Looking After Chickens



Guide to looking after chickens, Preparing your garden for chickens, introducing new chickens to a new coop, Cleaning your chicken coop, Feeding your chickens, Breeding your chickens

 

Guide To Looking After Chickens

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We have put together a brief overview of key areas, of looking after chickens, and also considerations when you want to grow your flock...
Preparing your garden
Before you buy any chickens you should consider how much space you have available in your garden. Whilst these birds do not require much space it is of course best if they can free range, at least for some time each day, in order to stretch their wings and forage for the tastiest morsels of food. Chickens are instinctive foragers and love scratching around under hedges and trees and in amongst garden borders, therefore if you are keen to keep your flowerbeds up to Chelsea Flower Show standards it is recommended that you create a penned area for your flock.

Your hens will need a secure, dry and predator proof home, set either within your penned area or in a suitable area of the garden. This should have space for them to build a comfortable nest in which to lay their eggs during the day and a perch for them to roost on at night. Suitable ‘bedding’ material should be used to cover the floor and nest boxes, this should be disposable for easy cleaning. The best materials are straw or sawdust as these will catch waste on the surface for ease of removal from the coop, and will provide some warmth and insulation during the winter months.

Introducing them to your coop
In order to keep stresses to a minimum it is suggested that you introduce new hens to the coop in the late evening, as they will have settled to roost and will be very docile. At this time you should be able to handle your hens with no flapping and transfer them to the coop. This way when they wake up in the morning they will already be in their new home and can begin to settle in.
It can take up to two weeks for new hens to adapt to their new surroundings and so during this time it is advised that you restrict their space to just their coop and a small outside pen. This is to show them that the safest place for them in your garden is their coop. During the evenings chickens will instinctively look for a safe place to roost, do not be alarmed if they end up on low hanging branches of trees or bushes in the garden as this is close to their natural habitat. All you will need to do is gently lift your hens from their treetop perch and place them on the roosting bars in their coop. After a few evenings of this behaviour they should learn that their proper place is in the coop.

Once you are happy that your flock regularly returns to the coop for the evenings you can begin to let them out to range, either in the larger penned area or around your whole garden. Again it is advisable to begin this process in the early evenings, allowing time for them to explore but then return to the coop at night. Increase their time ‘free ranging’ by about half an hour each evening until the routine becomes normal. After this point it is up to you how long you allow your chickens to range each day, whether you let them have the run of the garden from morning to night or for only a couple of hours in the evening. Your hens are very adaptable creatures and it is very rewarding to see them enjoying themselves.

Cleaning
It is very important to keep your chicken coop clean and fresh for a number of reasons; chiefly for the health of your flock, but also to deter pests and keep the smell to a minimum. Therefore regular cleaning is essential. If you have a small flock (up to 8 chickens) then a regular clean once a week should suffice, however if you have a larger flock (8+ chickens) you may need to perform an interim clean mid-week to keep the coop hygienic.

However regularly you clean your coop it is always best to ensure your hens are out ranging whilst you do it, as it is less likely they will get in the way and if you need to used chemical products it will ensure your hens do not come into contact with them. Occasionally a hen may try to get into the coop before you have finished, this is probably because they want access to a nest box in order to lay an egg, in which case, try to encourage your hen to move away whilst you quickly finish up, or have another nesting area available separate from the coop which they can use during cleaning.

As with cleaning most animal homes, all waste should be removed and disposed of (if you are using natural bedding materials such as straw, this combined with the chicken waste makes a great addition to a compost heap, and when ready will provide excellent fertilisation for flower beds and vegetable patches!). Once empty, exposed surfaces should be scrubbed with a hard bristled brush to remove dried waste and the base swept out. It is advised to use a poultry house cleaning product once every couple of months to keep bacterial and mould growth to a minimum and maintain the health of your flock, but do make sure your hens are kept well away from chemical products and always read the labels before use. The product should be well rinsed out and the coop dried thoroughly before fresh bedding material is laid inside.

A common problem with poultry houses is the infestation of red mites and other small pests. There are a variety of sprays and wood treatments available to deter pests and these should be used regularly according to each product’s label. Again, ensure no member of your flock comes into contact with these products as the chemicals can be harsh and may affect the health of your hens.

Feeding
There are a wide variety of poultry feeds available from most large garden or pet centres. Each is tailored for the different needs of the chickens in your flock; for example if you are keeping chickens for their eggs, you will need layers pellets or mash as these feeds contain additional calcium and minerals required for good egg production, however if you are raising chickens to prepare for the table, you may want to feed them growers pellets containing a higher proportion of protein for muscular growth.

The quantity of feed required per hen is approximately 130-150g per day, however this will vary according to breed and availability of treats and time free ranging. The more time your flock has to free range, the less pellet food you will need to provide for them, as chickens are expert at finding their own food when foraging under trees and bushes. Each hen will need access to fresh clean drinking water every day, approximately 300ml per hen, so make sure to choose an appropriately sized waterer for the number of chickens in your flock.

Your hens will eat grasses, young berries, slugs and insects as well as many other ‘treat’ items you may choose to give them. Particular favourites of our flock include; cooked pasta and rice, cooked peas, corn on the cob, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, watermelon and strawberries. Remember though that each treat will replace a portion of their dietary intake so make sure to give them treats in the afternoons or evenings once they have had the chance to eat their pellet ration.

Chickens are omnivores, meaning they will eat insects, small animals and meats, however it is not advised to feed your flock with scraps of meats from your Sunday roasts, particularly if you are breeding and raising young chicks, as this may encourage your hens to turn on each other or their young for food.

Breeding
If you are hoping to breed your chickens you will find it an incredibly rewarding experience. There is a lot of advice available, most easily found on the Internet, so I will not go into depth on the subject here. However before you begin incubating eggs, or encouraging a motherly hen to brood, ensure your garden is prepared for your new arrivals.

Once a rooster is introduced to a flock, it is safe to assume he will perform his duty, with regularity, to all hens of an appropriate age. It is best to keep only one rooster in your flock as they are prone to violent displays of dominance. It is also advised not to have a rooster unless your flock consists of 5 or more hens, this is because roosters will attempt to mate at almost every available opportunity and this can become stressful to hens if they are mated too often.

Young chicks are very vulnerable and so will need extra protection from predators, a fully enclosed coop and pen system is best, allowing space for outside ranging whilst restricting the chicks to a safe environment. Chicks will also have different dietary needs to the rest of your flock so consider raising them separately and then re-introducing them to the main flock when old enough.