Many people enjoy tending an allotment, or growing fruit and vegetables in their own garden, both for fresh food and as a leisure activity. While this is a valuable step towards becoming self-sufficient, looking after chickens has some great benefits too.
If you're a newcomer to keeping fowl, it's really not that difficult. You can pick up some handy tips online from some of the many livestock websites or you could ask for advice when you buy your chickens.
© Aungsumol / Adobe Stock
As long as you continue to feed and clean them and attend to their health needs, your dedication will pay dividends – you will enjoy high-quality, tasty, fresh eggs.
From a health point of view, people who have kept chickens for a long time say the difference in freshness and quality of produce beats shop-bought eggs hands-down.
Eggs are nutritious and are full of vitamins, Beta Carotene and Omega-3. Apart from the health benefits, you're not contributing to factory farming, where the chickens may be stuck in cages in a barn in cruel and unnatural living conditions. Your eggs will come from healthy and happy free-range hens.
Chicken litter is also a great fertiliser for your plants. It makes the best compost and your garden will benefit no end! When you clean out the coop, just dump the waste right into the compost. It will be more effective than anything you can buy in a store.
Finally, chickens make great pets for all the family and can encourage children to practice responsible pet ownership. Affectionate and loving, they are a real pleasure to look after.
You will first need to consider the right habitat for the new arrivals. Chickens live in coops, which come in many different sizes, materials and shapes. You can even build one yourself, complete with a run, to suit your particular circumstances.
Most chicken houses are built from wood and you can buy poultry netting to the bespoke size that you need. It takes only basic DIY skills to build a run, as you don't need anything too intricate. Some people use fruit netting for chicken coops. In fact, it's possible to use a fruit cage to provide the run and then kit it out with the chicken coop inside.
Run sizes vary, but if you have a secure garden, you can also let the birds out to wander - for truly "free range" chickens. Sturdy mesh will keep the birds secure inside your run, while the flap of mesh around the base will stop predators such as cats and foxes from getting in. Always put the run on flat ground, so there are no weak spots.
How many chickens?
This is down to personal choice. While more chickens will produce more eggs, they will also take more looking after, in terms of cleaning. They will also be more expensive in terms of food and healthcare.
Work out your budget and find out the costs before you go ahead. Then, contact a reputable chicken supplier. There are many online, such as the Cornish Poultry Home - a working farm in Liskeard, where hens of various breeds are for sale. You could also try the St Euny Poultry Farm in Redruth.
Ask for information on feed, care and wellbeing when you buy the chickens and if there's anything you don't understand, say so.
Rearing chickens in spring
The milder days are a good time for starting to rear chickens, as the extreme weather conditions of summer and winter have their own challenges for beginners. However, you can't be too complacent, even in spring.
Make sure your coop is well-protected against predators. Spring is a time when wild animals have their own young to care for and adults will be out hunting for extra food for their offspring. Unfortunately, chickens are top of the menu for foxes who become fearless, even in urban areas, when they have cubs to raise. Other small mammals, such as stoats and pine martens, will steal the eggs if they get into the coop. They may also kill smaller hens, especially the pine marten.
Your first spring task is to ensure your run and coop are predator-proof. Make sure nothing can dig their way in, squeeze through any small gaps, or break any faulty locks or catches.
Another problem in spring is a prevalence of red mites, which are brought out by the warmer weather. Unpleasant little bugs, they can be brought into your garden by wild birds. If your hens are huddled up with their feathers ruffled, don't seem to be roosting and have pale combs, they could be infested.
Mites suck blood and can make your chickens anaemic very quickly, making them ill, so it's important to treat them with the relevant medications to get an infestation under control. To deter the mites from infesting your coop, don't leave grain spilled in your garden, to discourage wild birds from coming in.
Once you have your coop set up and your hens settled in, they may need some gentle encouragement before they start laying eggs. Naturally, you'll prefer your hens to lay their eggs in the nest boxes you've provided, rather than outside, hidden in corners, in tall grass, or simply on the ground.
Provide your hens with one nesting box per four to six hens, so they feel comfortable. Also, give the nesting boxes more appeal by making them feel safe. Ideally, they should be placed at least a few inches off the ground, so the hens will feel protected. The hens' instinct is to lay their eggs in a safe place, so find a nice quiet spot.
Always collect the eggs regularly - preferably twice every day. If the nesting box is full of eggs, it looks unappealing to the hen, who won't be encouraged to add a few more. One or two eggs is okay, but ideally, an empty nesting box will encourage them to lay.
Make sure you provide roosting spots for the hens. The idea is to encourage them to see the nest boxes as somewhere to lay their eggs, rather than as a place to sleep. If you don't provide roosting spots, you may find them roosting and living in their nesting boxes, which can quickly become messy, leading to the eggs being dirty.
A thorough clean of the chicken house is usually a weekly job, although you may have to do it more often, particularly when the weather is warmer. Experts usually advice new keepers to "follow your nose", because if the coop has a pungent aroma, the clean-out is well overdue.
Happy, healthy chickens will give you a constant supply of fresh eggs and taking care of their well-being will pay rich rewards.
If you want to make your own chicken run, contact Henry Cowls on 01326 221514 for details of our bespoke netting products.