Chickens in the Garden

A Beginner's Guide to Keeping Chickens By Katie Thear of Country Smallholding Magazine

This was published as a free booklet and freely distributed with a previous issue of Country Smallholding magazine. It deals with the most frequently asked questions from prospective poultry keepers through the magazine, and from Katie Thear's poultry talks in different areas of the country. We hope you find it useful. Please note contact details for Country Smallholding magazine can be found at the foot of this article.


Chickens Health Housing and Equipment Regulations UK and EU Rules and Regulations


Are there any restrictions on keeping a few chickens in the garden?


No, unless there happens to be a restrictive clause in your house deeds or tenancy agreement that specifically prohibits the keeping of poultry. Even if there is, it may not be binding if the person who inserted it is no longer alive.


Is planning permission needed?


No. A small, moveable chicken house used at home does not require permission.


Do I need to register anywhere?




Can I sell surplus eggs?


Yes, as long as they are sold from your own home, door to door or on a market stall, and that you have informed the local Environmental Health Department. The eggs must not be sold graded by size or described as 'free-range', which is a trade description. If you wish to grade your eggs and describe them as 'free-range' you must register with your Regional Egg Marketing Inspector. (The address is in your local Yellow Pages)


Chickens Health Housing and Equipment Regulations
Housing and Equipment


Where can I buy a chicken house and other supplies?


If you are in the country, a garden centre or farm supply shop may provide all, or some of your needs. If you cannot find a suitable local supplier, there are numerous companies which supply direct all over the UK. Most of these advertise regularly in Country Smallholding magazine.


Couldn't I make a house and run easily and more cheaply?


The main cost of a henhouse is wood. Unless you have access to a cheap supply, you would be hard-pressed to save money. However, there are Poultry House Plans and guides for DIY enthusiasts available.


Do they need a run as well as a house?


It’s a good idea to have a run. It prevents your garden beds from being scratched up, and also the hens themselves are protected from predators such as foxes, dogs and feral cats. Chickens can provide a valuable service in weeding and clearing beds in the winter if their house and run are placed accordingly. (This is where a moveable unit is useful). They also clear slugs which are a menace to many gardeners, and their droppings increase soil fertility.


What should a house provide?


A dry, draught-free, but well ventilated environment. When buying a house, make sure that the timber is adequately proofed against the weather, that the roof, floor and walls are well constructed and fitted, and that screws, hinges and other metal attachments are galvanised so that they do not rust. There should be a rounded perch, 4-5cm wide, which is easily lifted out for cleaning, and nest boxes for the hens to lay their eggs. If there is access to these from the outside, it's much easier for the poultry keeper to collect the eggs. There needs to be a `pop-hole' - a small entrance/exit for the birds, as well as a door (or lift-off roof) for the poultry keeper. A house that is easily dismantled for cleaning is a boon.


What other equipment do I need?


A feeder and a drinker that either stand clear of the ground, or can be suspended so litter is not scratched into them.


Chickens Health Housing and Equipment Regulations

The chickens


What breeds are best for a small garden flock?


That depends on your reasons for keeping them. The old, traditional pure breeds are prettier and more colourful than modern hybrids, but don't lay as well. Bantams need less space and are popular with children. There's a wide range of pure breeds to choose from, as well as first-crosses and hybrids bred for free-range conditions, but it's essentially a question of what you like.


I'm interested in 'showing'. What breeds are best for this?


Any pure breed that is recognised by the Poultry Club of Great Britain. Each breed has its own set of standards for large fowl and bantams. There's a large selection so it's a good idea to visit a Poultry Show in order to view the breeds before making a decision.Contact the Poultry Club of Great Britain at 30 Grosvenor Road, Frampton, Boston, Lincs. PE2O 1 DB.


Which breeds are the best layers?


Hybrids bred for free-range conditions are the best producers for the garden. They are slightly heavier than those bred for intensive conditions and are hardier. They include Lohmann Brown, Bovans Nera, Calder Ranger (originally called Columbian Blacktail), Black Rock and Hisex Ranger.


If you want a traditional pure breed and a reasonable number of eggs, get a utility strain (rather than a show strain) of Rhode Island Red, Wyandotte, Barnevelder or Light Sussex, but bear in mind that good utility strains of these are rare.


Which breed is best for dark brown eggs?


The Dutch breeds Welsummer and Barnevelder and the French Maran can lay a really dark brown egg, but again, they need to be good utility strains. The Speckledy is a modern cross that lays a reasonable number of brown eggs, although they are smaller than those of hybrids.


How many hens do I need to provide eggs for a family?


Again, it depends on the breed. A hybrid can lay 290-300 eggs a year, a good first-cross, perhaps 260-270, while others may be half these figures. Three hybrids will produce enough eggs for the average family.


How long will they lay?


Very well for the first two years, then the number of eggs gradually reduces. I’ve heard of a hybrid still laying well at 5 years old, and a Scots Dumpy pure bred laying at 9 years old. Hens often stop laying while they are moulting and resume when they've grown their new feathers. They may also stop laying through the winter unless they are given some light to extend the natural daylight hours.


How long can a hen live?


The oldest I’ve heard of was a 15 year old which was a cross-bantam.


Should I keep a cockerel?


No, unless your want to breed your own chicks and are far enough away from neighbours likely to complain about noise. Cock crowing is a recognised 'noise nuisance' in law, and you can be forced to get rid of a cockerel if the local authority decides to take action. It's not true that hens lay better when there's a cockerel around. They are more stressed and subject to disease


Are there cockerels that don't crow, or ways of preventing him from crowing?


All cockerels crow, and the only way to delay their vocalising is to make the house completely dark so that no light can get in until the door is open. Even a small chink will get them going. This is not normally practical because ventilation is impeded.


At what age should I buy chickens?


Point-of-lay at around 18 weeks is a good time to buy because the birds are fully grown, and have a `settling in' period before they start laying at around 21 weeks of age. it’s also possible to buy `hardened-off' pullets which are younger (6 weeks onwards) which don't need a brooder lamp to keep them warm. If you buy day-old chicks, you'll need to provide a heated brooding area for them, and they are generally more delicate.


What do chickens need?


They need layer's pellets or layer's mash (powder form) in the mornings, and some grain in the afternoon, with clean, fresh water available at all times. Layer's rations are proprietary feeds formulated to provide all the necessary nutrients. Pellets can be given in a feeder from which they help themselves, while the grain can be put on the ground so


that they can enjoy scratching for it. Wheat or the more expensive mixed grain can be given. The hens will also eat the growing tips of grasses, and anything they can forage from their scratching activities. it’s a good idea to provide hens in a run with `greens' such as cabbage leaves, lettuce, home-grown parsley, etc, - hung up so that they can peck at them when they want to. Also provide some poultry grit to help grain digestion in the gizzard, and crushed oyster shell for strong eggshells.


Can I buy feeds without animal based ingredients or artificial additives?


Yes. There are feed suppliers who specialise in supplying good quality free-range feeds based on natural ingredients from plant sources. They advertise regularly in Country Smallholding magazine and their products are available via local suppliers. Organic feeds are the only ones that are guaranteed to be free of genetically modified ingredients. The term 'natural feed' has no legal meaning.


Can l make up my own feed?


Yes, but you need to know what you're doing and it's difficult to obtain the necessary ingredients in small quantities. Chickens have a small digestive system and need to eat small amounts frequently. it’s easy to give them too much of one thing at the expense of another. It's much safer, and more convenient, to give them a ready-made mix.


Can I give them kitchen scraps?


Yes, as long as they are fresh and contain no meat or excess salt, and that you are not selling the eggs. Don't give too much or they will not be getting a balanced diet.


Chickens Health Housing and Equipment Regulations

Health: How do I keep my chickens healthy?


Make sure that the ones you buy have been vaccinated against Marek's disease and Newcastle disease, and come from a salmonella-tested breeding flock. In this way you will be helping to avoid problems. Secondly, ensure that the poultry house is kept clean and free of droppings, and has regularly replenished wood shavings in the nest box. Move the house and run frequently - or at least provide alternative runs - so that the chickens have access to fresh ground. If you have no alternative but to use the same run, cover it in a thick layer of hard wood chips (not wood shavings or wood bark chips which are too soft) and keep it topped up. Thirdly, feed and water regularly, and make sure the feeder and drinker are kept clean. Don't leave food lying around to attract vermin. Finally, keep an eye open for changes in behaviour - listlessness, drooping posture, pale comb and wattles, etc. If birds are kept too long on the same ground, they may need to be wormed with Flubenvet, a product which is added to the food and obtained from vets and licensed suppliers.


What are the most common problems?


Egg eating and feather or vent pecking are the most common problems. Make sure there's always fresh drinking water available, and feed a balanced diet. Prevent boredom by hanging greens in the run, and collect eggs frequently.


Try and identify the culprit as soon as possible and if necessary, separate her from the rest, but where she can still be seen by them. This will prevent her from being pecked by the rest of the flock (as a stranger) when she is returned. If egg eating continues to be a problem, carefully crack an egg, remove the contents and replace with hot mustard or curry paste and tape over the crack. Place tape-side down in the nest box and see if it teaches the culprit a lesson ! At the first sign of feather (or vent) pecking, spray the affected part with dilute household disinfectant, such as Dettox. This will not only heal any wounds, but will leave an unpleasant taste for the culprit.


Do they need a dust bath?


'Bathing' or allowing fine soil or sand to trickle through the feathers is an instinctive pattern of behaviour to help get rid of external parasites such as lice or mites. There should always be an area where they can make their own dust-bath - or you can provide a large, shallow box of dry sand. If there is any evidence of lice and mites, however, spray or treat the feathers with a proprietary product from the vet or licensed supplier. Treat the house, perch and nest boxes if there is an infestation. White encrustations on the legs are caused by the scaly leg mite. Soak the legs in warm, soapy water and disinfectant and brush gently with an old toothbrush to dislodge them. Treat the legs with a proprietary product when the legs are dry.


Can I give my chickens a proper bath?


Yes, but use warm water and baby shampoo, and make sure it's a warm day. After using clean, warm water to rinse the feathers, towel dry and, if you like, use a hair dryer (on the lowest setting) and blow gently. Go with the natural lie of the feathers, rather than against them. Show birds in particular, benefit from such grooming, but pet hens will look their best, too.


Can you tame hens?


Yes, and if you talk to them, handle them gently and treat them well, you'll have some devoted followers. They'll be only too happy for you to be at the top of the 'pecking order'.


Chickens Health Housing and Equipment Regulations

© 1998. Katie Thear. Country Smallholding Magazine. Country Smallholding magazine web site