation over head. To keep clean hens need a dry area of soil where they can dustbath so give them a sheltered area of dry earth for this.
- Raise hen houses a good 2 feet off the ground this will discourage rats from burrowing underneath and the hens will use it as a shelter during the rain. Hens don’t like wet and windy weather!
- It is a myth that hens themselves encourage rats it is the way people sometimes keep hens that does so only give your birds enough food to last them for that day about a handful and a half per bird and put food in proper poultry feeders. The sort of feeders that can be hung up are best,never just chuck food onto the floor.
- Chickens need worming twice a year just like cats and dogs,this is now an easy practice as layers pellets can now be bought from a few suppliers with the worming product Flubenvet already mixed in. Slugs and snails carry worms that make hens ill so don’t deliberately feed your hens these garden pests unless you are willing to worm them quite often.
- Check your hen house weekly for any signs of the red mite parasite. This tiny mite will emerge at night and feed off the hens blood while they are roosting making the birds lethargic and poorly. When ever you clean out do so early in the morning so you can lightly spray a disinfectant like Detol under the perches or a purpose anti mite spray there are several on the market.
- Never just buy new chickens and put them with your originals as they will be picked on. Introduce new birds slowly over several weeks as they need to find there place within the pecking order. The pecking order is how a flock of hens co-habit peacefully like a management system! Buy hens from a good source like a farm park or recommended breeder avoid auctions!
- When your hens are moulting (when they are growing new feathers )add a table spoon of cod liver oil to their pellets or corn as this will help them re grow their feathers.
If you cannot have real hens then a mug range by Emma Bridgewater and Matthew Rice featuring several pure breed chicken breeds are stunning additions to the kitchen dresser. I have bought several of these mugs with me to London to remind me of my dear girls each morning!
Thanks for reading,